Until Republic Act No. 10931, the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education law, university education at state universities and colleges was never really completely free. There were costs and, as frequent complaints directed at the UP enrollment insinuated, they sometimes resulted in the formation of an “elite beneficiary class,” students who might well have been able to bear the costs of university education but have nevertheless been beneficiaries of the largesse of the State. They are deserving, to be sure, because they hurdled the bar, but that only begs the question of the equity of the measure: For if entrance examinations such as the UPCAT are the measure, then there seems to be an inherent bias against those who graduate from barangay high schools and less affluent secondary education institutions. Between one who graduates from the high school department of Assumption College and another who finishes from the Palanan High School, at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and hemmed its shores by the formidable Sierra Madre mountains, the “Assumptionista” has a far better chance at clearing the hurdle—not because education in Palanan is necessarily bad, but because it is circumstantially disadvantaged. And yet, quite clearly, it is the Palanan lad or lass who will need the chance at UP education more!
This coming school year, due in very large measure to the untiring advocacy of Acting Commission on Higher Education Chairman Popoy de Vera, university education in all SUCs will be free—for those who want it free! Unlike the Free Tuition 2017 scheme, there is no more distinction between tuition and miscellaneous fees in respect to coverage. All fees will be covered, although some questions in this respect remain to be calling for authoritative answers, such as affiliation, internship, OJT and analogous fees. But free access has to be the availability of “quality” tertiary education to its recipients—and classes packed with 70 to 80 students just to accommodate the predicted influx of students does not make for quality tertiary education at all, neither do experiments performed “by observation” because there are just not enough microscopes or laboratory facilities to go around! Besides, there is that very interesting if challenging provision of the law on Tertiary Education Subsidy that grants students from families on DSWD’s special list to certain additional benefits: board and lodging, book allowance, transportation allowance, living allowance and even the costs of the first try at licensure examinations. I really wonder whether Secretary Ben Diokno gets much sleep these days, while trying to figure out how to finance all this. But he must, for so does the law ordain.
And so while university education in SUCs might be free, it will not be available at the drop of a hat, for the rules clearly render eligible only those who pass and comply with the admission requirements of the university. That is why SUCs around the country are reviewing the Philippine Quality Framework, the requirements of Mutual Recognition Agreements arising out of an integrated Asean and the more stringent standards. The schematic placement of National Certificates evidencing skills and competences (largely in the technical and vocational areas) makes clear that it certainly is not the goal to send everyone off to university studies. But the point of social justice that the law makes, and that Chair Popoy has left no doubts about is that access should be there, and realistically so!
There are two measures of control available to SUCs. The first lies in their admission requirements. Students of SUCs should not compare poorly with their counterparts in private higher education institutions. The aristocracy of the mind should have nothing to do with bank deposits and holdings, although the fact is that, in the Philippines, such a correlation does exist, so that social oligarchs engender an academic elite class. That is not true only in the Philippines of course. After all, not everyone goes to Cambridge and to Oxford, and these are about the very best one can have! If anything, “iskolar ng bayan” should mean not only beneficiary of state funds, but distinguished scholastic wards of the State, the fair offspring of its Platonic guardian-hood! And that should be true only only the University of the Philippines, but of all SUCs. If anything at all, UP should not be in a class all its own, but should be the paradigm of all state educational institutions and a center of excellence in relation to them all. But how does one craft an instrument that makes admission selective without falling into the pitfall of elitism and reinforcing the vicious cycle of social imbalance? That is the challenge, but it is one that must be met. And this is the reason that admission should not depend on the results of a poorly crafted test. Some years ago, intelligence tests were assailed for being culturally biased. There then arose a series of attempts to make these tests “culture fair.” I am not saying that the attempts always succeeded, but I am insisting that we are capable of screening tools that are socially balanced. Mediocrity and economic privation are not synonymous.
The second device is the “return service agreement.” Those who are benefited particularly by the State must serve the State. While institutions are free to formulate their return-service policies, the whole point is that the beneficiaries of the universal access law must make themselves available for service to the State and must not hie off somewhere abroad where the pastures seem proverbially greener. And not everyone will be willing to bind herself to return service. In such a case, the rules announced by Chair Popoy are clear: The student impliedly opts out of the system of benefits and must assume the costs of her education.
I am sure that SUC administrators are already at work putting in place the mechanisms of admission, registration and placement of students. There is a lot to be done in this area, and lackadaisical guidance services that have left students wandering about like headless chicken following entering any classroom that seemed to them congenial and finding out only later in there course of study that they had embarked on a course farthest from their interests must be ordered to shape out or ship out to the nearest island of cannibals. And more importantly, the conjunction of three vital terms should never be lost sight of: Universal access—quality education—return service.