The right to free tertiary education

Plans are afoot for a rally against the administration of the Cagayan State University tomorrow.  For some time now, there has been grumbling and gnashing of teeth against the admission policy that the university adopted following the implementation of Republic Act No. 10931, the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act.  Because the law grants free tuition and miscellaneous fees to all students of state universities and colleges, the administrators of these SUCs have also been directed to up quality and to lay down stringent admission and retention standards.  That is what has incurred the ire of those who failed the CSU Admission Test—and those who have seized the opportunity to gain mileage, personal, political or otherwise.  The restrictive admission standards of the university, it is claimed, deny the poor the right to education.

In the first place, some thoughtfulness on the matter of the “right to education” is in order.  One’s right to food is in proportion to one’s capacity to eat, and also gauged against the right of others to eat.  So an infant has the right to eat, but is not entitled to the same amount and kind of food as that consumed by an adult. And no matter that a voracious grown-up may want more, if there is not enough to go around, then some equitable limits must be set.  Then, too, the right to education is not necessarily the right to schooling, much less the right to tertiary education. The right to education is in fact an aspect of social justice: the right of the individual to participate in the heritage of knowledge, culture and values of any given society, and it is silly to think that this can take place only in the form of university education.  So, when the resources for higher education are scarce, as they are in the Philippines, and paid for by taxpayers, the right to university education will be enjoyed by those capable of university education and those most likely to benefit from it— and that means those most likely to be able to complete their courses on time with better than just barely passing grades.  And that is why other forms of education are available—and demandable: first of all, the education that one receives from the home (probably the most important that one will ever receive), the education that comes from non-formal delivery systems, technical and vocational education and tertiary education.  State universities and colleges are instrumentalities of national government, their students, “scholars of the people” in a very real and tangible sense.  Such higher education institutions cannot afford to be reckless: their choice of students must be judicious so that taxpayers’ money does not go to waste, and its graduates can be a reliable reservoir of human resource essential to the felicitous development of the nation.  You do not achieve that by admitting everyone who seeks admission!

How high should institutions of higher learning set the bar?   In one case, a student who had flunked the National Medical Admission Test repeatedly insisted that, on the basis of his constitutional right to education, he had the right to try his luck a fourth time. The matter reached the Supreme Court on the constitutional issue of the right to education.  In his own inimitable style, the brilliant Justice Isagani Cruz wrote for the Supreme Court in DECS v. San Diego (1989):  “The Court feels that it is not enough to simply invoke the right to quality education as a guarantee of the Constitution: one must show that he is entitled to it because of his preparation and promise. The private respondent has failed the NMAT five times. While his persistence is noteworthy, to say the least, it is certainly misplaced, like a hopeless love.”  As telling, however, were the ponente’s opening lines: “The issue before us is mediocrity. The question is whether a person who has thrice failed the National Medical Admission Test (NMAT) is entitled to take it again.”  No, state universities and colleges were not meant to be cesspools of mediocrity.  If anything at all, they are and should always be the precincts of academic excellence. 

The High Court frontally addressed the issue of the necessary balance between claims to the right to education and the academic freedom of the higher education institution to determine its own standards.  Said the Court in Calawag v. University of the Philippines (2013):

“Verily, the academic freedom accorded to institutions of higher learning gives them the right to decide for themselves their aims and objectives and how best to attain them.  They are given the exclusive discretion to determine who can and cannot study in them, as well as to whom they can confer the honor and distinction of being their graduates.

This necessarily includes the prerogative to establish requirements for graduation, such as the completion of a thesis, and the manner by which this shall be accomplished by their students. The courts may not interfere with their exercise of discretion unless there is a clear showing that they have arbitrarily and capriciously exercised their judgment.

Lastly, the right to education invoked by Calawag cannot be made the basis for issuing a writ of preliminary mandatory injunction. In Department of Education, Culture and Sports v. San Diego, we held that the right to education is not absolute. Section 5(e), Article XIV of the Constitution provides that ‘[e]very citizen has a right to select a profession or course of study, subject to fair, reasonable, and equitable admission and academic requirements.’ The thesis requirement and the compliance with the procedures leading to it, are part of the reasonable academic requirements a person desiring to complete a course of study would have to comply with.”

Academic standards will be set and determined by the university—its academic administrators and its governing board, in a manner consistent with law and state policy.  It is too important a matter to resolved by vociferation and demagoguery.

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Topics: Cagayan State University , Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act , Department of Education
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