By BusinessMirror, Dec 24, 2016
FUNDING for free education to all public-school students from grade school to college has been approved in the P3.35-trillion 2017 national budget. But assuring continued annual allocations for scholars in State-run universities and colleges, also known as SUCs, is still a work in progress.
Sen. Sherwin T. Gatchalian, one of the principal proponents of the free tuition plan, confirmed the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) still need to work on a new law providing clear guidelines for continued implementation of the tuition free program beyond 2017.
“That is the target, but for next year, tuition in SUCs will be completely free,” Gatchalian said. “If you pass the entrance exam, you won’t have to pay for enrollment in any of the 114 SUCs.”
He hastened to clarify that the tuition-free scheme is only for 2017 and, in the absence of remedial legislation still to be crafted, there is yet no assurance it will already be implemented year-to-year.
Gatchalian reported that, in discussions between senators and congressmen, “we all agreed that first thing we will do when Congress resumes session is that we will work on passing a law to make sure the budget for higher-education tuition [in SUCs] is folded in the annual budget.”
How it came about
Education Committee Chairman Sen. Paolo Benigno A. Aquino IV explained how the free tuition set-up in SUCs came about in the bicameral deliberations on the 2017 national budget bill.
In an earlier interview, Aquino said the lawmakers agreed to allot P8.3 billion for the SUCs for the free tuition of students for next year. He credited Sen. Panfilo M. Lacson Sr. and Sen. Loren B. Legarda, who steered deliberations on the budget’s nitty-gritty, for fighting for the free tuition funding.
“The rest of us supported their initiative,” Aquino recalled. And, he added, the House of Representatives contingent in the bicameral panel also backed the Legarda-Lacson initiative. So, “for next year, that’s done.”
But Aquino affirmed the consensus to “institutionalize” free tuition in SUCs. “Ang gusto po natin, in succeeding years, maging institutional[ized] na po ito, na libre talaga ang tuition fee sa ating mga eskuwelahan [where tuition is for free in every school].”
The senator disclosed that lawmakers will be crafting a Free Tuition Fee in SUCs Act that “we are hoping to pass by March of next year, so that by June, the details will already be spelled out how to implement it for the succeeding years.”
To avert confusion, Aquino also clarified the proposed law will only cover tuition, which, he estimates, accounts for 40 percent of an SUC student’s fee, but not miscellaneous expense.
For instance, he said, if a student enrolls in a course that includes laboratory subjects, it will require payment of laboratory fees. “Kasi ang binabayaran ng ating mga estudyante, mayroong tuition, mayroon miscellaneous expense. Kung ang kurso mo may laboratory, may laboratory expense po ito. Kung engineering ka, mas malaki ang ibabayad mo [Students pay for tuition, miscellaneous and laboratory fees, and if a student takes an engineering course, he has to pay more].”
Aquino explained that tuition is about 30 percent to 40 percent of the cost of student enrollment. “Kahit paano, malaking tulong pa rin ito, pero hindi po totally free [This could be a big help, but it’s not totally free of any expense],” Aquino added. “Hopefully, in the succeeding years, mas maging mura talaga at maging ganap na libre na ang ating tuition [Hopefully, we could drastically cut tuition rates until we can give them for free].”
The senator reported that, in the 2017 budget bill, Congress is allocating roughly about P8,000 per SUC student. “The average is somewhere there. May mga ibang SUCs, nasa P6,000 a year. In fact, last week, galing tayong Cagayan at Isabela, doon P3,000 per sem lang ang kanilang tuition. Noong nakaraang buwan naman, galing tayong Negros Occidental, P8,000 iyong kanilang tuition per sem. So magkakaiba [There’s a noticeable difference in rates].”
Aquino added that, “hopefully, by March next year, pasado na ang batas at maging yearly budget item na ito and talagang malibre natin ito [and totally free the students of tuition expenses].”
He said the remedial legislation will also address concerns that, while tuition will be free, miscellaneous fees will increase twofold. “Kailangan talagang bantayan na hindi tataas ang ibang fees habang nililibre mo ang tuition [We should be watchful that other fees, aside from tuition, will not be raised].”
Gatchalian, who sits as vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Education, Arts and Culture, said the 2017 budget adjustment for SUCs is just “the first step out of the 10 steps to fulfill the free education plan.”
“Marami pang steps…dahil ito medyo biglaan na nailagay sa budget, so wala pang guidelines, walang batas, so mahalagang meron batas ito, para klaro kung saan gagamitin itong P8-billion budget [We still need to accomplish more to clarify on how this budget will be spent],” he added.
Gatchalian recalled a “big debate” in the Senate-House budget deliberations when Lacson made the proposal to amend the budget bill to increase allocation for SUCs.
“Actually, nagkaroon ng malaking debate tungkol sa ARMM [Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao] budget at dahil nagkaroon ng malaking debate, napagkasunduan ng House of Representatives at Senado na ilagay na lang ito sa free education in college para lahat makinabang, whether nasa ARMM ka or ibang parte ng Pilipinas [There was debate on this free education legislation on whether it should be applied solely in the ARMM or throughout the country],” said Gatchalian, citing statistics that 5 million children are not enrolled due to poverty, while nearly half of 2.7 million college students enrolled in state universities are seeking assistance to be able to finish their studies.
“The P8.3-billion fund for free tuition in SUCs is a promising start, but there is still more work left to be done. In order to build on the gains in access to tertiary education which this program will certainly provide,” Gatchalian said.
The senator stressed Congress would need to “take the next step by permanently institutionalizing the free tuition policy through legislation.”