Duterte’s free state-college tuition law: A watershed

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RIGOBERTO D. TIGLAO

RIGOBERTO D. TIGLAO

PRESIDENT Duterte’s law mandating free tuition in state colleges is a watershed in our history. I estimate it could lift a million poor families out of poverty or transform them into the lower-middle income group for the next generation, since college education is the real main asset for getting out of impecuniousness.

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At an average 4.4 persons per family, that would mean a vastly improved existence for 4 million Filipinos in the next generation, and for their descendants. The law puts us in the small club of 26 nations that provide free or nearly free college education to their citizens.

To be precise, it wasn’t exactly “Duterte’s law” as versions of it were first passed through Congress. It is certainly unprecedented that all members of Senate and the House, without any nay or abstain votes, in effect voted for Republic Act 1093, the law that mandates free tuition and other school fees for state and local universities as well as technical vocational institutions.

In what gives me a lot of hope for the future of our country, senators and congressmen of contrasting political colors had rushed to author and introduced versions of the bill. Sen. Ferdinand Marcos two years ago championed the cause of free education, Sen. Bam Aquino claimed credit for it, while former President Gloria Arroyo – who actually had wanted to be remembered as the “Education President” – filed bills in the House of Representatives that evolved into RA 1093.

However, Duterte could have vetoed the bill, if he believed the doomsday scenarios of his Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno or the false claims of mainstream neoliberal economists that it would only benefit the rich.

Diokno did his best to scare Duterte from signing the law, claiming that it would cost government P100 billion.

However, according the to a study by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies* (PIDS), tuition fees collected by the 44 state universities and colleges (SUC) from its 1.2 million students in 2012 amounted to P6.6 billion. Other income collected from students amounted to P3.6 billion, for a total of moneys collected from the students of P10.2 billion. That’s one-tenth of Diokno’s claim; he must have confused his zeros.

The noisy club of neoliberal economists in the country, the Foundation of Economic Freedom—chaired by former Fidel Ramos’ finance secretary Roberto de Ocampo—tried to convince Duterte from signing the bill into law by spreading the canard that it is “anti-poor”. Adhering to their capitalist dogma, one of the group’s stalwarts scoffed: “There are no free lunches.” Most social philosophers now say that education is not a privilege, but a right of each citizen.

The FEF quoted another PIDS study that claimed that most students of SUCs are rich.

This is false. Using that PIDS study’s own figures, 21 percent of SUC students have parents indeed with incomes on the average not exceeding P11,000 monthly. I think it is some miracle for somebody from that income class managing to step into college.

However, another 38 percent are of socio-economic groups with incomes exceeding P11,000 but not more than P18,500 – income levels that I don’t think by any stretch of logic you could argue as “rich”.

That means that 59 percent of the student population in state colleges are poor to “not-so-poor”. Furthermore, I don’t think you can claim to be well-off if you earn P18,500 and even P23,148 monthly, although our government statisticians do. Another 23 percent of students in SUCs are of these two income classes. All three groups mean an overwhelming 82 percent of students in SUCs are either poor or “not-so-poor,” and definitely not rich.

In fact, only 7 percent of SUCs students—I suspect 90 percent are in the University of the Philippines—are really rich, with an average income of P71,000 per month. (See accompanying table.)

That points to a need for an amendment to the law excluding UP and requiring it to collect tuition at market rates (i.e., the same as Ateneo and La Salle tuition levels) from its rich students, and require all its future graduates to serve with government for two years, and not to migrate from the country within 10 years of graduation.

What the FEF neoliberals also totally miss in their dogmatic thinking is that free tuition in our state colleges, which not only many European countries as well as Cuba and nearby Malaysia have instituted, is the crucial government policy that could liberate a huge number of Filipinos who aren’t dirt poor but still poor from inter-generational poverty.

My regular caddy for instance—whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents nor those of her husband had gone to college—was nearly ecstatic when she learned (from the college itself) that starting this schoolyear tuition would be free.

She had been desolate, as she and her husband had saved for months the P4,000 for her daughter’s fees in the Cavite state college for the coming semester. However, one of her other daughters got sick with dengue, and after paying for her hospitalization, their savings vanished. With the announcement that tuition and other matriculation fees would now be free, she says her daughter will be able to go through college—which most likely will liberate her and her family from the poverty that had afflicted her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

The country won’t be able to afford the P10 billion annually? That’s less than 1 percent of the P3.8 trillion budget for next year. Pagcor’s P14 billion income in the first quarter of 2017 could easily fund that amount.

And that’s the function of laws: it forces government to look for finances to fund what Congress has decided is a national concern. A hundred percent of members of Congress voting to pass the free-tuition law means that the nation is united to provide free tuition in state colleges. The FEF should find some other country to preach their neoliberal capitalist thinking.

*Manasan and Revilla (November 2015), Philippine Institute for Development Studies Discussion Paper Series No. 2015-50.

Email: tiglao.manilatimes@gmail.com
Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao
Twitter: @bobitiglao

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