Footing the free tuition bill


ON August 3, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Republic Act (RA) 10931, or the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, to near universal acclaim. This law is yet another manifestation of Filipino lawmakers’ tendency to turn the Philippines into a welfare state, with “universal access” to everything from kindergarten to maintenance medicines, despite its lack of resources.

To be sure, the objectives of RA 10931 are laudable. The Philippine population has a “youth bulge” that needs to be developed into economically productive citizens. Education, indeed, is needed for the Philippines to reap its so-called demographic dividend and accelerate economic growth.

Achieving these objectives, however, do not require the overly generous provisions of RA 10931, whose contents (the product of closed-door Bicameral Conference committee deliberations) are being discussed in public only now.

Not only does the law mandate free tuition in all universities and colleges run by the state, it does the same for higher education institutions (HEIs) owned by local governments.

In addition, it puts up a Tertiary Education Subsidy (TES) for books, room and board, review classes, licensure exam fees and insurance premiums, among others.

In what seems to be an afterthought, the law allows students of private HEIs to get subsidies or student loans, deductible from their salaries once they get jobs.

“Universal access” is actually a misnomer. Students whose parents (taxpayers, by the way) are able to send them to school are not entitled to free tuition.

No wonder the government’s economic managers wanted the President to veto the law – there are conceptual contradictions and no one really knows how much it will cost. Pressed for a figure, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, a level-headed UP economist, made an estimate of P100 billion.

Lawmakers, the senators in particular, ignored the sound advice of Duterte’s economic managers and passed the bill. The rush to get credit – one lawmaker claimed to be a principal author; he was not – betrays their principal motivation, which is reelection.

If it were otherwise, they would have passed a fully funded law. Instead they are looking for funding sources only now. Such is the quality of lawmaking in the 17th Congress.

No one knows what the President was thinking, but he signed RA 10931 anyway, only to admit a few days later that he did so even if he knew the government had no money for it.

Perhaps this is Duterte’s way of putting lawmakers on the spot. The may have ignored Diokno et al. on the free tuition law for the sake of populist politics and welfarism. But when it comes to Duterte’s tax reform proposal, which is up next on the legislative agenda, senators might not be able to ignore them any longer.

Lawmakers can’t have it both ways. If Congress wants a new program dramatically expanding government spending, they better find ways to foot the bill. It’s called fiscal responsibility.


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