THE 85th anniversary of the Philippine Association of the Colleges and Universities (PACU) gathered together some of the most distinguished educators of the country in the ballroom of the Conrad Hotel. Celebration was in the air not only because at 85 this oldest educational association in the country counts among its ranks major movers and shakers in Philippine education today: Dhanna Kerina Bautista-Rodas, Caroline Enriquez, Anthony Tamayo, Vincent Fabella, Ester Garcia, Michael Alba, Reynaldo Vea, Ma. Christina Padolina, Francisco Benitez, Peter Laurel, Karen de Leon, Guillermo Torres, Jr., and many others. But it was celebrating also because in the recent journey towards the passage into law of the Universal Access for Quality Tertiary Education Act (UAQTEA or RA 10931), PACU played the strongest role among the Coordinating Council for Private Educational Associations (Cocopea). A breakthrough in that journey was when the Cocopea officers, quietly arranged by PACU, met with Sen. Ralph Recto and found in him a powerful supporter of the complementarity between public and private education, with private education underscored. It was only fitting then that Senator Recto deliver the celebration’s keynote address on PACU’s 85th.
Training the people to make the future bright
It takes an accomplished speaker to grab people’s attention while talking about education. Senator Recto managed this through a combination of self-deprecating humor and a message that spoke to the heart of the educators present. Announcing his intention to honor the 20 minutes allotted to him, he quipped: “Telling a politician to be economical with words is like asking an alcoholic to limit himself to a teaspoon of beer.” But on his teaspoon of beer, he recognized the role private education has played in contributing to the “intellectual prowess” and “moral fiber” of the nation, having educated 13 of 16 of the nation’s presidents, and many of its industry leaders, infrastructure builders, CEOs, and professionals functioning both in the Philippines and abroad. The founders of the universities and colleges represented in the hall “were not driven by any monetary reward… Rather, each and every one of them was guided by the selfless desire to improve the lot of the nation… When they established the schools they looked into the future, and told themselves: We will train the people who will make it bright.”
But tributes having been paid the schools’ founders, their current administrators in the hall were interested in how UAQTEA would be funded. The economic managers had urged the President to veto the bill, claiming it was unsustainable and would cost some P100 billion. When the President signed it anyway into law, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno then tried to hi-jack its implementing rules and regulations, stating he would chair the committee to write this. CHEd Commissioner de Vera also came out with some confusing statements on how the law would be implemented on a staggered basis, first funding the SUCs, then the LUCs, and only later the UniFAST. Happily, CHEd Chair Patricia Licuanan meanwhile convened the one body the UAQTEA mandates to craft its IRRs, namely, the board of the United Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education (UniFAST), which she chairs. Also through the UAQTEA, private education is represented on the UniFAST board through its chair, Dr. Pio Baconga.
Funding based on public-private collaboration
The message from Senator Recto was clear. The UAQTEA was not just about funding free tuition in SUCs and in LUCs and killing private HEIs. The UAQTEA was about tertiary education for all, delivered through a system of educational delivery where public and private HEIs are collaborators. “Private and public schools are not rivals for the market but should be partners for progress,” he said. “They are not competitors for enrollees, but collaborators in providing education for all.” Therefore, private schools have clear access to the benefits of this law: “I believe it would be wrong to fence the law with ‘do not enter’ signs addressed to private education.” Therefore, the explicit mention of private HEIs as beneficiaries of the Tertiary Education Subsidy (TES, Sec. 7) as well as of the Student Loan Program for Tertiary Education (Sec. 8). “The law forfeits its noble intention if it is a death warrant of private schools in disguise. We do not want to provoke a stampede that will trample private schools to death.” The manner of funding must not undermine the spirit of public-private collaboration in the law.
To the question therefore as to whether the law could be funded in its entirety, he said: “To be candid, these mandates may not be fully funded immediately, given the state of public revenues.” He stated in the open forum that this year to fund UAQTEA some P25 billion might go to the free tuition of SUCs, P20 billion to the TES and P20 billion to the Student Loan Program for Tertiary Education.
“But what is important is that there exists a statute which requires the government to include private schools under the canopy of affordable tertiary education…”
Referring to last year’s budget he stated, “In all, unreleased appropriations reached P63.43 billion in 2016, on top of the unobligated allotments of P544.53 billion.”
“I am confident that Congress can find the ways and the means to fund the law – including mandates which private schools can join, even on a small, pilot basis.
Challenge to quality
“But for me the more important word in the law is not ‘free’ but ‘quality’.”
“Budget must be linked to results. And if state subsidy is obligatory, then it makes reforms in the SUCs mandatory.”
Reforms in the SUCs can come about only through robust quality assurance guided by the Asean Quality Assurance Framework (AQAF).
It is the same for private HEIs. If State funding will flow into them through the TES and the Student Loan Program for Tertiary Education, their quality must be quality assured through the AQAF.
The UAQTEA is not wrong
Recently, Bienvenido Olas, Jr. of Businessworld, listed four reasons why the UAQTEA was wrong (http://bworldonline.com/free-tuition-irresponsibility/):
First, “the government has no extra cash to cover extra spending on these already substantial expenditures.” But Sen. Recto has shown that money can be found to fund the UAQTEA.
Second, “spending in public elementary and secondary education is still limited and it is unwise to further expand spending in public tertiary education.” But if more funding is needed for public basic education, it should get it. Quality tertiary education is based on quality basic education. But this does not mean that government does not have a role to play in providing universal access to quality tertiary education. “The battle for the future is waged in classrooms today, both private and public.” Senator Recto says. “We cannot win the future if we splurge on war and yet economize in education. But building the country’s talent pool is not the responsibility of families alone. Government must provide equity.”
Third, “students who are absolutely destitute do not reach university level. They drop out after elementary or after high school and start working… So those who reach universities are lower middle class to rich students.” But while the UAQTEA intends to help the poor, it insists that the poor who reach the tertiary level must be academically qualified. Destitution alone does not qualify for tertiary education. Through the K-12 reform, the drop-out rate needs to be monitored, but it is expected to diminish. Meanwhile, SUCs understand themselves to be missioned to poor students that are academically qualified. Through quality education the poor can be truly liberated from poverty while being prepared to make significant contributions to the common good. That is also experienced in scholarship programs in all quality private HEIs.
Fourth, “people’s values will be corrupted because personal and parental responsibility will be assumed by the State. As a result, children’s education from elementary to university level will no longer be the responsibility of their parents but of the state.” But the 1987 Constitution states: “The State shall protect and promote the right of all citizens to quality education at all levels and shall take appropriate steps to make such education accessible to all” (Art VIX, Sec 1). “The State shall establish, maintain, and support a complete, adequate, and integrated systems of education relevant to the needs of the people and society.” Education is not just a private, personal and parental responsibility, but a means towards the achievement by each of the common good. It is a public good. Far from people’s values being corrupted through universal access to quality tertiary education promoted by the State, the higher education necessary for the critical preservation and advancement of human values, the promotion of social justice, and the advancement of the common good is more equitably distributed.
Congratulations to PACU on its 85th! And our sincere gratitude to Sen. Ralph Recto for his support of genuine universal access to quality tertiary education in both public and private HEIs.
The author is the president of the Ateneo de Davao University and a former president of the Coordinating Council for Private Educational Associations (Cocopea).