THE Senate has approved on second reading Senate Bill 1304, “The Free Higher Education for All Act.”
Despite the limelight concerns the Senate has had dealing with the recantation of Mr. Arthur Lascañas, the confirmation or non-confirmation of Environment Secretary Gina Lopez and Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, and the spectacle of yet another among its ranks incarcerated, the Senate quietly approved last April 7a bill that brightens the prospects of all Filipinos desiring college degrees.
Originally, the bill was proposed by Senators Bam Aquino and Win Gatchalian for free tuition only in state universities and colleges (SUCs). But through a number of amendments introduced by Senator Ralph Recto on the urging of leaders of the Coordinating Council for Private Educational Associations (COCOPEA), the bill now provides not only for free higher education in the nation’s 113 SUCs, but also for tuition subsidy and financial assistance for students in private higher educational institutions (HEIs) and technical vocational institutions (TVIs) through strengthened student financial assistance programs (StuFAPs).
This is a landmark bill. While the Constitution provides for free basic education for all, this bill provides a framework for funding universal access to higher education for all either through public or private higher educational institutions.
It explicitly recognizes the complementary roles of public and private higher educational institutions and technical-vocational institutions in delivering quality education in the Philippines.
All Filipinos currently enrolled in or desiring to enroll in state universities and colleges (SUCs) for any first undergraduate degree shall not have to pay tuition, provided they meet the entrance requirements of the SUC. SUCs on the other hand shall stay at their current level of enrollment and may expand only subject to the conditions set and approved by the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd).
The CHEd, through the Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education (“UNIFAST” cf. RA 10687), shall strengthen all scholarships, grants-in-aid, student loans, subsidies and other incentives. Student financial aid programs (StuFAPS) shall also be made available “to cover the cost of tertiary education, fully or partially, to students who wish to pursue tertiary education in other HEI’s or TVIs” (Sec 11).
“Students who wish to enroll in private HEIs and TVIs shall be covered by the appropriate STUFAPs in such modalities where they qualify as may be determined by the UNIFAST board. The subsidy up to the amount approved by the UNIFAST board shall cover tuition fees and/or any additional financial assistance to cover for the other costs of education in the private HEI and TVI of choice, subject to its admission policies.
“Provided that the amount of tuition subsidy and/or student financial assistance shall be based on the guidelines set forth by the UNIFAST board and on the annual budgetary allocation for this purpose…” (Sec. 12)
The bill states that “the amount necessary to effectively carry out the provisions of this act shall be included in the annual General Appropriations Act” (Sec. 13).
This means that the funding “for free higher education for all” will be sustained.
The Senate has yet to pass this bill on third reading, but with the sponsors of the bill including senators from the majority and the minority, passage is likely.
Complementary legislation in the House of Representatives has been passed by the committee on technical and higher education.
The author is the president of the Ateneo de Davao University and the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP), and the chair of the Coordinating Council of Private Education Educational Associations (COCOPEA).