CONGRESS has approved a budget that appropriates P8.3 billion to, in the words of CHEd chair Tati Licuanan, “remove tuition from the student’s expenses.”
In short, beginning school year 2017-2018, all state universities and colleges (SUCs), including the University of the Philippines (UP), will no longer collect tuition fees from their students, even as they will still charge for miscellaneous fees.
Who would not be ecstatic?
After all, how can one find fault in this socially progressive policy that ensures free public tertiary education? This is even one step beyond what is provided for in the Constitution, where only basic education is mandated to be free in public schools.
However, what seems to be a progressive move appears to have been merely a budgetary maneuver. It is a budgetary insertion as a line item, and not a deliberate stand-alone legislation that spells a shift in educational policy. The amount was taken out of the ARMM’s allocation on suspicious public works projects, and was poured into CHEd but earmarked for tuition waivers and not as a discretionary fund for Tati Licuanan.
It also can have regressive effects. This attempt to make public education free even at the tertiary level can in fact become a harbinger for social injustice.
At the outset, I must posit that providing free education to the children of poor families should be an obligation by the state, and these should not just be limited to basic education, but even to tertiary education.
What will make free college education problematic is that it faces the risk of being totally blind to social inequality, even as it tries to treat all students equal regardless of their social class.
In 2014, 40 percent of all UP students came from families with a monthly income of at least P100,000, or an annual income, including the 13th month pay, of at least P1.3 million. UP is no longer a university that serves the children of the masa. It is also now home to children of the elite, graduates of exclusive private high schools, sons and daughters of bank executives and millionaires. During my time, they were just a minority. There was only one in our batch who drove his own car to school. But times have changed. Four out of 10 is no longer an innocuous minority. Student parking has now become a problem at UP.
In a scenario where all students of UP will not pay tuition fees, even children of millionaires who happen to study at UP will enjoy a tuition-free college education. It is terribly unjust for the education of someone whose family earns so much from the business empire they own to become an expense in the government’s budget drawn from taxes that include those paid by their low-salaried employees.
And this injustice is even more magnified when the children of their employees could not get into UP because of very competitive entrance examinations, for which they are seriously handicapped when compared to the children of the millionaire boss who went to private high schools. This is not because the former are less intelligent, but simply because their public schools did not provide them with better preparation compared to the more well-endowed private high schools.
What would make the policy of tuition-free college education fair is not a blanket waiver on tuition regardless of income, but a two-tier system where an income threshold is identified and anyone whose family income is below it would get full tuition waivers, and anyone above it will have to pay.
Funds should also be appropriated to improve public basic education to ensure that all K to 12 schools in the country become centers of excellence, and acquire the competence of what could be considered as the equivalent of the elite science high schools. This will ensure that any of their graduates can be on a par with graduates of private high schools, and would be on an even footing when they take college entrance tests. This is needed to make sure that children from poor families who graduate from free public basic education can have a higher chance of passing the UPCAT and other competitive admission tests from the SUCs, so that they can continue their free education in college.
Without socialized income bracketing, which doesn’t have to be as complicated as the one existing at UP, and an affirmative intervention to improve the quality of public basic education, the policy of free public tertiary education for all can only perpetuate social injustice.
The price we will pay for a free college education without adequate protective safeguards, is the specter of children of high-income families who can afford to go to La Salle or Ateneo, passing the open competitive entrance tests and easing out children of lower-income families from enrolling at the SUCs and not only UP, effectively preventing them from enjoying a benefit that by design is supposed to be for them.