• Rethinking free access to higher education

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    HIGHER education is a privilege in itself. Free higher education is a greater privilege.

    Getting into a good university whose “goodness” is perceived in its practiced excellence, beyond minimum standards, of instruction, research and community service that implements the university’s particular vision and mission in a manner that is responsive to the university’s stakeholders, is not the privilege of all. Whether their origin is in legislation like the state university or the permit to operate granted by the Commission on Higher Education, a good university comes about neither by legislative nor administrative fiat. It comes about rather by human academicians who dedicate their careers to the idea of a university, to teaching, research and community service most often beyond available compensation, students who repose their trust and hopes for their futures in a particular university, and a good deal of administered resources to make the university work.

    The particular mix of competent faculty members, students with the eros to learn, creative administrators and support staff is essential for the good university. The crucial mix does not come with the idea of the university; it comes with particular people coming together to realize the university. Much of this mix is learned after a good deal of difficult experience trying to find it; it is often something handed down through revered university traditions. But no university “has it made” once and forever. Every university is vulnerable to complacency, mismanagement, and decay where a once productive mix becomes a carcass of deadening procedures and practices unresponsive to the challenge of the times.

    In this sense, being part of a good university – whether one’s part in it is teaching, learning, or administrative service – is a privilege, as the queues to get into good universities demonstrate. Often enough, PhDs can’t teach well, have difficulty doing research, and think themselves above service to the community. Often enough, students are disadvantaged by the inability of academicians to get their acts together. Clearly, the value of a good university for the individual and for human society transcends its economic cost. What a good university delivers, transcends the cost of education delivery.

    No doubt, higher education is expensive. Competent teachers with appropriate degrees must be appropriately, if never adequately, compensated. Well-stocked libraries and laboratories, essential to higher education, must be assembled, maintained, and always improved. Administrators sensitive to finding and maintaining the right university “mix” must be recruited. Teachers and administrators are vulnerable to the pull on them from industry and government in a global world. Educating students, personally hungry for good higher education or individually chosen for social roles they might play, is an expense conditioned on what is necessary to make the good university work. Somebody must shoulder this expense. This is either the taxpayer, or people who put their private money together to actualize their idea of a good university.

    The state universities and colleges and the local colleges and universities operate on taxpayers’ money, legislated by congress or by local government. At bottom, budgets are proposed and approved by legislation. The limit on what is proposed and legislated is the rationality itself of running public HEIs, which, if they are good public HEIs, and not just a legislator’s ploy for votes, always entail great expense. In the Philippines where there is a constitutional proviso mandating complementarity between public and private education, the rationality of SUCs and LCUs is conditioned by the rationality of private HEIs. If it is beneficial to the state that private HEIs operate well, public HEIs should not militate against them but complement them. In the end, whether public or private, the good university must be achieved and maintained in real time. Next to the private university which must operate on income from tuition, fees and donations, the justification and rationale of SUCs funded by taxpayers’ money appears to be to provide higher education to those who cannot afford the costs of private higher education.

    This is why the idea of state universities that charge tuition just as private universities do, in some instances at levels above what some good private universities charge, appears unreasonable. The SUC is already running on taxpayers’ money. As a matter of public policy, why should it charge tuition at all? To cover costs? But then the tuition income does not cover all costs. To cover certain increasing costs? But these are not determined, as it is for private HEIs. As a counterpart? But why inflict the pain at all since the taxpayer is footing the bills? To be able to expand the operations of the SUCs and access to higher education? But should this be left to the private sector?

    Now, where the costs of running the state university are substantially covered by the budget it gets from the taxpayer, why should government, charging the tuition unnecessarily, then allocate huge amounts of available scholarships for the students of state colleges and universities? In the 2016 budget, P2.757 billion is allocated for the Expanded Grants-in-Aid Program, P2.9 billion for CHED’s assistance scholarships and grants, and P986 million for the Tulong Dunong Scholarship Program (down from last year’s P2.3 billion); the lion’s share of these scholarship funds go to SUCs. The DOST Scholarship Program shares P2.2 billion of public scholarship money with a relatively small number of private universities that have centers of excellence or centers of development for excellence.

    Wouldn’t it be more rational for the SUCs to provide free higher education as a privilege to the students it admits as deserving, and for the state to increase access to higher education by allocating more scholarships to students valid for use in private universities that are deemed good? All students privileged to attend state universities in the Philippines or to enrol in private universities with state scholarships would be state scholars – iskolar ng bayan. Otherwise, free access to both public and private universities can be expanded through privately funded scholarships.

    Where there should be complementarity between state and private universities, state universities that charge tuition tend to pull away students from private universities that run on students who can pay tuition. State universities that receive scholarships earmarked for SUCs take these scholarships away from students who may wish to access the special benefits of private educations.

    The privilege of good higher education depends on a healthy complementation between public and private HEIs. Government policy should not kill it.

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