• The risks of free public tertiary education and some ideas to fix it

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    ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

    IT is hard not to rejoice at RA 10931, otherwise known as the “Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act,” that provides full tuition subsidy to all students enrolled in state universities and colleges (SUCs), local universities and colleges, and state-run technical-vocational schools. In addition, the law also subsidizes library fees, computer fees, laboratory fees, school ID fees, development fees, guidance fees, handbook fees, entrance fees, registration fees, medical and dental fees, cultural fees and practically all other similar or related fees.

    It is indeed comprehensive. But will it really promote universal access to quality tertiary education?

    The economic managers of President Duterte raised serious reservations about the law, but the President appears to have ignored their objections. After all, this is a populist move, and based on the reactions, there is overwhelming support for it.

    I support the President. But on this one, I will have to respectfully raise my own reservations.

    And while the issue of budget remains a compelling concern, I will not dwell on it, and focus on two other concerns.

    Without any major reforms in the admissions requirements for entry into public universities and colleges, and with matching support to upgrade the quality of basic education, I am afraid that this law will never provide universal access to quality tertiary education.

    In the first place, the very presence of competitive entrance exams is already evidence that access is not universal.

    Furthermore, in rendering public tertiary education virtually free, the state has turned it into a highly desired public commodity. The competition to enter the system will become even more intense, with those who can afford to pay tuition in private schools making a run for it.

    And if the system would operate like a free market, then those who have higher levels of competitiveness, like students who graduate from quality high schools, or those from families who can afford review classes, would have the upper hand. There is a big probability that this will crowd out those who are in fact in need of state support, the poor and who are graduates of less competitive schools.

    The law hopes that students with financial capacity may choose not to avail of the state subsidies. However, in the absence of incentives if they don’t avail, or disincentives if they avail, this is not only wishful thinking, but goes against the rational behavior of human beings as economic actors.

    In the end, there is no universal access to free tertiary education. It will only be free for those who pass the entrance test. And in the absence of affirmative action policies, such as quota systems or even waiving of the entrance requirements for the poor but deserving, it may not even promote social justice.

    The law’s intention to improve the quality of tertiary education needs a serious examination as well.

    Any organizational manager will tell you that autonomy is an important ingredient for ensuring quality, as it enables creativity and boldness to bring in innovations. The reason why private universities like DLSU and Ateneo can be more innovative at a faster pace is that they have more fiscal and budgetary autonomy from the State, and they only have to abide by their own procurement and financial auditing rules.

    This may not be the case for state and local colleges and universities that are subjected to the stringent, sometimes irrational and inappropriate, procurement and auditing rules of the Commission on Audit. This is already true for now, when they still retain portions of their revenues from tuition and fees for their own expenses.

    RA10931 will have the effect of further constraining, if not totally obliterating, whatever latitude administrators of State and local colleges and universities have. With full subsidies not only on tuition but even on specific expenses such as ID and dental and medical fees, and even computer and lab fees, all of the budget needed for operations, and not only personnel services, will be downloaded from the DBM. Some Presidents of SUCs I have talked to have expressed their misgivings about the serious consequences of this system, for it will surely tie their hands even more.

    Thus, in order for quality education to be assured, a more enabling and innovative system for procurement, disbursing of funds and auditing of expenditures should be designed.

    This is because by design, the law further constrains budget autonomy that may have the effect of stunting creativity and innovation, and hence compromise quality.

    I would have wished that Congress had instead adopted a more socialized tuition fee scheme, which would have been an improvement of the STS system of UP, for it would have truly embodied a mechanism that is consistent with the promotion of social justice and equity. And this can be complemented by more support given for the implementation of RA 10687, the new Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education (UniFAST).

    It would have also been more efficient and could push higher education institutions (HEIs) to enhance their quality had financial assistance been given directly to students, as this will spur HEIs to be more competitive for them to attract students on full scholarships.

    But for now, it would be prudent to impose a moratorium on the establishment of SUCs and their local counterparts, and to devise innovative mechanisms to ensure that the quality education which is promised by the law is delivered. It is also imperative to come up with an IRR that will mitigate the law’s adverse effects.

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