AS an educator convinced that everyone ought to collaborate towards the achievement of AmbisyonNatin 2040, I am grateful to you, Mr. President, for signing the Universal Access to Quality Higher Education Act, now RA 10931, into law.
You needed to study whether the nation could afford this law because of the many other things it can do with government funds. Like many Filipino parents you decided against many other good things for higher education. You decided we could not afford not to provide for higher education for our youth. Thank you for that, Mr. President.
In announcing its passage into law, the media has referred to this as the Free Tuition Bill or the Free Tuition Act. That may have its merit, for RA 10931 does now grant that when the bill is finally implemented those who are working for their first undergraduate degree in state universities and colleges (SUCs) or in local universities and colleges (LUCs) be exempt from paying tuition and fees, provided that they pass the entrance exam and do not voluntarily opt out of this subsidy program (Section 4). It is the same for those who are enrolled in state-run post- secondary technical vocational institutions run under Tesda (Section 5). In this sense, HB 10931 is a free tuition bill. And in this sense, those who are attending state-run academic or technical schools on the tertiary level have reason to rejoice.
But HB 10931 is more than a free tuition bill. For this reason, the legislators did not want it referred to as a free tuition bill. They wanted it referred to as the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (Section 1).
That was their preferred way of referring to the law whose full title is “An Act Promoting Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education by Providing for Free Tuition and Other School Fees in State Universities and Colleges, Local Universities and Colleges and State-Run Technical Vocational Institutions, Establishing the Tertiary Education Subsidy and Student Loan Program, Strengthening the Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education and Appropriating Funds Therefor.”
Universal access and quality
The law’s official short title is indeed preferable to “Free Tuition Act.” This law is not just about free tuition for those privileged to be accepted into state-run tertiary level schools like UP or Bicol State University or Mindanao State University. It is about promoting access to quality tertiary education for all. That is the meaning of universal access, access for all. But is also not about promoting access to just any higher education. The legislators were aware, as parents and students are, that improving access to bad education is a sham. That is why, emphatically, RA 10931 is not just about free tuition, but about improving universal access to quality tertiary education. The legislators and the educators whom they consulted were aware that while state-run schools ought to deliver quality education, in many state-run schools quality is a work in progress. That work in progress would be seriously impeded were the state schools suddenly overpopulated by students entitled to free higher education. They were also aware that even if all state-run schools were schools of highest quality, they would not be able to accommodate all Filipinos wishing to get quality higher education.
This is why the Declaration of Policy of RA 10931 states:
“…the State hereby recognizes the complementary roles of public and private higher education institutions and technical vocational institutions in the educational system and the invaluable contribution that the private tertiary schools have made and will continue to make to education. For these intents, the State shall:
“(a) Provide adequate funding and such other mechanisms to increase the participation rate among all socio-economic classes in tertiary education;
“(b) Provide all Filipinos with equal opportunity to quality tertiary education in both the public and private educational institutions;
“(c) Give priority to students who are academically able and who come from poor families…”
Help for private school students too
This is why this law also provides help for students who cannot be accepted into state universities and who opt for quality education in private higher educational institutions.
As the formal title of RA 10913 announces, that help comes through the Tertiary Education Subsidy(Section 7) and the Student Loan Program(Section 8).
“To support the cost of tertiary education or any part or portion thereof, a Tertiary Education Subsidy (TES) is hereby established for all Filipino students who shall enroll in undergraduate post-secondary programs of SUCs, LUCs, private HEIs, and all TVIs. The TES shall be administered by the UniFAST Board and the amount necessary to fund the TES shall be included in the budgets of the CHED and the Tesda….” Priority in the use of the TES is according to economic need.
Against the media perception that RA 10913 is just about free tuition in SUCs, it includes private HEIs and also private TVIs. The State is mandated to provide the necessary funds for the TES in the budgets of CHED and TESDA. These are funds that “shall be included in the General Appropriations Act” (Section 15).
What can be funded by the TES?
“The TES may, among others, and to support the cost of tertiary education or any part thereof, cover the following:
“(a) Tuition and other school fees in private HEIs, and private or LGU-operated TVIs, which shall be equivalent to the tuition and other schools fees of the nearest SUC or state-run TVI in their respective areas.
“(b) An allowance for books, supplies, transportation and miscellaneous personal expenses, including a reasonable allowance for the documented rental or purchase of a personal computer or laptop, and other related personal expenses;
“(c) An allowance for room and board costs incurred by the student;
“(d) For a student with a disability, an allowance for expenses related to the student’s disability, including special services, personal assistance, transportation equipment, and supplies that are reasonably incurred; and
“(e) For a student in a program requiring professional license or certification, the one (1)-time cost of obtaining the first professional credentials or qualifications…” (Sec 7).
Beyond the TES, to further help students in higher education, RA 10913 provides for a Student Loan Program for Tertiary Education also to be administered by the UniFAST Board. For example, qualified students opting to go to a private HEI where the TES subsidy is insufficient to cover its tuition and fees may avail of this loan program.
Crucial for the proper implementation of the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act is the Board of the Unified Student Financial Assistance for Tertiary Education (UniFAST) which will craft its implementing policies. This refers to the harmonized, state-run and administered system of higher education and vocational scholarships, grants-in-aid, student loans and other modalities of student financial assistance program under RA 10687. What is insightful about RA 10931 is that for this state-run system of higher education, it considers the state-run system mature enough to include the representative of the private HEIs in an expanded UniFAST Board. Hence:
“The UniFAST Board shall be expanded to include … (b) the chairman of the Coordinating Council of Private Educational Apostolates”.
Thank you, Mr. President, for overcoming the reported objections of your economic managers and signing the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act into law! While it does not say that all Filipinos must get college-level education, it does provide hope for all desiring it, especially for the poorest of the poor, to get this education. While it does not say it will fulfill dreams of all ambitioning higher education immediately, it is a framework through which the State will increasingly help fulfill these dreams through the State’s system of education where public and private higher educational institutions work in complementarity to provide quality higher education for all (cf. Article XIV of the 1987 Constitution)..
If the objections to RA 10319 were coming from the economic managers of your administration, thank you, Mr. President, for overcoming the objection based on the vision of AmbisyonNatin 2040 which they fervently espouse in the Philippine National Development Plan. This is a vision of a socially just society where all contribute to the prosperity of the Filipino nation created by and enjoyed by all. That is a revolutionary vision which entails a radical re-distribution of educational benefits in the country, based, hopefully, on the willingness of its beneficiaries to serve not personal private interests but the interests of the common good. Getting this straight is a challenge to the HEIs, public and private, of this country. But judging from the considered commitments made by public and private educators in the Philippine Association of State Colleges and Universities (PASUC) and the Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations (COCOPEA) in supporting the passage of RA 10913, the HEIs are willing to grow in responding positively to this challenge of quality education for all unto the fulfillment of AmbisyonNatin 2040. In the end, a better educated population contributes essentially to the vision of the future, AmbisyonNatin 2040, that the economic managers espouse under your administration. For investing in human capital is infinitely more urgent than investing in physical infrastructure, even and especially in responding to problems of religious extremism and of social exclusion. Thank you, Mr. President, for opting to Build! Build! Build! first and foremost your people!
The author is the president of the Ateneo de Davao University and the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines.