There’s less to free tuition than meets the eye

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MARIT STINUS-CABUGON

LAST Friday, President Rodrigo Duterte unexpectedly signed into law the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act. The law provides for free tuition in public universities, colleges and vocational schools. Earlier, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia had warned that providing such an across-the-board government subsidy would be costly yet insufficient in addressing the needs of poor students.

It is indeed a challenge for any government to balance its budget. Resources are never sufficient. Ensuring that Filipino youth will have access to free or at least affordable quality tertiary education is one of many priority areas of the government. And opinions differ—even within the Duterte Cabinet—on how to achieve and sustain this goal.

In 2015, Congress passed the Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education Act, or UniFAST. This system unifies “government-funded scholarships, grants-in-aid, student loans and other forms of student financial assistance … for students of technical/vocational and higher education institutions” (GMA, July 3, 2016).

The Duterte administration had earlier expressed a preference for UniFAST over universal free tuition in public colleges and universities. Secretaries Dominguez, Diokno and Pernia were one in pointing out that not only will free tuition require a huge allotment of scarce government funds, it would mostly benefit non-poor students, and could result in students leaving private colleges and universities in favor of public ones.


According to the three secretaries, tuition isn’t the biggest expense when studying. Board and lodging are. The monthly expenses of rent and food far exceed the tuition fees of government schools. This may not be true for students who live at home in the cities or town centers where the schools are usually located. But for the many students for whom commuting is not an option, the real burden of taking up tertiary education is the cost of board and lodging. While free tuition is a help, it still puts the pursuit of a college degree beyond the reach of many.

Another reason why it could be argued that free tuition will not really provide significant relief to students from the hinterlands is that elementary and high school education provided in remote areas often is of inferior quality compared to basic education offered in urban centers. This means that students from far-flung areas have far less chance of passing the entrance exams to the state universities and colleges. Furthermore, the schools in remote areas are usually the last ones to receive updated instructional materials and textbooks, many have no electricity, and buildings damaged by natural disasters or armed conflict are not replaced or repaired.

While students who study at state-run tertiary education facilities may not exactly be rich, they may not also be the poorest of the poor. The removal of the tuition fee is of course a help to poor students, but it benefits all students, irrespective of economic status. Simply put, scarce government resources are used to subsidize even those who don’t need the subsidy.

Having helped poor students link up with sponsors, I know that board and lodging comprise the bigger burden for students from far-flung regions. Add to that all sorts of miscellaneous expenses, projects, and daily transportation of students who live at some distance from the school. Children of poor families get very limited, if any, material support from their parents and often have to work to support themselves. This affects their grades and their graduation may be delayed.

As for vocational education, there are not enough available slots in government schools for those who want to take technical courses as a cheaper alternative to college. Vocational courses are popular because they, by virtue of being short, are cheap. Unfortunately, private vocational schools are often too expensive and fail to consider the economic status of the poorer of their students.

The country’s economic managers now have no choice but to look for the funds to provide the promised free tuition of thousands of enrollees at public tertiary schools. The government—local and national—will have to prioritize expenditures and improve efficiency to ensure that Filipino children and youth are able to reach the educational attainment that will enable them to find gainful employment, become entrepreneurs, and become happy and productive citizens. This would also help the country advance socially and economically.

Education is a life-long process. Col. Leomar Doctolero whose one-year stint as commanding officer of the Philippine Army’s 12th Infantry Battalion ended last August 2, exemplified this when he converted Camp Jizmundo in Banga, Aklan, into a diversified farm, run by members of the Cafgu, or the Civilian Active Auxillary. While many of these volunteer soldiers were already farmers, Doctolero made them grow lettuce and other vegetables and market them in Boracay. Everything grown in the farm is organic. The proceeds go to the soldiers’ cooperative to sustain operations and be paid as dividends.

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