Despite the objection of key economic managers, President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law the free-college tuition bill, known as the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act.
It was a popular decision to make. It was meant to ease the financial problems of poor students and parents.
But then Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said the government could not afford the P100-billion funding requirement to implement the free college tuition law.
Where will the money come from? That is not Duterte’s problem. That is not the problem of politicians who jumped with joy over the enactment of the bill. That is Diokno’s problem. Blame Diokno when students don’t get to enjoy tuition-free tertiary education in state-run colleges and universities.
Republic Act No. 10931, signed on August 3, guarantees students relief from tuition and other miscellaneous fees in 112 state universities and colleges (SUCs), and technical-vocational schools across the country.
While the new law was signed just as the academic year had started, we should not expect it to be implemented soon. It is neither in the current year’s budget, nor is it in the 2018 appropriation bill that Congress has just begun to tackle.
The 2018 budget did not even include the P8-billion funding in the 2017 outlay for free higher education in SUCs.
Socio-economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia had said the estimated P100-billion funding requirement for the free college tuition would be unsustainable over time. “The budget for free tuition is really quite large. It’s not pittance,” Pernia said.
When Diokno appeared at the House of Representatives for a public hearing on the proposed 2018 budget, he said: “It was not in the 2018 budget of the President. In the absence of any law, we cannot appropriate money for free tuition.”
The next day, the President signed the enrolled copy of the bill two days before it could lapse into law.
With the law in place, Diokno will now have to look for funding sources so it can be implemented in the next academic year, beginning in June 2018.
“The law will be prospective, not retroactive, since academic year 2017 to 2018 is already ongoing. Hence, in the immediate term, we’re talking of academic year 2018 to 2019, strictly speaking, the first semester,” he explained.
Diokno is left with no choice but to look for money for the free-tuition law.
As senior deputy executive secretary Menardo Guevarra said, the free tuition law is a pillar of the President’s social development policy.
“Before signing the measure, the President had to weigh the issues raised by his advisers and arrived at the conclusion that the long-term benefits of the free tuition will outweigh the short-term budgetary challenges,” Guevarra said when he announced the signing of RA 10931 at a forum on Thursday.
The problem now is funding. Where will the money come from? Squeezing the amount into the 2018 budget proposal is less of a concern than looking for financing sources.
Will the politicians who were overjoyed over the signing of the new law be willing to part with their “entitlements” for their pet projects tucked into various government agencies’ budgets as well as their huge allowances for travel, communications, among others, so that the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) could pool the required P100-billion yearly appropriation for free college tuition?
Or will they opt to pass more tax measures to fund the free college tuition law?
Otherwise, the popular new law could end up being a mere statistic in the list of unfunded laws which, as of October 2015, required P367.3 billion to fully implement.
In a discussion paper she wrote for the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department (CPBRD), Aurea Hernandez-Sempio cited a report from the DBM that said 62 laws remained partially funded, while 75 laws were not funded at all as of October 2015.
“Compared to an earlier report  by the Department of Budget and Management [DBM], unfunded laws grew by 127.3 percent, from 33 in 2007 to 75 in 2015, while partially funded laws grew even higher by 376.9 percent, from 13 to 62 in the same period,” the CPBRD paper said.
Among the major unfunded and partially funded laws are the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), Fisheries Code, Shelter Finance, Armed Forces Modernization Program, compensation for victims of human rights violations and the modernization of the Bureau of Correction (Bucor).
The CARP, which expired in 2008, was extended under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (Carper) of 2009 which required P150 billion for the acquisition and distribution of the remaining 1.6 million hectares of agricultural lands for redistribution.
Some of these unfunded laws are crucial laws in achieving economic and social objectives.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the free college education law will not suffer the same fate as the other centerpiece programs of previous administrations set aside because no funds have been appropriated for them. Through this program, the administration can prove that positive change is indeed coming.