AS Dr. Patricia Licuanan, the chair of the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd), convenes the expanded UniFAST board in order to craft the implementing rules and regulations (IRRs) for the Universal Access to Tertiary Education Act (#EAQTEA or RA 10931), I would like to recall the first three joint resolutions approved jointly by the Philippine Association of State Universities and Colleges (PASUC) and the Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations (COCOPEA). I believe these shed important light on the spirit in which these major public and private educational associations would like the IRRs of RA 10931 crafted:
“That the Philippine system of education provide access to quality higher education to all qualified Filipino students.” (Resolution 1) All the key words in this resolution are significant: system, access, quality, higher education, qualified students, Philippine, Filipino.
“That government scholarships be provided in quality higher education institutions both public and private.” (Resolution 2) The higher education institution (HEI) in which a government scholarship is granted is not indifferent. If the goal is to output quality higher-educated citizens for the common good, the quality of the HEIs is crucial, whether they be public or private.
“That qualified Filipino students able to pay for their higher education pay for it; that qualified Filipino students unable to pay for their education be fully supported in their higher education by government through scholarships and allowances as needed, especially in programs or courses consistent with the National Development Plan and contributory to the realization of Ambisyon Natin 2040”. (Resolution 3)
The Constitution provides for free tuition only on the basic education level (Art. XIV, Sec 2). Beyond basic education, it provides for quality higher education “accessible to all” (Art XIV, Sec 1). Access does not mean free. It means quality higher education is available, even if one must pay for it. It means, for instance, that if one desires education whose standards are internationally recognized, one need not have to go abroad to access it.
PASUC and COCOPEA take the position that students who can pay for their higher education should pay for it, either through their own or their families’ private resources or through loans that they can repay eventually.
But PASUC-COCOPEA also jointly resolve that qualified students who cannot pay for their education because of their economic situation be fully supported, not only with free tuition and fees, but with other forms of necessary assistance such as board and lodging, transportation, or even personal out-of-pocket allowance. The resolution comes from longstanding experience with scholars that the material scholarship alone is not enough to educate well and lift a family out of poverty, but that if a qualified student is properly supported through higher education, the support can eventually lift a whole family out of poverty while providing Philippine society with Filipino citizen of higher education, that is, reflective and critical in his or her humane citizenship and excellently trained in a chosen profession.
It is in this spirit, I think, that the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (RA 10931) was crafted, passed and signed into law. Its IRRs and appropriate funding should ensure its faithful implementation. In this context, allow me the following reflections:
Access to quality higher education through SUCs
RA 10931 is not a law to provide free higher education to those in our society who can afford to pay for higher education. It is not a law designed for students in a SUC to get flashy cars or exotic trips from their wealthy parents who no longer have to pay high tuition for quality education. That is why RA 10931 has a ”voluntary opt-out” clause “to enable students with financial capacity to pay for their education at the SUC … or make a contribution to the school” (Sec 7). When this was being discussed, I argued that it seemed to legislate against the natural law. But it was nevertheless legislated as a matter of truth or as a matter of honor for the students and their families concerned. The opt-out is not mandatory, but a genuine option where state resources in support of higher education need not be squandered on the wealthy but preserved for the genuinely needy but qualified students.
Where RA 10931 now provides free higher education to all those who are admitted to it, in the light of the PASUC-COCOPEA Resolutions but even and especially in the light of RA 10931 itself, the quality of the SUCs must be attended to and improved, not only by the administrators of the concerned SUCs but especially by the politicians whose laws or bad habits may have harmed the SUCs in the past. As the leaders of the PASUC made abundantly clear during our conversations, the proposal to grant free tuition in SUCs, leading to SUCs being overrun by burgeoning populations without their being able to provide quality education, was an abomination to them. For them, it is upsetting when politicians only increase access to SUCs while ignoring the funds necessary for improved quality. No iskolar ng bayan ought have to suffer a poor quality school.
Where SUCs are now being fully funded by the State, they ought now become the HEIs of choice, as they are powerfully in China. But for this, much rethinking must be done to generally improve the quality of SUCs through a serious culture of quality assurance. SUC funding should not be based merely on student population, but also on the recommendations of truly external quality assurance agencies using internationally acceptable quality standards and procedures. PASUC and COCOPEA have committed themselves to a culture of quality assurance based on the Asean Quality Assurance Framework of the Asean Quality Assurance Network (Resolution 7). The products of all quality assured HEIs, public and private, must be recognizable and acceptable in all ASEAN countries. Unto this goal, accreditation agencies must be accredited by external agencies to ensure international levels of quality.
Where RA 10931 has granted free tuition in all SUCs, LUCs and state-run TVIs, the State must ensure that the students who go to these schools receive truly quality education. Hence, “The CHEd and the Tesda shall ensure quality standards in the review and consequent endorsement of the budget of the SUCs, LUCs, and state-run TVIs.” (Sec 10). This may mean that the number of those who go to SUCs may need to be limited while the quality standards of the school are raised to international levels. The admission standards of SUCs should guarantee excellent academic performance for Philippine society.
Access to quality higher education through private HEIs
This is also why RA 10931’s universal access to quality tertiary education does not rely only on SUCs and free tuition in SUCs. All cannot be admitted to SUCs. Indeed, “The State recognizes the complementary roles of public and private higher education institutions and technical-vocations institutions in the educational system and the invaluable contribution that the private tertiary schools have made and will make to education…” (Section 2).
Therefore, a qualified student who cannot be admitted to a SUC, LUC or state-run TVI, or who simply opts to go to a private HEI or private TVI based on its evidenced quality, may be helped by this law through its Tertiary Education Subsidy for Filipino Students (TES, Sec. 7) and its Student Loan Program for Tertiary Education (Sec 8).
Through the TES, the qualified student may receive “tuition and other school fees in private HEIs, and private or LGU-operated TVIs, which shall be equivalent to the tuition and other school fees of the nearest SUC or state-run TVI in their respective areas.” The provision is similar to the manner in which the value of the vouchers for senior high schools was determined based on the cost of public educational provision in the area.
Where this TES may not be sufficient to cover the tuition and fees required by a private HEI, the student may avail of the Student Loan Program to make up the difference between the TES subsidy and the actual tuition and fees required by the private HEI.
Loans will be repaid through the students’ future contributions either to the GSIS or the SSS.
IRRs for implementation of RA 10931 in its entirety
It is the UniFAST board led by CHEd Chair Licuanan that must see to the crafting of the IRRs and propose appropriate funding for RA 10931 within the next 50 days.
The IRRs and the funding of RA 10931 should be for its implementation in its entirety. It is not a law only for free tuition in SUCs. It is not a law that limits state-supported access to quality tertiary education to SUCs. It is not a law that can be arbitrarily implemented first for SUCs, then for LUCs, then for state-run TVIs, then only for private HEIs. It is not a law that is crafted only to correct the mismatch between academe and industry. It is a law about universal quality tertiary education enacted in the context of a national development plan that envisages a socially just society by 2040.
It is a law that must do as its promises: provide universal access to quality tertiary education. This is possible only through the living complementarity between public and private education in the country today.
Alongside provisions for students in SUCs, LUCs, and state-run TVIs, equivalent provisions must be made for students in private HEIs and private TVIs through robust allocations for the TES and the Student Loan Program.
The author is the president of the Ateneo de Davao University and former president of the Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations (COCOPEA).