Duterte signs law for free tuition in state colleges

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, a law providing free tuition for students of 112 state universities and colleges (SUCs).

"I am pleased to announce that last night, August 3, 2017, the President signed into law the enrolled bill," said Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Friday, August 4, during a press conference.

Duterte signed the bill around 9 pm on Thursday, following a meeting between lawmakers and economic managers in Malacañang.

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Despite opposition from his economic advisers, the President was convinced that the benefits of the bill outweigh its hefty cost, said Guevarra.

"Free tertiary education in state universities and colleges is a pillar or cornerstone of the President's social development policy so he weighed everything and came to the conclusion that the long-term benefits that will be derived from a well-developed tertiary education will definitely outweigh any possible short-term budgetary challenges," said Guevarra.

"So as we say, 'If there's a will, there's a way,'" he added.

Duterte's approval was unexpected given how his economic managers have openly opposed the bill, saying the government does not have enough funds to sustain it.

Guevarra said it is now up to Congress to decide how best to fund the bill. There would likely be a need to reallocate budgets from other programs. Funding could also be sourced from official development assistance. (READ: Higher budget, free tuition in state colleges: Easier said than done)

"Official development assistance is one possible source and we're also hoping that donations both from the local and international sectors will come in to help tide us over especially for the first few years," said Guevarra.

Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno had claimed that the policy would require funding of P100 billion, which the government cannot afford at the moment. While education continues to receive the biggest chunk in the national budget, an ambitious infrastructure program is also among the Duterte administration's major priorities. (READ: Education, infra to get bulk of proposed 2018 nat'l budget)

However, some lawmakers argued that figures shown by the economic managers were misleading and that only around P14 billion would be needed to fund the law.

Guevarra said the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) pegged the cost of mandatory provisions of the law at P16 billion.

"The P100-billion estimate of the DBM (Department of Budget and Management) seems to be on the very high side because that is on the basis, on the assumption that all aspects of the free tuition bill will be implemented all at the same time," said Guevarra.

Budget Secretary Diokno, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia earlier said the law, if passed, would benefit mostly middle-class to high-income students who make up the majority of college students.

Such a policy could kickstart an exodus of students from private colleges and universities to state-run ones, which could ultimately affect the overall quality of tertiary education. (READ: Free tuition in state colleges: When CHED officials clash)

Duterte's economic managers had preferred to provide more funding for the Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education (UniFAST) which strengthens, expands, and harmonizes existing financial assistance programs for students.

Malacañang said Duterte also considered his administration's other big expenses when deciding whether or not to approve the free tuition bill.  

He had to weigh the cost of the bill with the cost of the rehabilitation of Marawi City and programs for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), said Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary Marie Banaag. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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