Lawmakers laud signing of free tuition bill

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 4) — Pro-administration and opposition lawmakers on Friday welcomed the signing of a milestone law providing free education for students in public tertiary and vocational schools nationwide.

The Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, which Congress ratified in May 2017 and was transmitted to the Office of the President on July 5, was signed into law as Republic Act 10931 by President Rodrigo Duterte on August 3. It provides full tuition subsidy for students in State Universities and Colleges (SUCs), local universities and colleges, and state-run technical-vocational schools.

Senator Bam Aquino,a principal sponsor and co-author of the bill's Senate version, extended his gratitude to Duterte.

“I wish to thank the President for signing the free college tuition into law,” Aquino, a member of the Liberal Party said. “Pagkatapos ng ilang dekada, batas na ang inaasam-asam ng napakaraming pamilyang Pilipino na libreng kolehiyo. Estudyante, magulang at pamilyang Pilipino ang tunay na bida ng batas na ito."

[Translation: After many decades, free college education, which many Filipino families have been hoping for, is now a law. Students, parents, and the Filipino family are the true champions of this law.]

Senator JV Ejercito, one of the law's authors, said he is "very, very happy" for poor but deserving students in SUCs.

There were 1.65 million students enrolled in such universities and colleges in 2016, according to the Commission on Higher Education.

The new law brings students’ dreams of a better life “increasingly within reach,” said Senator Sonny Angara.

"It's the first administration that will have such a law and we laud the President for signing the Free tuition bill despite some advising him to veto it," he added.

While Angara sounded a note of caution on its implementation, he urged all stakeholders to commit to making it work. ”There will be a lot of challenges ahead in implementing all of the provisions of the law so Congress, and the Executive branch, and the educational institutions should all do what they can to make it workable."

The possibility of a veto arose after Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno told lawmakers on August 2 that subsidizing tuition in public tertiary schools would be too costly.

Read: DBM: Gov't can't afford free tuition in state colleges

"In the absence of any law, we cannot appropriate money for free tuition," he said. "We estimate that the cost of this bill, it will cost us something around ₱100 billion. Hindi po kaya ng gobyerno 'yan [The government cannot afford that]."

However, Malacanang, through its Deputy Secretary Menardo Guevarra, said they counted on Congress to “make the necessary appropriations” to fund this long-term government program, which is one of the cornerstones of President Duterte’s social development policy.

House Appropriations Chair Karlo Nograles said his committee will allot the necessary funding to the new law, adding that the 2018 budget could still be revised to accommodate the program.

"We have already reviewed the possible financial implications and complications of this proposal and I can safely say that there is enough money to jumpstart this and sustain it in the long term," Nograles said.

The law is not a panacea to address problems in the education system, but it was a necessary first step, said House Deputy Minority Leader Harry Roque, one of the principal authors of the House version of the law.

"I find objections made by his economic managers contra the passage of the law counter-intuitive, treating it as if its proponents have advanced the measure as a magic pill that will cure all of the educational sector's ills," he said. "It is but the first yet necessary step towards reforming the system."

Opposition lawmakers led by Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate lauded Duterte for listening to the people,rather than to his economic managers. He urged a budget for the measure to be deliberated on soon.

"The victory of the people though is yet to be completed and we are now calling on leaders and members of Congress to immediately set a budget for the measure so that the youth and students of our country would now benefit from it," he said.

Senator Win Gatchalian, another co-author of the bill, suggested a three-phase implementation as a means to extend the benefits to qualified students, even as the executive branch finds ways to fund the law

He said the first phase will only cover tuition fees, the second phase will cover free tuition plus miscellaneous fees, and the third phase will include student loans and other subsidies.

"So at least (with) three phases, mapopondohan' to at hindi magiging mabigat to sa ating budget [the law can be funded and it won't be a heavy burden on our budget]," Gatchalian said.

Republic Act 10931 covers school fees, which include "library fees, computer fees, laboratory fees, school ID fees, athletic fees, admission fees, development fees, guidance fees, handbook fees, entrance fees, registration fees, medical and dental fees, cultural and other similar or related fees."