Duterte signs free tuition bill into law

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 4) — President Rodrigo Duterte signed on August 3 a new law providing free education for over a million students in public tertiary and vocational schools nationwide.

Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra made the announcement in an August 4 forum.

Republic Act 10931 or "Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act," which Congress ratified in May and was transmitted to the Office of the President on July 5, gives full tuition subsidy for students in State Universities and Colleges (SUCs), local universities and colleges, and state-run technical-vocational schools.

The law also covers other charges, namely "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."

It also provides subsidies or stipend for poor students and establishes a student loan program.

However, students with financial capacity may choose not to avail OF the subsidies through a mechanism created by the SUCs and local universities and colleges or LUCs.

The new law continues the administration's initiative in the 2017 budget, where around P8 billion was allotted for free tuition for SUCs for school year 2017-2018.

Read: House ratifies ₱3.35T proposed 2017 budget

In addition, the Commission on Higher Education announced on June 16 it would be offering cash grants for medical students in public medical schools.

Read: CHED: Free tuition for medical students in state universities and colleges starting 2017

Guevarra said Duterte found that the long-term benefits of the law outweigh any short-term budget challenges.

"Free tertiary education in state universities and colleges is a very strong pillar of the President's social development policy," he said.

The 2018 budget currently does not have any provisions for free tuition for public tertiary schools. However, Guevarra said adjustments can still be made during the budget deliberations.

"Whether we need to convince the economic managers, that won't be necessary at all," he said. "This is now a law and everyone has to look forward to implement this law, whether or not you were originally opposed to it, that is now beside the point."

Questions over cost

Guevarra's statement comes 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]."

Diokno added only middle-class and upper-class students would benefit from the scheme.

"Only 12 percent of the poor get to the state universities, 12 percent, and when you say free tuition, you are actually subsidizing the rich," he said.

However, opposition lawmakers said in an August 3 statement the free tuition law would cost only around ₱15 billion.

"Hindi po totoo ang sinabi ng economic managers na hindi kayang tustusan ng gobyerno," said Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate. "Napatunayan natin ngayong taon, may pondo para sa state universities and colleges. Hindi nila pwede sabihin na ngayong taon 'di kayang pondohan."

[Translation: The economic managers' claim that the government can't afford to subsidize tuition fees is not true. We've proven this year that there is money for state universities and colleges. They can't say this year that there's no more money.]

Zarate added if the government could set aside ₱8-9 trillion for its "Build, Build, Build" infrastructure program, it could easily fund education, which he said is a better investment.

Read: ₱9-trillion infrastructure program will not drive PH into debt: Budget Department

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the government needs only around ₱20-25 billion for the law.

"We have already incorporated ₱8.5 billion from the present General Appropriations Act," he said. "And we strongly argued that we need not implement in its entirety the free tuition fee act on year one. In other words, we can pace it so that the other aspects of the law can be implemented after year one."

'Win-win' solution

Commission on Higher Education Commissioner Prospero De Vera told CNN Philippines' Balitaan on August 4 that the agency is proposing a "win-win" solution to implement the program.

"Yung concern kasi nung economic managers itong mga nakaraang linggo ay yung fiscal impact [The concern of the economic managers these past weeks is the fiscal impact]," he said.

"Our win-win solution is you stagger the implementation of the different parts of the bill so that the fiscal impact is not very heavy, but you continue the legacy of President Duterte of providing free tuition," he added. "Sa susunod na taon, pwedeng idagdag yung dagdag na ayuda dun sa mahihirap na mga bata. Yung student loan program, pwede sa 2020, kasi hindi naman implementable agad 'yan. You have to design a loan program."

[Translation: Additional subsidies for poor students can be added in the next year. The student loan program can be implemented in 2020 because that is not immediately implementable. You have to design a loan program.]

De Vera said based on their computations, the program could start by subsidizing the tuition fees and miscellaneous fees of students in SUCs and LUCs, which CHED must first evaluate.

However, he said only 16 out of 111 LUCs have been evaluated so far.

De Vera added that for the second semester of academic year 2017-2018, which starts in January 2018, the government will subsidize both tuition and miscellaneous fees in SUCs.

Story updated 3:40 p.m. of August 4 to include statements from Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra and CHED Commissioner Prospero De Vera.