After both houses of Congress ratified the reconciled version of the bill making tuition in public colleges free, Malacañang should include the cost of the program in the 2018 national budget.
The call was made by Senator Ralph Recto, author of the bill, who said that without funds to bankroll it, the bill, even if signed into law by President Duterte, will suffer delays in its implementation or, worse, end up as an unfunded mandate.
Noting that Malacañang is in the midst of assembling its 2018 spending request, which will be sent to Congress as early as the fourth week of July, Recto said the cost to defray tuition waivers in public colleges can already be included in next year’s proposed budget.
By the veteran legislator’s count, some 1.6 million students in 114 national government-funded SUCs and 102 LUCs or local government universities and colleges stand to benefit from the law.
Government should start running the numbers on how much would the program would really cost, and indicate this in the 2018 national budget, the seasoned lawmaker said.
“Congress has made its own preliminary estimate. But as custodian of official data, those in the executive are in the best position to peg the number, based on the mandates of the bill, upon enactment,” the senator from Batangas said.
But whatever the final cost would be, we would not treat it as an unrecoverable expense, but as investment with a high return, he said.
“Some will only see the billions in this measure and warn of the deficit they might incur. But let us see them for what they really are – as means to realize dreams,” Recto said, reiterating what he said in his speech sponsoring the measure.
“A nation’s progress depends on the quality of its human capital. But building the country’s talent pool is not the responsibility of families alone. Government has to do and give its share,” the legislator added.
The lawmaker, however, disputed the misconception “that free public college is giving a free lunch even to the affluent.”
While government will contribute in his education, the biggest equity will be borne by the student himself, the senator said. “Free tuition, and other financial aid, is not an entitlement without condition.”
“First, a student must qualify for college admission. This bill does not override admission protocols. It is a merit-based aid. And one that can be maintained by merit alone,” he stressed.
Recto said the bill does not cover only SUCs and LUCs, but private colleges as well.
“The fear is that if we offer free public college tuition, students in private higher education institutions would flock to SUCs. It is a mass migration that will weaken the tertiary education system, or worse, lead to their mass extinction.”
The solution, the legislator said, is to establish a Tertiary Education Subsidy (TES) program, as well as to strengthen the existing programs authorized in the UniFAST Law, and make them available to all HEIs.
“So what this bill will create is GASTPE for college,” the lawmaker said, referring to Government Assistance to Students and Teachers in Private Education, wherein the government sponsors the schooling of a student in private high schools at a fraction of the full tuition.
“In short, what we’re also creating is a ‘public-private partnership’ in college education,” the senator from Batangas said.
“Private colleges can accommodate more students, and if the quality of instruction they offer is superior and at a fraction of what SUCs spend, then everybody wins – them, the government, and above all, the student,” he said.