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Some uncertainties over tuition-free SUCs

Congress has approved the 2017 national budget of P3.35 trillion, the House of Repesenatives ratifying it last Tuesday, the Senate the next day, Wednesday. It now goes to President Duterte for signing into law.

During the deliberations in Congress, the budget had been touted as a budget for infastructures, which would distinguish the new Duterte administration from previous ones. Budget Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno said it was possibly the biggest change in the budget – the P890.9-biliion funding for infrastructures, 41 percent more than in the previous 2016 budget. The huge budget would impact on unemployment and, therefore, on mass poverty.

When the budget was approved last week, however, one item stood out as truly extraordinary and locally unprecedented – P8.3 billion added to the usual funding for the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) to implement a program of free tuition in all State Colleges and Universities (SUCs).

The amount was originally for development projects in the Autonomous Region of Muslim in Mindanao, but the Senate voted to use the fund instead to launch a system of free university tuition in the country. Not even the United States has such a program; it provides free education only up to high school. Only a few European countries – Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Germany, among them – have free college education.

There are bound to be some negative effects of such a free-tuition policy, such as on the operation of some private schools. There is a question as to whether the fund is enough to implement a program for all aspiring Filipino students in all SUCs all over the country. The nation’s SUCs may not be prepared to accept the jump in enrollment with their current faculty, books and other learning materials, schoolrooms and equipment.

This is one school program where the initiative did not come from school officials in the Executive Department but from senators led by Sen. Loren Legarda, chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, and Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino, chairman of the Senate Committee on Education, Arts, and Culture. Congressmen in the bicameral conference committee conceded to the senators and so the committee revised the bill submitted by the Executive Department and the tuition-free college education program became part of the 2017 national budget.

The next few months leading to the start of the new school year in June, 2017, will see how the idea of free tuition in SUCs will develop. These institutions have a lot of work ahead of them. They have no definite idea on how many more students they will have this coming school year. And there will be uncertainties over funding, when Congress debates next year on the national budget for 2018. If tuition-free college is to be a permanent part of Philippine education, it should be enacted into a law, not just provided for in the national budget.

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