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Funding the free college tuition bill

THE national budget of R3.76 trillion for 2018 approved by the House of Representatives last Monday is the biggest ever in the history of the republic.

In line with the constitutional provision that “The state shall assign the highest budgetary priority to education…,” a total of P710.5 billion was allotted for the four basic departments in our educational system, namely, Department of Education (DepEd), P583.1 billion; Commission on Higher Education (CHEd), P49.9 billion; Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), P6.9 billion; and State Universities and Colleges (SUCs) and Local Universities and Colleges (LUCs), P61.6 billion.

President Duterte signed the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act last Aug. 3, granting free tuition and other fees for students in SUCs, LUCs, and technical-vocational institutions. With this program, the Philippines has become one of only eight countries in the world providing free college education. Many other countries, including the United States, provide free education only up to high school.

The proposed national budget had already been approved by the Cabinet on July 3 and then submitted to Congress; thus, it did not include any funding for the free college tuition law. The leaders of Congress decided to get the P40 billion needed for free tuition from various sources already in the bill and the biggest amount of P30 billion was taken from the DepEd budget for schoolrooms.

The congressmen are to be commended for striving to find funding for the new tuition program but in getting most of it from the school building budget, they are setting back a basic program of education in the country.

Secretary of Education Leonor Briones warned that millions of students will have no classrooms in the coming years because the school building fund was reduced by P30 billion. There are other programs where cuts could be made, she said, and she offered to suggest a list.

CHED Chairwoman Patricia Licuanan added her own misgivings: “This is a very good thing to fund and we all want it funded … but to take it from another important program…. The students will also suffer.”

The national budget bill has now been sent to the Senate and Sen. Loren Legarda, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Finance, vowed to conduct marathon sessions so the chamber can approve the budget bill before Congress adjourns on Oct. 12. The Bicameral Conference Committee can meet afterwards to resolve the differences.

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