When President Rodrigo Duterte called leaders of the Senate to an urgent meeting in the afternoon of Tuesday, August 1, none of the lawmakers, who were given only a few hours notice, had an idea what the gathering was all about. As it turned out, the purpose was to brief the senators on alleged new terror threats posed by ISIS in the southern Philippines.
But amid the discussions on the security situation in Mindanao, the senators also pressed Duterte to approve a proposed law, the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, which seeks to provide free tuition to eligible Filipino students in publicly run colleges, universities and technical-vocational institutions.
Duterte’s economic managers are against the law because it will cost too much to implement. Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said the estimated cost of implementing the proposed law could reach Php100 billion, which is equivalent to 12 percent of this year’s budget deficit target.
The proposed law was ratified by the Senate and the House of Representatives on May 30, 2017 and transmitted to the Office of the President for Duterte’s signature on July 5. The president has 30 days or until August 5 to either sign or veto the measure, or else it will lapse into law.
“The entire senate contingent pushed for the approval by the president of the measure as it will benefit our tertiary level students,” said Senator Franklin Drilon, the Senate minority leader, in an interview with reporters on August 2, according to a published transcript released by the Senate press office. “As expected Sec. Diokno objected to the approval of the president and strongly recommended a veto.”
Still, Drilon said the senators were hoping Duterte would approve the proposed law. “I'm sure that he will consider the views of the senators present and the opposition of Sec. Diokno. At the end of the day that is the burden of leadership. We hope that the president will approve this bill,” he said.
According to Drilon, the Senate has already suggested to implement the bill in phases to avoid abrupt and costly government spending. “The senate contingent is saying that the budget is only about Php20 to Php25 billion and we have incorporated Php8.5 billion from the present budget,“ he said.
Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto doubted Diokno’s cost estimates. “The math doesn't add up. How will it reach Php100 billion when in 2016, we only collected Php8.1 billion from tuition fees and Php4.3 billion from other income,” he said.
Apart from free tuition for qualified students of government-run universities, colleges and even vocational schools, the proposed law also provides financial assistance to select students through scholarships, grant-in-aid programs and student loans.
The Commission on Higher Education (CHED) will serve as the main regulator of the subsidy fund.
If passed into law, the measure will be deemed effective by the second semester of the current academic year (2017-2018).
At least 1.65 million students in 117 public higher education institutions—or 46 percent of the total collegiate population in the country—will stand to benefit from the law. Most will no longer have to pay tuition and other fees.
However, the policy could hurt 1,664 private higher education institutions whose students will likely transfer to state colleges and universities that charge no tuition fees. With free tuition offered in SUCs, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia said an “exodus” of students from private schools is to be expected.
Elyssa Christine Lopez is a staff writer of Entrepeneur PH. Follow her on Twitter @elyssalopz