Taking the High Road: Steering the wheel towards free education
■ Aldrin Villegas
If UP were Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat would be the Socialized Tuition System (STS). Yes, you qualified for entry to this legendary wizarding school. Yes, you have dreams. Unfortunately, unlike Hogwarts, UP is not fully subsidized by the government.
So you would sit on a stool, and the Sorting Hat would be placed upon your head. The Hat would ponder for a while, and then announce the bracket that will decide how much money you should pay for tuition.
No wonder #BracketAKaNa became a trending topic worldwide in 2014. UP just rolled out the STS, replacing the 23-year old Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP). UP students just had enough, sharing stories of unfair and faulty bracket assignments.
This year, the trending topic is #FreeEducNow for state universities and colleges (SUCs), as Republic Act 10931 (RA 10931) or the “Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act” was signed into law.
The law takes a sharp turn from the self-sufficiency path that the Roadmap for Public Higher Education Reform has laid out for SUCs, marked by declining subsidy and skyrocketing tuition and other fees. The clamor for #FreeEducNow, however, does not stop from this legislation, as it entails subsequent decisive actions.
The long history of UP’s socialized tuition policy has been a dangerous road—fraught with decreasing turnout from UP College Admission Test passers, long lines of students applying for tuition loans, tons of appeals for lower STS bracket, and decreasing number of students enjoying free tuition.
Such mechanism reached a lethal point when UP Manila student Kristel Tejada took her life after being forced to file a leave of absence for failing to pay her tuition. Far from the promise of democratizing access to UP education, socialized tuition policies only brought Kristel to a dead end.
Within three decades that such mechanism was in place, not a year passed without walkouts and protests from the UP community. Now comes a policy that espouses free education for SUCs, which albeit imperfect, is still an initial victory for the student movement.
An educated population after all is the strongest foundation of any democracy. “Education is a right which gives people an important basis for greater participation in the nation’s economic and political life. It should be available for all, even up to the highest levels possible,” says thinktank IBON Foundation Executive Director Jose Enrique Africa.
However, a blanket policy like RA 10931 can do more harm than good and can be considered anti-poor, according to government thinktank Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS). It is a “leaky bucket” as more SUC students from wealthy families get to enjoy free tuition, says UP School of Economics Professor Emmanuel de Dios.
But Africa contends that the policy should not be about someone deserving free tuition or not. “This is not even mainly about personal advancement—the higher knowledge and skills students get is potentially a great contribution to building our economy and society,” he said.
There is no contention that a nation benefits from having a more highly educated population. The views vary, however, on how we get there. For most economists, a universal free tuition is not the right policy to reach that goal.
Aside from the “leaky bucket” argument, another contention is that “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” that taxpayers will ultimately pay for the cost. Another is that subsidies must not be given to schools but to students who can “shop” or choose their colleges, and competition in turn will push colleges to strive for quality and efficiency.
This line of arguments falls under the premise of neoliberal economics—a view that looks at social services as products and people as consumers. But in opposition to this lens, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) says that neoliberal approaches to social protection fail to deliver on several counts.
“Systems that are fragmented – with multiple providers, programmes and financing mechanisms aimed at different population groups – have limited potential for redistribution, and generally result in high costs, poor quality and limited access for the poor,” the UNRISD stated in its document titled Combating Poverty and Inequality.
Drawing on evidence principally from health and education sectors, the document prescribes integrated systems of social service provision grounded in universal principles. “[It] can be redistributive, act as powerful drivers of solidarity and social inclusions, and improve the capabilities of the poor,” UNRISD stated.
This, however, requires more than just a law. Arriving at the destination of universal free education requires a strong commitment to the principle that education is a right.
The road we now traverse reintroduces the concept of public good in higher education discourse—a concept that has faded in the language of competition.
Yet, the free tuition law has its weaknesses, mainly that it approaches the matter of universal tertiary education only from the demand side, Africa said. “It only considers the point of view of students and their ability to pay tuition and other expenses, but what is crucial is the supply side, or the need to expand the public university system.”
But to be able to expand, we must first sustain. The free tuition law is resource intensive, given the increasing cost of higher education with inflation and the expected increase in enrolment rate in SUCs.
This can be met with the right political decisions, says Kabataan Partylist Rep. Sarah Elago. The Priority Development Assistance Fund, which amounts P300 million for each senator and P80 million for each congressman, can be utilized to sustain SUCs’ operations.
The government can also revise the tax system to be more progressive, redistributing wealth from those at the top to the sectors in need like basic education.
At this point, it is only treacherous to revert to a socialized tuition policy with its inherent and irreconcilable contradictions—that while the budget of SUCs consistently fall way below proposed budget, they continue to rely on the pockets of students when there are clear alternatives.
“The student movement still has a lot of battles to wage,” Elago said. And we still have a lot to win. The subsequent steps entail political will and public pressure. The challenge for the government is to take the high road. But the long run fate depends on the students, the primary stakeholders who drive in the road towards free education. ■
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