The first budget under the administration of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, signed into law on 22 December, includes allocations to scrap tuition fees in all state universities and colleges from the 2017 academic year, as part of a significant increase in the country’s education budget.
Although the proposal to scrap tuition fees in public institutions came from the Philippine Senate after years of campaigning by civil society and youth groups, Duterte and other candidates standing in the May 2016 presidential elections in the Philippines, ran on a campaign promise to provide free tuition for students.
The Department of Education’s budget goes up from PHP433 billion (US$8.7 billion) in 2016 to PHP544.1 billion (US$11 billion) for 2017, a significant increase in a budget described by Philippines senators and others as "pro-poor".
“One of the long-standing concerns of poor families is bringing their children to college, because after finishing high school in public schools most of them have no means to pay for tuition in SUCs [state universities and colleges],” said Senator Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate Committee on Finance. “The 2017 national budget addresses this concern.”
Legarda clarified that only tuition fees would be covered by the budget. Miscellaneous fees, living costs or other charges will still be incurred by students. Poorer students could avail themselves of grants and aid under various other programmes, she said.
The Kabataan Partylist or youth party in the House of Representatives called it a “game changer and step in the right direction”, in an elated statement issued on 17 December, the day after the budget was ratified by the Senate.
“Filipino youth celebrates and embraces this development, which potentially makes the Philippines at par with some of the great nations of the world – including Norway, Sweden, Finland and Germany – when it comes to providing for free tuition in state schools,” it said.
“This is a recognition of the long-standing clamour of the Philippine student movement for the government to veer away from letting state schools charge and profit from public higher education.”
Speaking about the special allocation in a television interview on 16 December, Patricia Licuanan, chair of the Commission on Higher Education or CHED, said: “That’s purely for tuition, that’s purely to remove tuition from the student expenses. We cannot spend that PHP8 billion on anything else except to compensate the schools [universities and colleges] for the fact that they can no longer charge tuition.”
However, she said it was unclear how the allocation would be divided up between the country’s 113 state universities and colleges and the decentralised University of the Philippines with a large number of campuses. “The implementation will be a bit of a challenge,” she admitted.
In an official statement issued by CHED on 23 December, after the budget was signed into law, Licuanan said: “In the short term, this will incrementally improve enrolment rates, and will help free up financial resources for other college expenses and needs of the students. From a wider perspective, this amount will eventually increase the available income of families.”
The allocation to enable state universities to scrap tuition fees was not originally included in the 2017 budget that came before both houses of the Philippines Congress on 16 and 17 December.
However, during Senate deliberations some PHP8.3 billion (US$167 million) was allocated to the CHED, the higher education governing body under the Office of the President, for the tuition-free policy. The funds were originally intended for the Department of Public Works and Highways for projects in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or ARMM.
During a bicameral conference committee on the national budget, both houses of the Philippines Congress conceded to the Senate demand for the reallocation of the ARMM funds, criticised by senators as a form of ‘pork barrel’ – a seemingly arbitrary lump sum allocation – as possibly unconstitutional.
Under the 2017 budget, CHED also received an additional PHP5.8 billion for the implementation of three ongoing national and local student financial assistance programmes; PHP4.6 billion for the implementation of the recently legislated additional two years in high school, and PHP763 million for advanced research projects including the Philippine-California Advanced Research Institutes or PCARI Project.
The house of representatives had sought to reduce funding for these by around PHP2 billion.
The PCARI Project seeks to address the low research and innovation productivity of the Philippines in comparison with neighbouring countries, and involves 15 Philippine higher education institutions and the University of California to “address vital societal-scale problems”, according to CHED. Philippines scholars are expected to study full-time or part-time at the University of California.
Parliamentary representatives are now calling for the government to enact a comprehensive law to ensure the tuition-free policy continues in future years.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, author of a proposed Free Higher Education Act in the Senate, lauded the free-tuition move, saying 1.4 million students would benefit and called on the Senate to support the passage of the proposed bill.
Kabataan Partylist said the battle would continue. “Let us be clear: the budget for free tuition is one of the game changers in next year’s budget. Yet there are other portions of the budget, including that of the Department of Education, that put a premium on guaranteed profits for the private sector,” said Kabataan Partylist representative Sarah Elago in a statement on 22 December, after the budget was signed into law.
She was referring to budget allocated for the senior high school voucher programme to cover private schools.
This is not the first time free university tuition for undergraduates in state universities has been proposed. During the 2015 budget deliberations, lawmakers also proposed allocating funds for the tuition of undergraduate students in state universities and colleges but were unsuccessful.
A position paper entitled "Towards a pro-poor and pro-quality higher education" issued by CHED at the time said that although it considered the no-tuition policy to be affordable for the government, it could lead to a “massive exodus” from private higher education institutions to the state sector which "would aggravate an impending crisis in private education", while the additional inflow into public institutions would increase the cost of the policy to the government.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters