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Commentary

Free tuition as paradigm shift

12:45 AM December 21, 2016

Until recently, free public college education was considered a rogue idea. Cynics, which include policy-makers in the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd), have long taunted students who call for free education: It is an impossible dream. Until it wasn’t.

With the eleventh-hour decision of the bicameral conference committee on the national budget to realign P8.3 billion to cover for tuition expenses in state schools for 2017, at least 1.6 million students of our 114 SUCs (state universities and colleges) no longer need to pay tuition next year.

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All Filipinos should celebrate this game-changing development, as it is a fundamental policy change, a paradigm shift which signals the beginning of the reversal of longstanding dogma in government—that college education is mainly a private pursuit. Governments around the world that grant free tuition to public university students are few and far between, and the Philippines will soon join the ranks of nations like Finland, Sweden and Norway in this regard.

Yet we should not mistake this move as a result of sheer benevolence of senators or government, for without the decades-long struggle for the right to education, free tuition will not even be in the public discourse. The blood, sweat and tears of generations of student activists and progressive movements laid the foundations for this pivotal moment.

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As we celebrate this development, it is also important to stress that free tuition is only the first step of many in the struggle for free education. For one, the P8.3 billion appropriation is only for tuition, which means SUC students still need to shell out for other school fees and expenses. Laws, regulations and policies on deregulation and commercialization—and the push for SUCs to earn income—also remain in place.

Even those heading CHEd remain cause for concern. Officials like embattled CHEd Chair Patricia Licuanan cannot escape the youth’s skepticism and distrust. The fact that CHEd has, for the large part, functioned as a tuition increase body should not be lost on us.

During the initial deliberations on proposed free public higher education bills in Congress in past months, it was Licuanan and her ilk who pointed out that heavily investing in state schools will adversely affect private schools, as it will supposedly lead to an exodus of students enrolled in private schools to public institutions. Such statements betray the fact that for CHEd, private profit weighs more than the youth’s welfare and future.

Now, even with funds for free tuition ready, Licuanan is saying that it will be “logistically difficult” to implement the program immediately. One can only wonder when she would run out of excuses.

The fight is clearly far from over. We should immediately press CHEd and the Duterte administration to waste no time to implement this new tuition-free policy. It should take effect at the soonest possible time.

Also, the introduction of free tuition should not be used by SUC administrations as justification to increase other school fees. Rather, the new tuition-free policy should be a springboard for the abolition of all other regulations and policies such as the “socialized fee scheme” in UP; CHEd orders that explicitly allow schools to increase collection from students; and, ultimately, laws (e.g., the Education Act of 1982 and the Higher Education Modernization Act) which maintain the commercialized and profit-oriented nature of the Philippine education system.

The paradigm shift introduced by the move to free tuition should also permeate private colleges and universities. Their annual fee hikes should stop, and they should instead lower matriculation rates to compete with SUCs. A new mindset must set in, one that stops treating education as commodity and students as customers.

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In the coming months, the public clamor for our right to education should thus not dissipate, but further intensify. Bigger battles must be pitched to demonstrate our firm resolve for free education.

Marjohara Tucay is the national president of Kabataan Partylist.

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TAGS: CHEd, Commission on Higher Education, education, Finland, Free Education, Free Tuition, Norway, Patricia Licuanan, Sweden
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