In a week marked by hyperbole in this season of holiday cheer, the news that students will no longer have to pay tuition in state universities and colleges (SUCs) comes like a trumpet blast heralding tidings of comfort and joy.
It’s good news made possible by the infusion of P8.3 billion to the P10-billion budget of the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) for 2017.
The appropriation will cover the tuition of over 1.4 million students in 114 SUCs in the country, including the University of the Philippines, but not other expenses such as dormitory fees. Indigent students can, however, avail themselves of aid for miscellaneous fees under various programs and scholarship grants.
Sen. Bam Aquino, chair of the Senate committee on education, arts and culture, describes the free tuition as a “major reform” that would “take care of about 30 to 40 percent of students’ total costs on average.”
The free tuition is definitely a big boost to impoverished students, especially those from families covered by the government’s conditional cash transfer program. Beyond the government’s free public high school, college remains mostly an aspiration walled out by high costs. And yet it is a great equalizer and game-changer, an open door to more opportunities and choices, starting with good job prospects.
CHEd has yet to meet with the budget department and the Senate to iron out the details and implementing guidelines on disbursing the additional budget, but what is clear is that such a huge amount needs judicious spending and a clear understanding of realities. For one, a good number of SUCs are hardly excellent centers of learning, with their premises and facilities, even their teachers, more often than not poor cousins to private institutions.
They need a retrofit, as it were, for the expected influx of new students. For another, the expected flurry of education transactions requires nothing less than a purposeful and transparent action plan.
Ensuring transparency is surely part of raising the bar in the long-neglected education sector. And so is a more inclusive view of what it takes to make education a universal right of the Filipino youth. Tuition is, after all, just one of the major obstacles that Filipino students must face on their way to school.
Inadequate and outdated infrastructure also act as barriers to enrollment and school participation, including the lack of transport and roads and bridges in remote areas that make going to school literally a high-wire act: Children have to cross—single file, holding their bundled school uniform on their head—a narrow pole of bamboo or a taut rope strung high over churning rivers. Walking two to three hours to get to school is as commonplace in other areas where school buildings are located only in town centers.
The lack of adequate sanitary facilities and water for hygiene can be a deterrent as well, as it impacts on health and, among girls of puberty age, could be a source of distress.
Then there’s the matter of classrooms, with young students making do with tents, trees, open fields and dilapidated structures that make learning and concentration an everyday trial. Dilapidated classrooms also need refurbishing or upgrading to acceptable minimum standards for learning. The lack of books, teaching materials, and computers to make IT skills part of every student’s learning process is another factor that prevents Filipino students from becoming as competitive as their Asian counterparts. Last year, the World Economic Forum ranked the Philippines 86th out of 140 countries in terms of primary education and health.
These are needs, actually a wish list, that the P8.3 billion infusion to the CHED budget cannot cover. But these are part of the whole package, the enabling mechanism that will make education—from primary to high school and college—an enticing prospect, a reachable goal and, thanks to the free tuition, an inclusive right for Filipino children.
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