Free education in peril
In a country where a framed diploma on the wall takes pride of place in most households, the deep slash of P11.6 billion in the 2020 budget of the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) cuts deep, and may well spell doom for the dream of many ordinary Filipino families to scale the economic ladder through a college degree by their children.
From the 2019 CHEd budget of P52.43 billion, the government has proposed a P40.78-billion allocation for next year, or a cut of 23 percent.
The cut, announced last week, represents “a ticket to a forced vacation for many public and private college students” who had banked on the government’s promise of free tuition starting this school year, said Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto in a statement, referring to the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (UAQTE) that President Duterte signed on Aug. 3, 2017.
About 80 percent of the CHEd budget is allotted for the implementation of UAQTE, a measure that guarantees free tuition and miscellaneous fees for college students in 112 state universities and colleges (SUCs) across the country.
More than 600,000 college students currently enrolled in educational institutions — representing 20 percent of the 3.2 million students enrolled in universities and colleges nationwide — would be adversely affected by the cuts, warned Sen. Joel Villanueva.
The cuts would jeopardize as well the continued schooling of 175,260 students under the Student Financial Assistance Program, 1,932 medical scholars, and up to 199,920 students who benefit from the Tertiary Education Subsidy in public universities. Those benefits include financial assistance for books, transportation, room and board, and other education-related expenses given the students starting June 2018.
Massive layoffs of personnel, including teachers, can also be expected, as the skimpy budget will force SUCs to make do with limited resources. And teachers seem to be the most expendable, as the Philippines seems to have made a habit of shipping them off as domestics to distant shores.
The budget cut is a dispiriting letdown from the euphoria that greeted the free education measure when Mr. Duterte signed it. The law was widely hailed by politicians as a “lasting legacy” of the Duterte administration, and a “great equalizer that gives the poor the means to improve their lot.”
Alas, “the strong pillar of the President’s social development policy,” as former deputy executive secretary (now Justice Secretary) Menardo Guevarra had described the free tuition law, quickly swayed and buckled under the weight of the dubious priorities defined by the P4.1 trillion 2020 budget.
Slashing the CHEd budget comes on the heels of the disturbing downgrading of the Department of Education’s budget for more classrooms and more teachers. The DepEd wants to construct some 65,000 more classrooms and hire 43,000 more teachers. But the agency secured funding for only 8,000 classrooms and as many teachers.
What then is the point of adding several more levels in the country’s educational system through the K-to-12 curriculum, supposedly to upgrade the country’s academic standards and make Filipino graduates more competitive in the global market, when there aren’t enough classrooms and teachers to help shape these students into the best and the brightest?
The country’s 800,000 public school teachers have been feeling the pinch as well, as the raise promised them by Mr. Duterte has remained just that, while the salaries of policemen and soldiers have almost doubled in recent years.
But then again, the cut in CHEd’s budget is not entirely surprising, given that the health department earlier saw the P15.9-billion budget for its Health Facilities Enhancement Program also trimmed by two-thirds, leaving it only P5.9 billion for its overcrowded hospitals that are heroically trying to cope with the simultaneous outbreaks of measles, dengue and polio.
Meanwhile, the Office of the President is asking for a bloated P8.2-billion budget for next year, 21 percent more than this year’s allocation, most of which would be funneled into confidential and intelligence funds. Lawmakers, on the other hand, have allotted themselves P100 million each—pork by any other name that, with 299 members of the House, amounts to P29.9 billion of taxpayer money.
It’s not too late for the administration’s supermajority in Congress to restore the cuts in the budget allotted to education and other social services, and show, for once, that its sense of priority is in order. Well, is it?
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