Failure of gov’t, not failure of students
The head of the Marcos administration’s economic team fired three bullet-words that were aimed at shooting down a program he claims is wasting public funds. The spending is “unwieldy, inefficient, and wasteful,” the official said. He could have hit the bullseye if he trained his guns at the billions in “confidential and intelligence funds.” But he ended up demonstrating poor marksmanship when he instead aimed his munitions at the free college education program of the government.
Department of Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno called for a review and overhaul of the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act (Republic Act No. 10931) last week. But if there’s any praiseworthy accomplishment of the Duterte administration, it is the passage of this law, which Diokno now belittles. The law has a very commendable objective—to give poor kids a chance to have a better future, by giving them access to free college education.
The free college education program grants students with free tuition and other school fees, including exemption from computers and laboratory fees and expenses for medical and dental services. These privileges are given to those enrolled in state universities and colleges, accredited local universities and colleges, and all technical-vocational training programs under the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority.
So what’s Diokno’s beef with the program? He claims that it’s a failure as supposedly shown by the rising dropout rate among students under the program. While he has not been quoted citing the basis of his claim, recent data from the Commission on Higher Education has reported that at least 40 percent of students during the pandemic stopped going to school.
Because of the dropout rate, Diokno has concluded that students are dropping out of college because of two reasons: 1. They lack interest in really earning a college degree, and; 2. They lack the brains to complete a college degree. The first reason is evident from Diokno’s statement that “[m]any are not interested in going to college, they just want better jobs.” The second reason is made manifest by his proposal that a “national examination” be required for students to qualify under the free college education program, on top of the entrance examinations required to qualify for their chosen school.
While Diokno may claim that he is only calling for a review, the assumptions of his call for review are wrong on so many fronts. First, he wrongly accuses students as the reason for the program’s perceived failure when, in reality, it is the government that has miserably failed students. From the beginning, the program has been plagued with serious implementation problems. There have been inadequate funds, limited number of students and schools who could avail of or tap the program, belated release of funds, nonimplementation of the student loan facility, among so many birth and bureaucratic pains. There is nothing wrong with the program, but there are so many things wrong with its implementation. Instead of calling for the law’s revision, Diokno should look into how the government should fully implement the text and spirit of the law in earnest.
Second, so many students drop out even with free tuition benefits, because they don’t have the money to pay for lodging, food, and transportation, to attend schools located outside their hometowns. This is the single biggest reason why college students drop out despite free tuition fees. Our government commits a terrible mistake if it thinks that merely giving free tuition will make poor kids stay in college, because living expenses are far bigger expenditures for impoverished college kids. This is the level of poverty that bedevils so many of our students. And this is a factual reality that can never be understood if one merely relies on cold numbers written in document summaries, and not dig dipper by talking and listening to the affected students. Moreover, the dropout rate has been immense because they cover years of the pandemic when the ranks of the impoverished multiplied tremendously.
Third, it’s lamentably wrong for Diokno to say that all that poor kids want are better jobs and not a college education. It amounts to saying that poor kids only aim for the money, and that they have no aspirations for greater dignity, a yearning for higher learning, and dreams of upward mobility, which are all associated with and facilitated by having a college education. And what better jobs can one have, without a college degree?
Education is the only ladder that provides an escape route for poor children to climb out of the pit deep hole of poverty. Instead of putting up hoops and hurdles, our government should dismantle all obstacles that prevent underprivileged kids from attaining college or vocational education.
Education is the only lifeline available to impoverished kids to have access to a better life. It’s the silver bullet that will shoot down everything that’s wrong in this country.
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