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Subsidizing public higher education

THE NATIONAL government long ago sought to bring higher education within reach of the people who need it most through state universities and colleges (SUCs), where the subsidized tuition enables a school like the Polytechnic University of the Philippines to charge a mere P12 per unit for its undergraduate programs. This has been so since 1972, when PUP first opened its halls to the public. Likewise, the University of the Philippines, the country’s most prestigious public school, charges P1,000 per unit, with scholarships, grants in aid, and limited student loan programs in place. (For the record, UP used to charge much less.)

At the budget plenary hearing for the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) and the SUCs last November, the notion of bringing quality education within reach of the poor must have resonated strongly among the senators that they moved for more money for the SUCs to cover undergraduate tuition for all students, regardless of social status.

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The national government is correct in saying that education is a public good. The CHEd’s reform agenda states that the twin strategic roles of higher education, as stated in the Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016, are “as an instrument of poverty alleviation and as a vehicle for technologically driven national development and global competitiveness.”

Higher education has historically been delivered by private enterprise on its own and with little or no government incentives; by and large it has done a great job. Forward-thinking business leaders have been heavily investing in private higher education institutions for several years now, and the qualitative improvements and their efforts in advancing postsecondary and tertiary education are becoming increasingly evident. Just consider Far

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Eastern University, University of the East, National University, Phinma and Malayan University, to name a few. The only drawback is affordability.

The average tuition is about P5,000 per unit. High-ranking schools will charge much more, of course, but the graduates and their families invariably say that the investment was well worth it.

That’s why the idea of nationally subsidized tuition for all SUCs really sounds exciting, especially now that it’s the election season. But like anything else involving education and learning, there is no magic bullet to solve problems.

The CHEd maintains: “In fact, the poor must be fully subsidized while those with the economic means to pay for their entire education many times over must share the cost of their education through the payment of tuition, differentiated by social class. In this way, the funds that would have gone to paying for the full tuition of these students could be spent instead in building the physical and human infrastructure for the quality higher education we all aspire for—and to date is still beyond our reach, given the uneven quality of higher education institutions in general and SUCs in particular.”

The casual observer would think that students who enroll in SUCs do so because they can’t afford to pay the tuition charged by private universities.

That may seem true, but the CHEd cites data from the 2014 Annual Poverty Indicator Survey: Only eight in 100 college-age students (17-24 years old) who are enrolled in SUCs came from the lowest 20 percent of the population, and 27 percent of the students in SUCs actually belonged to the top 20 percent.

Furthermore, a free-tuition policy in all SUCs will surely have a very adverse effect on private higher education institutions (HEIs). Says the CHEd:

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“While it is true that private higher education, like the SUCs system, is not homogeneous and is constituted by HEIs of uneven quality, it is also the case that this sector has not only educated the majority of today’s leaders and professionals but the country [also] continues to rely on a critical segment of its private HEIs for consistently providing quality education despite the lack of subsidy or incentives. A free tuition policy in SUCs without corresponding support to deserving private HEIs would be tantamount to a de facto state policy of cutting down private HEIs who may not survive both the exodus of students and faculty.”

Kevin Carey, the author of “The End of College,” said in his interview with National Public Radio: “Colleges are expensive because they can be, because they want to be and because they were built to be that way. The economy has changed so much, a lot of the blue-collar jobs have disappeared such that people can really only succeed and make a different kind of living if they have some kind of college credential. So if you’re in a position where you’re the only kind of organization that will sell those experiences and those credentials, then you have a lot of power over the market.”

As such, implementing a subsidized-tuition scheme for SUCs heavily in favor of the poor and differentiated by socioeconomic status makes excellent sense. Students enrolled in SUCs still shell out money for tuition and miscellaneous fees, anyway, so judiciously directing public funds where they’re needed most is clearly the right thing to do.

Says the CHEd: “At the end of the day, pro-poor and pro-quality investments in higher education, instead of an undifferentiated tuition policy, are better investments in the future of the Filipino nation and our people.”

Butch Hernandez ([email protected]) is the executive director of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: Commission on Higher Education, education, higher education, state universities and colleges
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