SQUEEZE Campus Watch

How Free is Free Tertiary Education?

Brian Carpio

By: Brian Carpio | Squeeze | Published August 10, 2017 | Updated December 10, 2017



In another unprecedented move, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Republic Act (R.A.) No. 10931, or the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act. Congress supra-majority, opposition liberals and traditional conservatives, in a cockpit-like rumble, quickly argued who among them should take major credit for the act. Congress’ progressive partylists, together with their mass organizations, also lauded the enactment but called for vigilance in ensuring adequate allocation for free tertiary education. The state’s propaganda machine drew the most euphoric of euphorias. News anchors, radio commentators, social media pundits, with such ease, joined the bandwagon praises.

Interestingly, conservatives and anti-progressive commentators, with perverse contempt, berated them who have for decades campaigned and struggled for free and quality education at all levels. Student activists, student councils and federations, and the student movement at large were told to stop from doing their radical political activities and to now focus on their studies because tertiary education is now free for all. But is it really free for all?

Before examining the contents of the law, it would be best to explain first how policy laws are implemented. First, the Implementing Rules and Regulation (IRR) must be created by agencies concerned. For this law, the IRR is the responsibility of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED). Second, sufficient budget must be allotted for the full implementation of the program. As we all know, a policy without adequate budget cannot be properly implemented.


The Free Tertiary Education law contains four (4) distinct provisions:

1) Free tuition and other school fees for all State Universities and Colleges (SUCs) and Local Universities and Colleges (LUCs);

2) Free Technical-Vocational Education in Post-Secondary Technical-Vocational Institutions (TVIs) under TESDA;

3) Tertiary Education Subsidy (TES) for Filipino students; and

4) Student Loan Program (SLP) for tertiary education.


Section 4 of the said law mandates that all Filipino students who are either currently enrolled or will enroll shall be exempt from paying tuition and other school fees. However, the law also requires that certain mechanisms be established before it can be implemented:

1) The students must pass the entrance examination and admission and retention requirements;

2) SUCs and LUCs shall create a mechanism to enable rich students to pay for their education or voluntarily contribute to the school; and

3) The Board of Regents of SUCs and the Board of Trustees of LUCs shall determine the amount needed to implement the Free Tertiary Education.

We all know that currently, students, even without the benefit of passing the admission tests, can enter SUCs and LUCs if not only because of the typical “palakasan” system, among others. To put it more bluntly, most SUCs opt to allow or provide greater ease for student admissions in order to augment the hurdles of financial deficiencies caused by low and inadequate government subsidies. To further illustrate this, if an SUC needs Php 300 million as government subsidy to accommodate 20,000 students, but the government can only provide Php 200 million, then the SUC resorts to finding other means to generate income and other sources. Aside from Income Generating Projects (IGPs), the most efficient yet anti-student source of income would be an increase and imposition of student tuition and other school fees. Hence, a lenient admission policy is put in place. This is also a marked reason why SUCs bloat their student population, with a stratospheric populace of 50-60 students per class. The more students, the more tuition and other school fees shall be collected. Such a move only requires board approval and not the tedious budgetary process of the DBM. The collected fees will be entered in the SUCs’ trust fund.

But with the new provisions stipulated in the said law, SUCs will be constrained to accommodate fewer students, depending on the fixed budget to be allocated by the government.

Take Bulacan State University (BulSU) as an example. With a current population of 35,000, and an average student tuition and other fees of Php 7,000, BulSU needs Php 490 million in government subsidy for one school year. Remember that last year, the government did provide free tuition funds. However, it is a meager Php 8.3 billion, of which BulSU has only a share of Php 178 million.


But taking into account that (1) this law was passed after the submission of Malacanang’s National Expenditure Program (NEP) – bereft of free tuition provision, (2) DBM Secretary Bejamin Diokno made a pronouncement that “there shall be no expansion in student population,” and (3) CHED Commissioner Prospero De Vera III suggested to SUCs to defer acceptance of transferees, it can be inferred that the budget to be allotted will be insufficient for the presently enrolled and enrolling students.

What will happen then to those students who will not be able to reach the cut in free tuition? Provision number 2 comes into play: “SUCs and LUCs shall create a mechanism to enable rich students to pay for their education or voluntarily contribute to the school.” Even though it is intended for the rich to magnanimously contribute to the school, the current dilemma of low state subsidy will turn this mechanism to a platform which will see no rich or poor students, but everyone who cannot make it to the requirements of free tertiary education must and will pay.

SUCs may use this mechanism to raise the tuition and other fees for students who will voluntary contribute. Further, SUCs may use this logic to establish a mechanism of “socializing” tuition and other school fees by “stratifying” students according to their “ability to pay.” This same logic has been used for the longest time by the University of the Philippines (UP) to justify its implementation of the Socialized Tuition System (STS) which has pegged undergraduate tuition to Php 1,500 per unit.


Section 6 provides that students who (1) already have a bachelor’s degree, (2) failed to comply with admission and retention policies, and (3) failed to complete their degree within a year after the prescribe period of their program are disqualified or ineligible to avail the free tuition and other school fees.

However, while the rich may enter state schools by voluntarily paying for their tuition and school fees under a mechanism and rate to be determined by SUCs (and hopefully will be regulated by the IRR), this poses a threat to students who will be disqualified from availing the full subsidy. They will most likely be forced (1) to enter the voluntarily payment scheme, (2) to be subsumed under a socialized tuition system, or (3) to drop out and discontinue their studies.


Before this Free Tertiary Education Law, in 2015, R.A. No. 10687, or the The Unified Student Financial Assistance System (UniFAST) Act, was signed by President Benigno Aquino III. The said Iskolar ng Bayan Law aims to create a centralized national government-funded Student Financial Assistance with three modalities: (1) Scholarship Program, (2) Grant-in-Aid, and (3) National Student Loan Program. It establishes a seven-member Board to supervise the modalities.

However, UniFAST has not been fully implemented since 2016 due to the usual and common administrative problems of CHED and the UniFAST Board.

The Grant-in-Aid and the National Student Loan Program modalities are analogous to the Tertiary Education Subsidy (TES) and Student Loan of the newly-passed law. Interestingly, TES and the Student Loan Program are also under the UniFAST Board. Whether these will be merged, only the IRR can answer.

If a student is not too rich to afford the “voluntary” mechanism of SUCs and not too poor to get subsidy from the TES, Section 8 of the law establishes the Student Loan Program.

This can be availed by students who want to enroll in SUCs, LUCs, and private HEIs and TVIs. The student loan may be short-term or long-term, and may be availed for a student’s undergraduate course, further graduate studies including law and medicine, and review programs for licensure examination. But nothing comes without a price. Just like any other loan program, the Student Loan Program has a repayment scheme with an interest rate yet to be determined.

Repayment will commence once the student secures any gainful employment, regardless if the student is underemployed, self-employed or luckily employed, as long as his or her finances reach the Compulsory Repayment Threshold (CRT), which, again, is to be determined. The amount due will be added to future deductions of the future employee’s Social Security System (SSS) or Government Insurance Security System (GSIS) contribution.

History, however, reveals the dread that student loan programs have caused many students. In 2015 and 2016, students in the United States and Europe marched against the crippling student debts incurred thru student loans. In the Philippines, there are no sufficient jobs after graduation. The minimum wage is not enough and there is no job security. Debts incurred thru loans will eventually burden individuals, delaying or hindering the achievement of major milestones, such as but not limited to building a home or starting a business. With SUCs and PHEIs unregulated in raising tuition and other school fees, student loans, like any other loans, will be a debt trap for an individual and a debt crisis for the country.


The free tertiary education law, aside from “subsidizing” tuition and all school fees, also provides for the creation of the Tertiary Education Support for Filipino Students program. The said funding program aims to give support to students for (1) tuition and other school fees in Private Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and private of LGU-operated TVIs, (2) allowance for books, supplies, transporation and personal expenses, including but not limited to rental or purchase of a personal computer or laptop, (3) board and lodging allowance, (4) allowance for students with disability, and (5) one-time cost for obtaining professional licenses or credentials.

However, this will not be given to all. The number of beneficiaries will be determined according to the budget allocation. If in case Php 1 billion will be provided, this will be divided to 28 million students, which is merely a meager amount per student. Thus, a prioritization mechanism will be set. Students from households included in the Listahan 2.0 and students not in the list will be ranked according to their income. These shall all be determined by the UniFAST board.


Students should clap then have their shoulders shrugged: thank the government but remain critical with the budget allotment. DBM Secretary Diokno estimated that the law needs Php 100 billion in order to be implemented. This was his reason for wanting the law to be vetoed. However, CHED Commissioner De Vera repudiated Diokno’s estimate and said the the Free Tuition Law only needs Php 34 billion.

However, with the grandeur of the programs envisioned, Diokno’s estimate is the nearest needed amount for the law’s full implementation. If student councils and organizations would want to condemn the DBM Secretary, it should not be because of the stratospheric amount he estimated, but because Diokno does not want the government to provide the Php 100 billion to tertiary education. It can only be surmised that if the Diokno-estimated Php 100 billion or the De Vera-estimated Php 34 billion will not be allotted next academic year, free tuition and other school fees, and TES and student loans, will not be fully provided. At the rate things are going, students will be lucky if the budget allocation would include full tuition and other school fees subsidies.

However, if the needed budget is provided, the vigilance of students should be set on the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR). This document will operationalize the law. Remember the current Php 8.3 billion Free Tuition Subsidy (FTS) for AY 2017-2018? The FTS states that free tuition shall be provided to all, however, the IRR requires prioritization.

And even if students get a favorable IRR for the Free Tertiary Education Law, the objective of the law itself is a cause to retain vigilance and militancy. The government may have a new law, but the neoliberal Roadmap to Public Higher Education Reform (RPHER) remains a guide for the government in continuously commercializing and maintaining the colonial character of the country’s education system. Vigilance and militant actions should not stop until the education system, not only the education budget, is progressively transformed. #

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