by Argyll Cyrus Geducos and Hannah Torregoza
President Duterte said he will decide on Congress’ proposal to grant tuition-free education in all state universities and colleges (SUCs) before the deadline.
He said this after Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno suggested to the President to veto the bill, saying the government cannot afford to shoulder its cost estimated to be around P100 billion.
Duterte confirmed that the proposal is already on his table and he will decide on it before the bill lapses on August 4.
Amid speculations the bill could be vetoed, senators on Thursday called on the President’s economic managers to help them find a solution to kick-start the free tuition in SUCs once it is signed into a law.
The proposed Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act was submitted to the President on July 5, 2017. It will automatically lapse into a law if the President fails to act on it until today, the 30th day since its submission to his office.
“It’s on my table. I will decide before the deadline,” Duterte said.
SENATORS APPEAL FOR SUBSIDY
Senator Nancy Binay said the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) should help the Senate find ways to initially subsidize the tuition of students in SUCs, saying the Senate is committed to allocate P15 billion for its implementation under the proposed P3.77-trillion 2018 national budget.
“We, in the Senate, are seriously committed in realizing every Filipino family’s aspiration of a free college education. We promise to find ways to allot P15 billion in the 2018 national budget,” Binay said in a statement.
“The DBM can help the Senate in finding a mathematical solution to initially kick-start the Free Higher Education Act without affecting other priority programs of the administration,” she said.
She said the DBM’s statement that the government cannot afford to fund free college education is obscure and out of sight.
“The Senate was able to make it possible to give P8-billion in the 2017 budget. I hope the free tuition fee measure won’t come to a dead end just because the DBM says there’s no funding for it,” Binay added.
Sen. Paolo “Bam” Aquino IV also said Sen. Loren Legarda, Senate Finance Committee chief, has also committed to look for funding under the 2018 budget to finance the bill.
“So we won’t have to worry about where to find funds for its implementation,” Aquino said in a radio interview.
Besides, he said the free college education will need a budget of P25 billion – not P100 billion as claimed by the DBM.
“Based on the Senate’s computation we would only need P25 billion, DBM’s estimate is too high,” he said.
Other senators hoping for its passage include Senators Sherwin Gatchalian and Ralph Recto and Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero, Senate Education Committee chief.
If passed into law, students in SUCs, local universities and colleges (LUCs) and vocational schools under the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) will be able to avail themselves of free tuition starting the second semester of school year 2017-18.
Aside from tuition fees, the government will also shoulder miscellaneous and other fees.
“Every parent is praying that the President would finally sign the free higher education bill. I hope the President does not veto the measure. We can’t just give up without giving it a try. Sayang naman ang nasimulan na natin,” Binay said.
Binay said little sacrifices and small realignments in the 2018 national budget can redound to huge positive steps towards the administration’s goal of free tertiary education.
Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Assistant Secretary Ana Marie Banaag on Thursday said Duterte would first meet with his economic managers on the bill.
She also said during Thursday morning’s Palace press briefing that everybody wants to pass this bill but there are many things to consider.
“Of course, sino ba’ng may ayaw sana [na maipasa]? But if and when may mga advise na mahihirapan ang ating pamahalaan (there are pieces of advice that it would be hard for the government) to cope up with it then he would consider that,” Banaag said.
“The President had always wanted to give a comfortable life. It had always been reflected sa mga programa ng ating Pangulo (in the President’s projects),” she added.
According to Banaag, Duterte still has to consider other things that the government has to spend money for, particularly the rehabilitation of Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, which became the battleground between the government troops and terrorists since May 23, 2017.
“We’ve got lots of problems especially with the rehabilitation of Marawi and problems about OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) who will be brought home,” she said.
“Maraming gastos, kaya nga nire-reconsider din namin (There are many things we have to spend money for that’s why we are considering the bill),” she added.
Banaag also said that Diokno’s recommendation to the President to veto the bill will also be one of the factors that Duterte will consider.
“The President will reconsider gaya ng sinabi niya kahapon (Just like what he said on Wednesday). We don’t know yet, we cannot comment on that yet as early as now. But the President will take that into consideration,” she said.
Meanwhile, Makabayan congressmen believe that President Duterte’s economic advisers are once again pulling everybody’s leg regarding their claim that the government simply can’t afford to implement Congress’ proposed free higher education bill.
As such, the militant lawmakers slammed in a press conference Thursday at the House of Representatives the alleged advice of these advisers, led by Diokno, for Duterte to veto the measure.
“We have already proven that government can provide funds to make free higher education possible when Congress allocated P8.3 billion for free tuition in the 2017 budget,” ACT-Teacher Party-List Rep. Antonio Tinio said.
“Just like the SSS (Social Security Service) pension hike which they said would bankrupt the government, they are making the same excuse again,” said Bayan Muna Party-List Rep. Carlos Zarate.
“They said they can’t fund this, that is not true,” he added as he pointed to the ballyhooed – and costly – Build, Build, Build infrastructure project of the Duterte administration. (With a report from Ellson A. Quismorio)