Right to Free Higher Education?

The idea of a university as a community (universitas) of scholars and teachers who come together in academic freedom to pursue truth is valid – at least conceptually – for all higher educational institutions in the Philippines, be they public or private. What separates higher education from basic education is the level of instruction that is “higher” than what is deemed basic for all, and the constitutionally protected academic freedom with which the HEI conducts its instruction, pursues its research and serves its community. In academic freedom truth is pursued and critical minds molded in an arena that is not pre-determined by ideology, religious belief or pragmatism. Concepts crucial for human life on this earth such as “God,” “nature,” “humanity,” “development,” “utility,” “happiness,” “human flourishing” and “the common good” are discussed and debated in higher education, even as knowledge and skills pertinent to professions are imparted. In the higher education arena the pros and cons of the global economic system and the nation’s participation in or abstention from it is fair game for serious enquiry. More important than the essential budgets that are used for the university operations are the members of the university community that pursue and share truth through their special competencies and skills wisely. These competencies are priceless. To be part of a functioning university community is invaluable.

The Constitution says: “The State shall protect and promote the right of all citizens to quality education at all levels and shall take appropriate steps to make such education accessible to all“ (Art. XIV, Sec. 1). Consequently: “The state shall: (1) establish, maintain, and support a complete, adequate and integrated system of education relative to the needs of the people and society; (2) establish and maintain a system of free public education in the elementary and high school levels. Without limiting the natural right of parents to rear their children, elementary education is compulsory for all children of school age” (Art. XIV, Sec. 2).

Recognizing the right of all to education on all levels, education is to be accessible to all. But access to education at all levels does not guarantee free education. The Constitution provides free education only on the elementary and high school levels. Pertinent to higher education, the Constitution says, “every citizen has the right to choose a profession or course of study subject to fair and equitable admission and academic requirements” (Art. XIV, Sec. 5, par.3). Among the admission requirements may be appropriate intellectual skills and integrity, but also the responsibility to pay for the cost of higher education. Though all may have access to it, higher education de facto may in itself not be for all. Unlike basic education, it is not compulsory. It may be beneficial to individuals and society, but not required nor appropriate for all.   Wherever higher education is free, it is a privilege, not a right.

Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian of Valenzuela understands the benefits of higher education. It can pull individuals and families dramatically out of poverty. It can give the country greater competitiveness in the current global shift towards knowledge economies. From this, however, he concludes: “given the individual and social advantages of higher education it would be greatly beneficial to the Philippines if higher education would be given the same level of importance as basic education and secondary education. This would mean implementing a simple but revolutionary education reform – the institutionalization of tuition free tertiary education.” His HB 5905 therefore would institute “tuition-free tertiary education in state universities and colleges (SUCs)” to “increase access to the Philippine higher education system” just as in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Brazil and Chile.”

He therefore proposes a fund of 10.5 billion pesos to be administered by the CHED to exempt “all Filipino citizens who are either currently enrolled at the time of the effectivity of this Act, or shall enroll at any time thereafter … from paying tuition fees for any units enrolled in any state universities or colleges…”(Sec 3).

The proposal is revolutionary and thought provoking. But possibly reckless. In our state universities and colleges, which are supported by public funds, why should tuition which is the lifeblood of private education be being charged at all? Why should tuition at the University of the Philippines be higher than the average tuition of HEIs in Metro Manila, even if there is a creative scheme of socializing tuition in place, requiring those who can afford it to pay full tuition, and allocating tuition discounts to those who can pay it less? Under CHED’s normative funding scheme, “maintenance and other operating expense” budgets are determined by levels of performance according to CHED norms that may offend against academic freedom. Be that as it may, performance is also a matter of funding. Critics of the policy have pointed out that the policy drives tuition of SUCs up in less performing universities that need the funds to better perform. In lower performing SUCs, students must then pay more to enjoy its relatively low level of quality.

So is this the tuition that Rep. Gatchalian now wants legislation to pay for? Because of the unmanageable number of students who want higher education through SUCs, the SUCs began charging tuition in the first place – just as private universities and colleges charge tuition who have no access to public money. Wouldn’t the free tuition drive students all the more to the SUCs and therefore drive the state budget for free tuition far beyond the 10.3 billion that Rep. Gatchalian thinks can free SUCs from tuition payment? The effect of course on private universities would be devastating. They would eventually lose their students and their faculties to the state schools. They would close. The country would be left with an all-state higher education system.

If the country wants this – as Rep. Gatchalian points out is obtaining in developed economies of Denmark, Sweden and Germany – it must decide for it for the long term and allow private universities to phase out. Personally, I believe a monolithic all-state higher-education system would be prone to inefficiency, complacency, corruption and decline. The private university plays a vital and complementary role to the public university.

There is no right to free higher education. Higher education in itself is a privilege. And free higher education is a greater privilege.

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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