Some good news; Can there be more?


At the onset of the Christmas and New Year holidays, probably the gladdest and most welcome news, particularly for poor families, is that for at least 1.4 million students in 114 state universities and colleges (SUCs) across the nation, tuition will be free in 2017.

An editorial of the Philippine Daily Inquirer notes that the news came “like a trumpet blast heralding tidings of comfort and joy.” It deems free tuition as “ a great equalizer and game changer, an open door to more opportunities and choices, starting with good job prospects.” Free tuition, it concludes, is part of the “inclusive right [to education] for Filipino children.”

And from the youth comes a commentary by the Kabataan Partylist president, Marjohara Tucay. She hails the free tuition as “a fundamental policy change, a paradigm shift which signals the beginning of the reversal of the longstanding dogma in government – that college education is mainly a private pursuit.” She calls on private universities and colleges to lower their tuition. “A new mindset must set in,” she urges, “one that stops treating education as commodity and students as customers.”

Yet the free-tuition move addresses only one aspect of the many problems in the country’s public education system, both the editorial and the commentary emphasize. Other school fees and incidental expenses remain burdensome, particularly for students from poor families. Attention is also called to the poor campus premises and facilities, and even the relatively low qualification of teachers in “a good number of SUCs” that hardly make them excellent centers of learning.” (It needs pointing out, however, that such conditions may be attriubuted to the annual cuts in funding for the SUCs by the national government in the past many years.)

Moreover, the free tuition in SUCs for 2017 isn’t an official Duterte government design. Nor is it mandated by a specific legislation. None of the five pending bills in the Senate for this purpose has been passed. At this point, it isn’t clear whether free tuition will continue in the succeeding years, unless it will be so legislated or specifically included in the annual general appropriation/budget bills.

It’s an unexpected bonanza for SUC students. It emerged, as Tucay aptly points out, from an “eleventh-hour decision” – by the bicameral (Senate-House) conference committee on the 2017 national budget – to realign to the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) P8.3 billion in DPWH allocation for projects in the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao.

Reason: Sen. Panfilo Lacson, whose team had scrutinized the budget bill, disclosed the P8.3 billion was a pork-barrel fund that lawmakers had sneakily inserted in the DPWH budget, in violation of the Supreme Court 2013 ruling declaring as unconstitutional the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel. There are more such hidden items that should be identified and excised, he said. These should be realigned to fund social services such as education, health, housing.

Thus, Tucay correctly points out: “We should not mistake this move as a sheer result of the benevolence of senators or government, for without the decades-long struggle for the right to education, free tuition will not even be in the public discourse. The blood, sweat and tears of generations of student activists and progressive movements led the foundation for this pivotal moment.” She enjoined the students to push onward their struggle for their right to free education.

A lesser source of joy, but nonetheless welcomed by two million retirees receiving pensions from the Social Security System, is the approval by the 17th Congress of a joint resolution that shall increase their monthly pensions by P1,000 in January 2017 and by another P1,000 in January 2022. But a countermove by President Duterte’s economic managers threatens to burden current SSS members by pressing for an increase in the premiums they pay to augment the pension fund from which the two-stage P2,000 pension hike will be sourced.

One of the joint resolution authors, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate, opposes the countermove and urges the economic managers to desist from playing the Grinch this Christmas: “Stop scaring the people, especially the President, with this phantom adverse effect once the current pension is increased.” He recalls that SSS Chair Amado Valdez assured the House and the Senate that “raising the membership premium is the least, even last, of (our) options.” Under the SSS charter, Valdez said, the government could subsidize the pension fund. In fact, the SSS charter mandates the President, or Congress, to augment the fund whenever it’s in danger of running out.

Seconding Zarate, former Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares recalls that in 2001 the SSS declared that the pension fund could only last for five years. Yet, he adds, the SSS was able to extend, in just 14 years, the fund’s life until 2042. “If it previously survived a five-year fund life, then surely it can also survive a 14-year life,” he concludes, recalling that when former President Noynoy Aquino vetoed in 2015 his (Colmenares’) bill raising the pension by P2,000, P-Noy claimed that approving the bill would bankrupt the fund by 2027.

President Duterte must tell his economic managers to read the SSS charter carefully and adhere to its mandate: to serve the interest and welfare of private sector employees, both active and retired.

And on two other issues – abrogating the Visiting Forces Agreement and releasing about 400 political prisoners – Duterte can do much good by acting promptly and decisively. He has repeatedly threatened to abrogate the VFA in protest against US interventionism and in line with his declared “independent foreign policy.” Releasing the prisoners will be in compliance with previously signed agreements in the GRP-NDFP peace talks, which the GRP panel has reaffirmed. Doing so will also accelerate the pace of the peace negotiations that he wants pursued and completed during his term.

“Just do it!” his friends prod him. Will he? Abangan!

Merry Christmas!

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Published in The Philippine Star
Dec. 24, 2016

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