Free college education?

It is said that attachments or friendships are forever, and they remain so even when our loved ones have left us. We find ways to connect by way of reliving experiences, giving tributes, sharing stories about them, contemplating their lives, dreaming about them, or having imagined conversations with them.
Perhaps, as years pass, the act of remembering becomes less frequent, less intense. But the connection to the departed beloved is undiminished. A special occasion like an anniversary triggers the reliving of strong emotion.

I make this reflection not just because I still grieve over my wife Mae’s recent passing but also because I remember the death anniversary of dear friend Carlito Añonuevo who died nine years ago, on 4 February 2007, because of alcohol liver disease.

Tolits, since his teens, was a heavy drinker and heavy smoker. Rationalizing his bad habit, he often reminded us of Keynes’s famous words — “in the long run we are all dead.” Sadly, his drinking and smoking prevented him from reaching the long run.

Despite the circumstances of his death, Tolits lived a most honorable, most admirable life as a father, revolutionary civil society leader, economist, and professor. I have said my eulogy to Tolits, and I need not repeat it. But his death anniversary brings back some memories of his life.

His unconventional relationship with his wife Carol remains a favorite conversation piece of their friends. We, their friends, surmise that the couple expressed their love and admiration for each other by having arguments on issues that interest academics and activists.

I recall one such issue they debated several times — even during the time Tolits was confined at the hospital — was about whether government should fully subsidize college education for everyone. Surprisingly, the sickly Tolits would regain his energy when this topic was discussed.

I note that their spirited debate on free college education many years ago remains a controversial public policy debate.

Just before the 16th Congress Adjournment of Session in December 2015, many politicians were pushing for a bill providing free education in state colleges and universities (SCUs). The proposal will resurface in the future, especially in every election year.

Tolits firmly believed that college education, especially that of the premiere school, the University of the Philippines (UP), is necessarily elitist. A tiny percentile of high school graduates — the crème de la crème — is admitted to UP. UP cannot lower its standard to accommodate more students, for that undermines its raison d’etre, which is academic excellence. That means selecting the best, which in itself is elitism.

On another level, Tolits believed that it is unnecessary for all the youth to take up college education.

In prosperous neighboring countries — Singapore, for example — students are directed towards either universities or technical schools. Entrance to the universities is thus filtered through competitive and rigorous requirements. Again, this indicates elitism.

The point is, even without a university degree, as long as the whole education system is of high quality, it prepares students to get jobs, earn income, and face the real world. In addition, for countries that value equality, the income or wage differential between graduates of universities and technical schools is not widely disparate.

At the same time, Tolits emphasized that college education can never be totally free, even for SCUs. Three reasons, anchored on principle, pragmatism, and sound economics.

First, the benefits from college education are mainly private — that is, the gains accrue principally to those individuals who graduate. In that case, it is but reasonable and right for these individuals to share the cost of college education.

On the other hand, basic education is a public good. It is society as a whole, first and foremost, that benefits from basic education for all. Just imagine a situation where the poor do not have access to basic education. This will result in a mass of illiterate people, and everyone will be in a worse condition.

Note that the issue is not about subsidy to education. For even at the tertiary level, the state provides generous subsidies. The UP system, which is generally made up of students from the middle and upper classes, is highly subsidized.

Second, resources are limited.

Especially in the Philippines, the tax effort remains low, notwithstanding the recent gains in generating revenues. Where to get the money for free college education is unanswered. This is the same dilemma that government faces when it grapples with the proposal to increase the pension for social security without the identification of where the resources will come from.

More to the point, one must consider how the scarce resources can be equitably and efficiently allocated. At present, the demand for public goods like universal health care, primary education, and justice — to name some — remain underfunded. Where should be the priority — subsidy that will mainly benefit the individual, and to a great extent, the non-poor, or funding that directly benefits society in general and the poor in particular?

Third, free education in SCUs will have the unintended effect of upending the education system, specifically threatening the very existence of private schools, the main provider of college education. The change in prices, so to speak, arising from free college education in SCUs will lead to a massive shift in enrollment from private institutions to public schools. In turn, that will mean a skyrocketing of government expenditures for the SCUs, which ultimately will be unsustainable.

Carol has been accustomed to the German way of life, having worked for a long time in an international educational and cultural institution based in Hamburg. In arguing with Tolits, she said that the Philippines can follow the Germany system where college education is free.

Surely in an ideal world, society can aspire for free college education. But the situation in the Philippines is vastly different from Germany. Germany has the resources, which we do not have. Germany is a mature social welfare state, funded mainly though high and progressive taxation. Again, this is not the Philippine case.

And as Tolits pointed out, not all German students enter the university, for many of them pursue the vocational or technical stream. In the Philippines, the norm is to get a college degree, even if such degree is unnecessary for many jobs.

I have no idea whether Tolits was able to convince Carol in this debate. But I do hope, as I commemorate Tolits’s death anniversary, that his ideas will resonate in the public sphere and influence public policy.

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.

www.aer.ph

This article was first posted on BusinessWorld last February 9, 2016
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