Mocha, Ariana, and free college education

Mocha Uson does not need an introduction.

But a rule in journalism is not to assume that a reader is familiar with a public figure. So, here’s a sketch of Mocha: an assistant secretary of Presidential Communications Operations, and a concurrent Facebook blogger who has 5.2 million likes, and an ex-movie actress who starred in Seksing Masahista, which perhaps presaged her current behavior of massaging the news.

Truth is, I use Mocha as a device to attract a wider audience — Mocha’s friends and foes alike — to read this piece.

Mocha, the Duterte loyalist is in the news again.

This time, she bashes the political opposition like Senator Bam Aquino for claiming the credit for the passage of the law on free college education in public schools. On social media, we witness a brawl between the Duterte fans and the political opposition about credit-grabbing.

This has prompted a pacifier like Tony La Viña — an academic, activist, and public intellectual — to give credit not only to those who support the law on free college education but to all stakeholders.

For Tony, the extreme Left, the bill’s authors, the Liberal Party, President Duterte, the House Speaker, the Senate President, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), the private educators, and many others deserve congratulations. Says Tony: “Chill everyone, rejoice!”

But here’s the rub: all the rejoicing (and the credit-grabbing) might be out of place.

What the majority (imagine, the combination of Duterte fans, political opposition, and those in between) think about free college education for all is not necessarily correct. And the economists who in many cases get their analysis wrong might be correct this time.

The economists, regardless of their philosophical leanings or political sympathies, basically agree that in a world (or in our society) with relative scarce resources, particularly low tax revenues and a constrained budget, a huge subsidy for free college education is unwise. Think of the opportunity cost. What is the alternative to spending the new money allocated for free college education to all? The estimates for funding free college education range from CHED Commissioner Popoy de Vera’s P34.1 billion to Budget Secretary Ben Diokno’s P100 billion. And this amount is a recurring expense and will get bigger over time. Whatever the realistic estimate is, the question is whether the said amount is best used for free college education for all or for, say, the improvement of basic education (K to 12) or the introduction of a primary health care system, which will entail the expansion of human resources and health care benefits.

The data from the 2014 Annual Poverty Indicators Survey (APIS) of the Philippine Statistics Authority show that only 12% of total enrollment in state universities and colleges (SUCs) comes from the poorest 20% of Filipino households. If we include the near poor (up to the fifth decile), 49% of those enrolled in SUCs, a little less than the majority, belongs to the 50% of Filipino households that are either poor or near poor. In other words, free college education in SUCs will be subsidizing the 51% of students who have the ability to pay, especially the 17% of the students in SUCs who belong to the richest ninth and tenth income deciles.

In this case, it is more equitable to use the bulk of the new money for services that will mainly benefit the poor — say K to 12 programs or public health programs. The argument to give resource priority to basic education gains more weight since it is the bedrock of higher education. Poor basic education results in ill-prepared students for tertiary education, Sadly, it is the poor who have a hard time meeting the standards for higher education, precisely because the preparatory work they get is inferior.

Thus from the perspective of equity and social justice, free tertiary education for all is a bad policy in the present context. By all means, provide full subsidy to the poor and deserving students. But giving full, unqualified subsidy to the rich, including the sons and daughters and apos of the “imbeciles” in Congress is inefficient… and immoral.

The law (Republic Act No. 10931) contains a clever but deceptive provision. Section 4 says: “All Filipino students who are either currently enrolled at the time of the effectivity of this Act, or shall enroll at any time thereafter, in courses in pursuance of a bachelor’s degree in any SUC and LUC [local university or college] shall be exempt from paying tuition and other school fees for units enrolled in… Provided, further, that all SUCs and LUCs shall create a mechanism to enable students with the financial capacity to pay for their education in the SUC and LUC to voluntarily opt out of the tuition and other school fees subsidy or make a contribution to the school.”

The law’s apologists will point that out — voluntary payment or contribution of those with capacity to pay — as the argument for equity. My response, using Facebook lingo, is: Hahaha!

The effect on inequity is abetted in the premiere state university: the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman. UP Diliman is becoming more and more an enclave of the rich.

I was told by a middle-class student from the UP School of Economics that the parking space in the school is filled with cars driven by students or their chauffeurs. Mind you, only six percent of Filipino families own a private vehicle. Worse, some of the students and their leaders are asking the school administration to build an air-conditioned lounge for their drivers. Again, hahaha!

Do we really want society to subsidize the education of these rich kids? The good news is, some children who belong to well to do families are enlightened. And here, I introduce Ariana. Who is Ariana? She is no Mocha, now a household name. But Ariana is more beautiful than Mocha and more importantly, far more intelligent than Mocha.

Ariana is an incoming sophomore at UP Diliman. She is a shy, low-key person, and for talking about her, I risk getting her ire. Ariana majors in Math, and in her last semester, she obtained a weighted average of 1.17. Hence, she is on track to get the highest honors. She drives a car to school; she gets to travel abroad frequently; she is an alumna of an exclusive school for girls. In short, she belongs to a well-off family who can afford UP education. Yet, Ariana opposes free education to all, even if she herself would benefit from it. Her friends think the same way. They favor the socialized tuition fee, wherein the poor get full subsidy while the rest pay based on their ability to pay.

But it is difficult to change the law. Reform-minded politicians will have to face the populist sentiments of voters.

So what can be done to minimize the damage? The crafting of the implementing rules and regulations of Republic Act No. 10931 is an opportunity to cure some aspects of the law. Put in place disciplining mechanisms such as having enrollment caps, having a standard competitive exam for SUCs, consolidating and rationalizing SUCs, introducing rigorous accreditation of SUCs, and the like. The premium must be in the quality of tertiary schooling, not the quantity.

In terms of the generation of resources, those populist politicians who voted for Republic Act No. 10931 must likewise be responsible and accountable in raising the revenue for the law’s implementation. They should support the comprehensive tax reform and introduce new tax measures.

It’s going to be a long fight though. I hope Ariana and the enlightened will be active in seeking the changes to make the whole educational system truly responsive to equity and social justice.

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

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