Rich kids to get free tuition courtesy of poor Muslim families

The re-distribution in the 2017 budget of Php8 billion worth of funds from poor Muslim communities to provide free tuition to state university students constitutes a perverse outcome.

Youth representatives hail it as a “game-changer”. A progressive triumph over “neoliberal” state policies. They are referring to the re-alignment by the Senate of funds meant for infrastructure and school buildings in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to the Commission on Higher Education (CHED). This move will provide free tuition to scholars at state universities and colleges across the country.

Senator Panfilo Lacson questioned why the said funds were taken out of the ARMM budget and placed under the DPWH by congressmen. He said this was in contravention of the ARMM Organic Act, which prevents a national agency like DPWH from implementing a project in the autonomous region. The ARMM has its own public works agency.

Lacson was contesting Php13.105 billion worth of funds. They are split into PHp8.3 billion and Php2.6 billion listed public works projects, Php705 million for school building programs, and Php500 million for design and feasibility studies. These were all meant to be implemented by DPWH-ARMM.

Lacson saw the withdrawal of these amounts from the ARMM budget and insertion into the national DPWH budget as a form of congressional earmarks or pork barrel by congressmen from the south. As a result of Lacson’s protests, the Senate Finance committee led by Sen. Loren Legarda decided to re-allocate Php8.3 billion to the CHED. This was done rather than the obvious choice of re-instating the said amounts back to the ARMM budget.

Sen. Sonny Angara confirmed in a tweet that the Senate had passed the measure endorsed by the senate finance committee. Several senators including Messrs. Angara, Bam Aquino, and Ralph Recto have filed bills in the senate to make tertiary courses at state universities and college tuition free. The re-distribution of the contested money means that at least for one year, their objectives would be met.

Sen. Legarda has promised to institutionalize the free tuition scheme at places like the University of the Philippines (UP), which already has a socialized tuition scheme in place. UP is increasingly becoming  the domain of rich kids. What this could mean is that a well-to do student at UP will be fully subsidized by taxpayers, in 2017 at least.

That this should happen at the expense of  the nation’s poorest communities is a travesty. It represents a transfer from the poorest to the less poor, middle income and upper income households in the Philippines. An act of political opportunism by congressmen from districts in the south has inadvertently benefited the political fortunes of senators in the north.

Perverse outcome

This constitutes an inequitable redistribution of resources, a perverse outcome, that will possibly lead to unintended consequences. One consequence of making SUCs tuition free would be that enrollments in them will probably spike in coming years. Students with the capacity to enroll in private colleges will decide to enroll at public institutions to take advantage of free tuition. This will stretch the budgets of SUCs further to deal with increased demand.

Of course, the legislators who made this happen won’t be blamed for such an outcome. They will simply blame the bureaucrats. And what of the voiceless, hapless people of Muslim Mindanao? Well I suppose they are so used to being neglected by Imperial Manila anyway. This latest act of neglect and indifference won’t even register with them. They won’t know what they have lost. The families of university kids on the other hand will fully appreciate what they have gained.

It is strange. If Sen. Lacson’s views on the funds were true, then there should have been howls of protest from the congressmen whose projects the senate has pinched. That has not happened. We haven’t heard one peep from anyone questioning this (one could argue populist) move. One might say that some families in ARMM will benefit from the senate’s budget insertions. True, but then what is the college participation rate in the ARMM? Probably much lower than it is in Metro Manila, Cebu, and Davao. And that is where true inequity lies.

Poor Muslim communities to go without so that rich kids going to university can get free tuition
The poor communities of ARMM will go without to provide tuition free university education to university students at state universities like the University of the Philippines, where a large proportion of students come from rich households.