Amidst the fiscal pressures exacerbated by elevated dropout rates, the Department of Finance (DOF) has recommended the prioritization of deserving students for the government’s free tertiary education initiative.

In a bid to tackle the growing issue of high dropout rates and improve the efficiency of the government’s free college education program, Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno has proposed a significant overhaul. Diokno contends that providing free tuition to all students may not be the most prudent use of resources, as not all students exhibit a commitment to their academic pursuits.

Data from the Commission on Higher Education reveals that between 2016 and 2022, the Philippines witnessed an alarming dropout and attrition rate of approximately 34% among college students. This statistic paints a troubling picture of the efficacy of the current system.

The government has allocated a substantial budget of P18.8 billion for 2023 to fund the college education of all Filipino students enrolled in 116 state colleges and universities (SUCs). However, this allocation comes with no prerequisites or qualifications for students.

Diokno suggests a fundamental shift in the approach, advocating for a nationwide examination as a prerequisite for government subsidies for a four-year college education. Under this proposal, students who successfully pass the test would have the freedom to choose between enrolling in their assigned SUCs or opting for accredited private universities.

“As government scholars, they would be entitled to a certain amount of education vouchers. This empowers them to decline enrollment in an assigned SUC and instead attend any government-accredited private university that accepts them,” explained Diokno.

Iya Trinidad, the Student Regent of the University of the Philippines (UP) System, proposes an alternative approach, advocating for the reallocation of military and confidential funds to education rather than making free tertiary education “exclusive.” This suggestion comes in response to Department of Finance (DOF) Secretary Benjamin Diokno’s recommendation to reserve the free tertiary education program for “deserving” students.

The Finance Secretary acknowledges the varying quality of SUCs, with some excelling, others meeting acceptable standards, and some struggling to meet expected criteria. He emphasizes that the voucher distribution would be contingent upon the satisfactory performance of the government scholar, ensuring accountability in the system.

Diokno’s remarks on the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education (UAQTE) Act, also known as Republic Act (RA) 10931, have sparked controversy. Critics argue that the act promotes equal access to higher education and alleviates the financial burden on students from low-income backgrounds. On the other hand, Diokno and his supporters raise concerns about the sustainability of the program and its potential strain on government resources.

The Finance Secretary is quick to clarify that his proposed reforms to the UAQTE law aim to enhance its financial sustainability and ensure it reaches the most deserving students.

In addition to reforming the tertiary education system, Diokno stresses the importance of improving pre-tertiary education. He highlights the need to enhance the K to 12 Program to create more opportunities for financially disadvantaged Filipino families to pursue higher education.

The K-12 Program encompasses a comprehensive 12-year educational journey, starting from Kindergarten, extending through six years of primary education, four years of Junior High School, and concluding with two years of Senior High School. According to Diokno, a solid foundation through this program can significantly increase the chances of underprivileged students entering and completing college.

“The other goal of the K-12 program is to prepare the student for gainful employment or higher education. Many are not interested in going to college; they just want better jobs,” he added.

As part of the ongoing revamp of the K-12 curriculum, the Department of Education has established a task force to review the senior high school program. This includes exploring the possibility of making the last two years of basic education optional.

The leader of the economic team during the Marcos administration is advocating for a reassessment of free college education in state universities and colleges (SUCs), contending that the current program is marked by inefficiency and resource wastage.

Diokno concludes by acknowledging that while these proposals may not be perfect, they hold the potential to significantly improve the allocation of scarce government resources. The overarching goal is to create a more sustainable and equitable educational system that benefits both deserving students and the nation as a whole.