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How budget cuts could worsen the battle for spots in tuition-free universities

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
How budget cuts could worsen the battle for spots in tuition-free universities

MANILA, Philippines — With an increasing number of students flocking to tuition-free schools, several public universities are hard-pressed to expand their slots for admission while operating near or at their maximum capacity.

But the growing applicant pool in geographically isolated and distant areas may have to soon contend with fewer – if not poorer — options as significant budget cuts loom next year for around 26 state universities and colleges (SUC) that serve as either the premiere or sole public universities in their localities. 

A Philstar.com analysis of SUCs’ geographical data found that four out of the 25 SUCs with budget cuts are located in areas where they are the sole public universities serving a whole island. 

For SUCs in urbanized areas, the common alternatives are usually smaller local government colleges with limited program offerings or other SUCs also set to get a budget cut.

Around 8 out of 25 or nearly a third of all SUCs with budget cuts specialize in agricultural education.  

Since the passage of RA 10931 or the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act in 2017, admission to SUCs has become more competitive as students from poor and wealthy households compete for almost the same number of slots.

But tuition-free schooling in higher education has also ushered in what Commission on Higher Education Chairperson Popoy De Vera called the “first-generation graduate phenomenon” where several families finally have their first college graduate.

Presidents of more than 30 SUCs have called on lawmakers to restore the P6.1 billion that was removed from the proposed spending plan for 2024 to retain the “public character” of their institutions.

“If our state universities and colleges are to be expected to do their duties, they must be funded accordingly,” read a joint statement signed by school officials of more than 30 SUCs, including the University of the Philippines and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.

Sole public university on an island

There are at least four SUCs with budget cuts that serve as the sole option for free higher education in a whole island. This includes Palawan State University, whose two campuses in Coron and Cuyo are the only SUCs in the two islands.

Bohol Island State University's Bingag Extension is located in Panglao Island, Bohol and is the only SUC there. Bohol Island State University's proposed budget for 2024 is nearly 8% less than 2023, representing a total change of P62 million. 

Palawan State University, meanwhile, will lose P31 million in the proposed 2024 budget compared to 2023 — a 3% decrease. Palawan State University President Ramon Docto is a signatory of the joint statement calling on Congress to restore the budgets of the more than 30 SUCs with budget cuts.

Basilan State College, the only public university in Basilan Island, stands to lose P14 million or a loss of 6%. Meanwhile, Batanes State College in Batan Island will get a 6% cut in its budget or P5 million.

 

Budget cuts are ultimately a "kill stroke" to Filipinos, University of the Philippines Faculty Regent Carl Ramota said in a statement.  

Any significant decrease in the budget of SUCs will "reflect in the reduced capacity of SUCs to upgrade salaries and build and maintain facilities for students," Ramota said.

The bulk of the P6.1 billion budget cut in SUCs focuses on capital outlay, which is money used for “facilities, equipment, and other investments that will serve these institutions for periods longer than the next fiscal year," the joint statement by SUC presidents read.

Limited options 

SUCs suffering a budget cut in the proposed 2024 are also, on average, at least 30 kilometers away from the nearest government college or university.

This is based on Philstar.com’s analysis of 25 SUCs’ campus locations using open map data, excluding satellite campuses. This list also excludes the main and satellite campuses of the University of the Philippines, the government’s flagship state university.  

In some cases, while the nearest government school to a public university is only around 10 to 40 kilometers away, it is often a smaller city or local college with fewer facilities and program offerings than a full-fledged university.

For instance, Central Bicol State University of Agriculture, which is facing a potential budget cut of over 50% for 2024, is eight kilometers away from the nearest tuition-free school — the City College of Naga, an alternative higher education institution focused on offering midwifery courses. 

The Central Bicol State University of Agriculture’s proposed budget for 2024 is around P953 million — more than a 50% decrease from the P2.19 billion budget it had for 2023. The university’s president Alberto N. Naperi is also a signatory of the joint statement.

Similarly, Mariano Marcos State University, which stands to lose more than 60% of its budget in 2024, is at least 30 kilometers away from the nearest government-run school: the Ilocos Norte Agricultural College. From P2.5 billion in 2023, the university's budget for 2024 is set to go down to P975 million.

De Vera said in August that the implementation of free higher education led to a shift in the distribution of enrollment in private and public schools.

The ratio used to be 70-30 in favor of private schools, but currently, more than 50% of students flock to SUCs, De Vera said.

This is even as private universities outnumber public colleges and universities sevenfold: there are 1,729 private universities compared to 112 SUCs and 121 local colleges and universities, as of 2019 CHED data.

Agricultural schools’ budget cuts 

Eight SUCs with budget cuts either specialize in or have flagship programs related to agriculture.

Central Bicol State University of Agriculture is the only regional center for higher learning in agriculture in Bicol. According to the university's website, it also wants to become known as a "Center of Organic Agriculture" in the whole country.

In the proposed 2024 budget, its funding was slashed by 56% or from P2.19 billion to P953 million.

One House lawmaker, Rep. Rufus Rodriguez (Cagayan De Oro) pointed out that reductions in the budgets of SUCs are bound to affect the country’s agricultural and food sufficiency.

Economist Edita Tan wrote in a 2017 study on inequality in education reform that the then-recently implemented free higher education program will lead to "increased pressure on the national government budget to replace the income that SUCs lose from tuition and other fees."

"Where this replacement is incomplete, imperfect or unresponsive, SUC faciliteis and services are bound to suffer," Tan said. 

Filipino students’ access to the best colleges and universities are also expected the be the “most unequal” even with free tuition in SUCs. 

“This inequality is heightened by the sparseness of high-quality HEIs themselves and by the inferior quality of basic education, which fails to prepare especially poor students for college,” Tan said.

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EDUCATION

EDUCATION STATISTICS

NATIONAL BUDGET 2024

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