Students who wish to enroll at Palawan State University (Palawan SU) and Western Philippines University (WPU) by opting out of free tuition privileges may only do so in the next academic year at the latest, as the law requires these institutions to establish procedures for this mechanism.

Claire Mendoza, public information officer for Palawan SU, explained that the laws providing for free admission and tuition in SUCs also prevent the institution from reverting to its old model of accepting those who can afford to pay tuition.

“These laws, namely RA 10931 and Republic Act 10687 or the ‘Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education’ (UNIFAST) Act of 2015, provide that SUCs could create an ‘opt out’ mechanism for financially capable students,” Mendoza said.

“Sa dati, kung sino ang kayang magbayad, kahit ilang block yan basta may magbayad. Walang problema sa amin doon kung wala yung RA 10931 (…) We cannot just impose. Kailangan pang dumaan sa board [of Regents] yan na gagawa pa ng mechanism ang school (…) ‘di agad mapapatupad within this [academic year’s] enrollment,” she said.

Mendoza also explained that both RA 10931 and the UNIFAST law only provide for students to waive their right to free tuition. The SUCs still have the right to impose an admission exam for those who want to study at their school.

When asked whether WPU would likewise allow enrolling students to pay and therefore waive their right for free tuition, WPU President Dr. Amabel Liao also affirmed that it was not yet possible, as the guidelines for the ‘opt out’ provision of the UNIFAST law were still being crafted by CHED.

“However, [the CHED chairperson] mentioned that the University can propose admission policies which will allow ‘socialized admission’, where some students may be allowed to pay for a certain percentage of their tuition. We will start drafting the proposal. But first we have to benchmark with the SUCs that the Chair mentioned has already had a policy like this approved,” Liao said.

SUCs admitted students free of tuition since 2017 after the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act of 2017 or RA 10931 was signed into law. However, recent budget cuts by the National Expenditure Program (NEP) affected SUCs, and therefore limited the number of students that these certain SUCs could accept in the incoming academic year (AY) 2024-2025.

Concerned Palaweños took to social media to ask whether there were other ways for students to enroll in the SUCs if they were not able to get in the limited slots.

Nicole Delos Reyes, a prospective enrollee, asked if it was possible for those students who are willing to pay tuition to enroll outside of the announced limited slots in order to accommodate the sheer number of students who would not be able to get in.

“Kung papayagan ng [Palawan SU] na magbabayad na lang kami ng tuition fee, mas kaya pa namin yung ganun kesa umasa sa entrance exam namin tapos sa interview di naman kami papasa. Napakarami kaya namin. (…) Mas mapapadali pa sa amin na magbayad na lang ng tuition fee kaysa ganyan,” Nicole said.

This sentiment was echoed by many netizens, who pointed out that enrollment for both Palawan SU and WPU is coming to a close by the end of June. Most expressed their desire that the SUCs release their own statements concerning the tuition fee waiver, so as not to hinder those who sought to apply for other universities.

Crunching the numbers
When the 2024 General Appropriations Act (GAA), which was based on the NEP, was announced last year at P7 billion dollars less than the P107 billion it received for 2023, 36 SUC Presidents- including Palawan SU’s Dr. Ramon Docto- signed a petition urging lawmakers to restore the slashed P6.2 billion from the budget allocated to implement RA 10931.

The petition was successful in restoring the slashed funds in January 2024, when it was announced that SUCs will get a P21 billion increase for their overall budget, 27% more than the initial number provided in the 2024 NEP.

Despite Congress restoring a large amount of the Department of Budget and Management’s (DBM) initial budget, 26 SUCs still had a marked decrease when compared with the allocation under the 2023 and 2024 GAA.

The DBM calculates the annual NEP based on the proposed expenditures of the institutions. SUC budgets are therefore based on necessity, such as when Mindanao State University had doubled their budget- from P6.4 billion in 2023 to P12.4 billion in 2024- due to damages sustained when a security breach led to the bombing of their Marawi City campus gymnasium.

Out of those 26 SUCs who had a marked decrease, 15 SUCs had lower funding this year than the last. One of the lowest was Eastern Visayas State University in Leyte, whose budget according to the GAA decreased from P2.2 billion in 2023 to P874 million in 2024.

Mendoza added that following the announcement of Palawan SU’s limited slots, other SUCs across the nation have reached out to inquire how they should respond to the similar reactions from the students and parents who wish to enroll.

She noted that although they have consolidated their efforts, most of the affected SUCs are unequipped to handle the sudden budget cuts.

Deep cuts
Palawan SU is notably the only SUC in Mimaropa included in the 26 universities with decreased funding. Aside from having a 3% budget difference from the 2024 NEP and 2024 GAA, they are also part of the 15 SUCs that received a lower funding this AY 2024 compared to the previous one.

Mendoza said that Palawan SU is trying to find ways to bolster their programs despite the budget cuts. She also commended WPU’s announcements regarding their own enrollees, but said that it was too “risky” for Palawan SU to say the same without solid and realistic measures in place.

“We cannot question them because it’s not our [budget]. Sana di mako-compare but that’s normal. We have nothing against WPU since Ma’am [Amabel] was once our administrator, napakagaling din talaga niyan. Naga-outsourcing din kami. (…) May additional na 2000 slots, so on top of the 5660 na tatanggapin yung freshmen, may dinagdag pa. Sobrang risky na sa part ng university kasi sobrang [hirap] na noon, wala na kaming ibang paghahanapan pa talaga na pondo na iyon sa school na tinitipid-tipid sa lahat.”

While Palawan SU’s representatives could not comment on the exact reason why the DBM decided to decrease the school’s funding, Mendoza noted that they will release a full statement of the AY 2024-2025 budget for transparency purposes on their Facebook page soon.