Duterte makes education free in Philippines' state universities

President approves move despite warnings about severe strain on national budget

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during the 113th Founding Anniversary of the Bureau of Internal Revenue in metropolitan Manila, Wednesday Aug. 2, 2017. The tough-talking Duterte briefly lashed out at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a speech before local revenue collectors Wednesday. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
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President Rodrigo Duterte has signed a law making education free at all state universities in the Philippines, despite warnings from his economic advisers that the country cannot afford it.

Mr Duterte, who is known for his populist leanings, believes the long-term benefits of the measure outweigh the short-term budgetary challenges, deputy presidential executive secretary Menardo Guevarra said on Friday.

"Free tertiary education in state universities and colleges is a very strong pillar or cornerstone of the president's social development policy," he said.

The bill, signed late Thursday, will spare all students at government-run colleges and universities from paying tuition and other fees, he said.

Economic officials had warned Mr Duterte not to approve the measure, which they argue will cost 100 billion pesos (Dh7.4bn) a year and will mainly benefit wealthier students.

Mr Guevarra said that now the measure had been signed, everyone needed to work together to solve the key problem facing the new bill: funding.

"Everyone including the economic managers will have to focus their attention on this particular aspect: funding for this programme," he said.

Congressman Salvador Belaro, one of the authors of the bill for free state college tuition, warned it could cost some 500 billion pesos to fund the programme for the next five years.

The Philippines has 114 state universities and colleges. Under Mr Duterte's proposed budget for 2018, these institutions have a total allocation of 64.6 billion pesos.

This is out of a total education budget of 691.1 billion pesos, budget department documents showed.

The Duterte government is already scrambling to cover its proposed 3.767 trillion peso budget for 2018, which includes heavy spending on infrastructure.