In response to calls by heads of local governments, the Executive Yuan made a policy U-turn and set economic qualification criteria for free tuition under the planned 12-year education program, a move that prompted opposition from lawmakers.
Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling (蔣偉寧) yesterday presented a draft report on the policy to Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lawmakers at a KMT caucus meeting, saying the free-to-all policy had been overturned.
Chiang said the ministry came up with the amended policy after consultations with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Premier Jiang Yih-huah (江宜樺).
Before the policy U-turn was finalized, the education minister had repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment to a free-to-all education policy and characterized it as a “core value” of the 12-year education program.
Currently, Taiwan mandates nine years of compulsary schooling. The new education program is set to be introduced in August next year.
During his presidential campaign in 2008, Ma pledged to extend the nine-year compulsory education program to 12 years in phases — to allow junior-high students to advance to senior-high schools or vocational schools without paying tuition fees and mostly without sitting an entrance exam, and vowed the scheme would be completed by next year.
In his 2011 New Year address, Ma reiterated the pledge of tuition-free senior-high schools and said that vocational education for all students would be implemented in full by next year.
However, the policy was overturned after heads of local governments — obliged to take partial financial responsibility for funding education — including Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) and New Taipei City (新北市) Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫), suggested that the wealthy be disqualified from tuition assistance.
Under the Cabinet’s draft plan, beginning in August next year, students from families with annual incomes of less than NT$1.14 million (US$38,180) can attend senior-high schools without paying tuition fees, while all students can attend senior vocational schools for free.
The policy would save the government NT$3 billion in the first year of its implementation and NT$5 billion in the second, Chiang said, adding that he expects the retrenchment to “bring greater benefits” to the country, because the money can be used to bolster school and teaching resources in remote areas, and to improve the quality of teaching.
The additional expense required to implement the new education scheme would be fully covered by the central government, he added.
When the nation is able to improve its financial status to bring education spending to 6 percent of GDP, from the current 5.84 percent of GDP, an increase of NT$21.8 billion, all students would by able to attend senior high school for free, he said.
The threshold of NT$1.14 million annual income could render 280,000 senior-high students eligible to pay tuition fees, while the policy would benefit about 360,000 students in vocational high schools and 120,000 students in senior-high schools, the ministry forecast.
At the KMT caucus meeting, several KMT lawmakers expressed strong opposition to the policy to disqualify students from “wealthy families” from free tuition.
KMT Legislator Chiang Nai-shin (蔣乃辛) said the Executive Yuan was violating the Budget Act (預算法).
“The flip-flop decisionmaking shows that it [the Executive Yuan] did not have budget proposal or alternative measures to allocate budget to implement the new program before the policy was formulated,” Chiang Nai-shin said. “The government has been saying that there are sufficient funds to implement the policy and suddenly now it is saying that ‘the rich’ have to be excluded because of a lack of funding. It’s outrageous.”