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.”
KMT Legislator Chiang Hui-chen (江惠貞) said she opposed the policy because “every citizen has a right to education under the Constitution.”
Jiang called an impromptu meeting of KMT lawmakers yesterday to seek their opinions on the issue.
Afterward, KMT Legislator Wu Yu-sheng (吳育昇) said he proposed raising the annual income threshold to between NT$1.45 million and NT$1.5 million, the average household income of families who can afford to buy a house in Taipei.
Jiang has instructed the ministry to assess the possibility, Wu said.
According to a survey by the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission published yesterday, 64.2 percent of respondents support the implementation of the 12-year program, while 63.9 percent support having a threshold that excludes students from “wealthy” families from tuition support.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) caucus reaffirmed its support for a tuition-free compulsory education system yesterday, saying such a policy would prevent students from being labeled by financial status.
The DPP also said that the central government should be responsible for all educational subsidies because local governments are already being run on tight budgets.
“Children have the right to education and should not be separated by wealth... Labeling a student a ‘rich kid’ is wrong,” DPP Legislator Kuan Bi-ling (管碧玲) said.
The biggest problem with the government’s proposed policy is that “it is completely different to the policy Ma promised during his presidential campaign,” DPP Legislator Lee Chun-yi (李俊俋) said.
Lee criticized the Ma administration’s habit of “implementing policies hastily instead of drafting them carefully,” adding that education policy should not be experimental.
However, the DPP caucus did not recommend pushing back the implementation of the new system because schools, parents and students across the country have been preparing for it.
Asked about the issue yesterday, former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) said he supported a tuition-free compulsory education system. He urged the government to improve its communication with the public before making major policy changes because “that is what democracy is all about.”
Hau yesterday also expressed his support for the 12-year program, but said the ministry should consider raising the income threshold.
“The ‘anti-rich’ clause should not be aimed at middle-class families. I agree that the NT$1.14 million threshold may be too low. The clause should also apply to vocational school students,” he said.
Additional reporting by Chris Wang and Mo Yan-chih