Save for two years of suspended operations because of World War II, the Philippine Collegian has been in continuous service since 1922. But where even Martial Law failed, money might finally succeed.

The Philippine Collegian operates exclusively through funds assessed from students, and collected by the University. These funds are then deposited in a trust fund managed by UP but remains under the control of the Philippine Collegian editorial board. For the longest time, we have been operating with fierce editorial independence because we control our funds. The Philippine Collegian is not subject to prior restraint or censorship because it is fully conscious that the University and the State cannot withhold its finances.

The practice, however, is caught in a stranglehold.

The implementation of Republic Act No. 10931 (“Free Tuition Law”) prohibits the collection of tuition and other fees from state universities and colleges. Section 4 expressly exempts all undergraduate Filipinos students from paying tuition and other school fees, which include library, computer, laboratory, school ID, athletic, admission, development, guidance, handbook, entrance, registration, medical and dental, cultural and other similar or related fees (Section 3h).

The UP administration, including administrators of other State universities and colleges, believe these provisions to include the non-collection of student fees.

Furthermore, what little is left in the Philippine Collegian Trust Fund due to the non-collection of student funds is subject to various bureaucratic hurdles. Since 2006, based on the thinking that UP is the collecting agent and the funds pass through University books, UP has decided that student funds are public in character—therefore, subject to the same accounting and auditing rules like any other public office.

We disagree.

We believe the University should collect student fees to defray the operations of the Philippine Collegian, as well as the University Student Council. We believe that the Philippine Collegian and the University Student Council should have control over the disbursement of their respective monies. No interpretation of the law should impede the operations of student institutions.

The provisions of RA 10931 in question do not include student funds among fees that should not be collected. When examined under a principle of statutory construction called ejusdem generis, the phrase “other similar or related fees” should be interpreted based on its similarity with those specifically enumerated. Fees specifically enumerated in Section 3h pertain to services provided by the University to its students, which are of a different nature to those financed by student funds.

RA 10931 is a welcome legislation that should be implemented to its fullest. But it should be enforced without derailing the ability of students, at least in the case of the Philippine Collegian, to exercise freedom of expression and of the press.

Existing laws, like Republic Act No. 7079 (“Campus Journalism Act of 1991”) and Republic Act No. 9500 (“UP Charter”) provide more legal support to our contention.

On the one hand, RA 9500 states that there shall be a student publication established in every constituent unit and college to be funded by student fees, with guarantees in the exercise of freedom of expression and autonomy in all matters of editorial and fiscal policy (Section 21b).

On the other hand, RA 7079 provides an even more compelling point to ensure no restraint on students to finance their organizations. Section 4 provides that once the publication is established, its editorial board shall freely determine its editorial policies and manage the publication’s funds. Further, Section 5 provides that student publications may be funded through school savings, student subscriptions, donations, and other sources. The school administration cannot withhold the release of funds sourced from school savings and other sources intended for the student publication. Subscription fees collected by the school administration shall be released automatically to the student publication concerned.

The nature of these laws converge upon an obvious imperative: guarantee the survival of a student publication. Even RA 10931, whose beneficiaries are the publishers of the Philippine Collegian, cannot be expected to curtail active student presence in the democratic sphere.

A harmonized interpretation of these laws should promote the legislative intent of strengthening student formations, and in the case of student publications, the free exercise of their freedom to speak truth to power without fear of financial reprisal. Thus as a general rule, State universities and colleges are disallowed from collecting tuition and other fees related to services provided by them (RA10931), except for fees collected from students to finance their student publication and student council. The role of the administration is to collect these funds, to be immediately turned over to these student institutions (RA7079 and RA9500).

The Philippine Collegian is no stranger to grim financial affairs. But there is a difference between corralling a horse and starving it. It is a difference we cannot afford, not when the Philippine Collegian remains one of the few institutions within the University where student voices are given legitimate space.

In October, we will open our doors to students and student formations to discuss our existing rules. We aim to tighten, if not close, loops governing the selection of the editor-in-chief and, more importantly, the nature of Philippine Collegian funds, with the end-view of further strengthening its institutional independence.

We carry out our responsibilities under great external pressures, not least of which are the limits set upon our material or monetary resources. We address our tenuous budget allocation with grit and a challenge to powers-that-be because, yearn as we might for unbridled fiscal power—or even plain administrative support, we understand we are tasked to strengthen the students’ position, and in this fight we cannot yield ground.

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