A Right or a Commodity? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 17, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:51 PM, September 10, 2015


A Right or a Commodity?

Imposing VAT on higher education in private universities shatters the dreams of thousands of students.

Sumaya Sarah has enrolled in an MBA programme in a private university. The tuition fee of the one-year-long MBA programme costs 300,000 takas. Sumaya, the daughter of a retired government officer does not want to impose this burden of tuition fee on her parents. So, she has been working as a newspaper reporter for years to manage this money. This could have been an inspiring success story of a struggling, independent woman, if it were not for an unprecedented draconian step by the Bangladeshi government made a serious obstacle for Sumaya.

Recently Bangladesh government passed a bill imposing 7.5 percent Value Added Tax (VAT) on all the private universities and MPO listed engineering universities and medical colleges. If implemented, Sumaya's tuition fee would increase up to a staggering 350,000 takas, which is beyond her reach. Today, there are thousands of students like Sumaya facing a serious threat of being dropped out of university.

The scenario is even bleaker for the undergraduate students. For a quality education, tens of thousands of students from all over the country are enrolled into private universities every year. With only 38,000 seats available in all the public universities of Bangladesh together, the rest of the 721,797 HSC passed students have almost no choice except getting into private universities. There are colleges affiliated to the National University, however, with intense session jams and poor academic quality, which nobody would want to consider as their future alma mater. 

Safwan Ahmed, a student of ASHA University says, “There is a clichéd notion that only children coming from rich families study in private universities which is very wrong. I came from a small town in Jhenidah district and my father is a small businessman.”

“He has been paying for my education after selling our last patch of cultivable land. However, if 7.5 percent tax is imposed on our tuition fees, it will be impossible for him to pay any further,” says a worried Safwan.

Before passing this bill, Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid had said that this step would be taken to prevent private universities from doing profit-making business with education. According to the Private University Ordinance 1992, all the private universities will be run as a non-profit service oriented organisation. It is factual that most of these universities charge their students with very high tuition fees. However, the question remains: why would the government not restrict the universities with a ceiling for tuition fee if it truly wants to stem their tendency of commercialising education?

After passing the bill, private universities have already indicated clearly that students will be charged with increased fees very soon. In protest, thousands of students from different private universities have taken to the streets of Dhaka wearing black badges, banners and festoons. They have given an ultimatum demanding withdrawal of the VAT by July 31.

Jaheen Faruque Amin, a student of University of Liberal Arts and an organiser of the protest says, “If the VAT is implemented this year, it is for sure that next year it will be increased.”

“It is the question of life and death for us. If it is implemented, we have no way except leaving our universities without completing the courses,” adds Jaheen. The agitated students are now preparing to file a writ petition challenging the bill.

Last year, the budget allocation for education and technology was 13.1 percent of the total, which decreased to 11.6 percent this fiscal year.  It is very unfortunate that instead of investing more on education, our government, with its absurd policies, is creating obstacles on higher education by commoditising it. Our policy makers should keep in mind that our constitution has confirmed education as a right, not a commodity to be enjoyed by the people belonging to a particular class.   

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