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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

An empty gesture

Update : 03 Oct 2015, 07:59 AM

At the risk of being an iconoclast, count me as one who is not particularly impressed with the government’s decision to withdraw the proposed Value Added Tax on private university tuition payments. Before you unfurl the hanging rope for my neck, hear me out: I fully agree with the decision, but had never doubted that it would come about; hence the lack of surprise or relief.

This government, for all its short-comings, is made up of some very smart people. It knows very well that restlessness in the aspirational middle-class in the cities negatively affects the longevity of any regime. Given the choice and means, almost every such family would ship off their 18-year-old kids to a university in North America, Britain, or Australia to get a broad, global, holistic education in a safe environment.

But all too often, the wealth needed to carry this out has yet not been accumulated by the mid-level managers in the private sector, the joint secretary level bureaucrats in the civil service, or the professionals just striking out on their own. The solution is the high quality private university -- think NSU, IUB, BRAC, etc -- where violence and ideology take a decided backseat to learning, growing, and thinking in a manner that makes many students actually feel a part of the global village.

Tacking on an additional tax on the already high premium for such education may not have moved the demand curve that much, but would certainly get a key demographic very angry. If nothing else, self-preservation demanded that the VAT be taken out of the picture almost as soon as it was proposed.

That is not to say that private universities are a panacea for what ails higher education in Bangladesh. On the contrary, as is known far and wide, with the exception of perhaps a dozen of their number, most such “universities” are little more than fancily-named degree mills set up on a rented floor or two of dilapidated residential buildings, with “faculty” consisting of adjuncts poached from nearby public colleges.

In fairness, as was reported last week, even many of the public “universities” in the district towns are not much different in this regard, with many running with no more than one professor who also happens to be the hapless vice-chancellor! With the older public universities becoming little more than breeding grounds for politically protected criminal syndicates where an unflattering Facebook post gets you beaten up with impunity by ruling party vigilantes, the choice then for those with ambitions is dictated principally by the pocketbook: Those with more money head abroad with barely hidden hopes of never coming back, while those with a little less wait their time out at the quality private universities in Dhaka while looking eagerly for graduate school scholarships in the West.

With an expanding economy, this second group has grown both in number and in importance, and taxing its aspirations is likely to make it grumble in ways that can impact the economic and administrative machinery of the state in an unsavoury fashion.

Let’s not mince words here: Those who matter in Bangladesh pack off their kids to American and British universities the minute their HSCs and GCSEs are done; those who want to matter someday have their NSUs and BRACs; the fortunate ones amongst the rest perilously toil away at the misnamed “Oxfords of the East,” while the unfortunate ones enroll at “universities” of science and technology in Patuakhali or Barisal where the vice chancellor is the provost, professor, treasurer, and proctor at once for all the imaginary departments.

Taxing the upwardly mobile ambitions of the metropolitan middle-class is never a good idea; it is an even worse idea when being done at the condescending behest of those who already sit snugly at the top of the food chain. In nixing the VAT idea, the government was simply showing prudence rather than magnaautologout/logout?destination=usernimity.

If ambition matters to the upper middle-class, survival matters to a government whose parliament is, by the numbers supplied by its own election commission, mostly elected without a single ballot being cast.

The VAT on private university education was a non-starter from the get go. 

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