Private university education needs to be allowed to thrive, but the government is doing the opposite
I was a kid when the first private university in Bangladesh started its journey in the early 90s. I used to hear stories that private universities were for the rich, who would not have to send their children to foreign countries anymore.
Eventually, privately-run universities did not remain only for the rich. Now, many middle and low-income groups send their children to them. However, the stereotype that only the rich send their children to these universities has not changed. It seems that even the policy-makers buy the stereotype.
Private university students are, perhaps, one of the most ill-treated groups in Bangladesh. No one seems to love them. Their parents do not love them as they have failed to secure a place in publicly funded universities where one can get an education at a very low or no cost. The progressives hate them because they believe these students are part of the process of “commercialization of education;” the public university students envy them because despite not having passed the entrance exams for public universities, they can study at universities sometimes better than the public ones because “their parents are rich.”
And, of course, the government seems to hate them because they protest when the government tries to impose a tax on private university education, which is an utterly illogical idea.
The government seems to punish them by trying time and again to impose a tax on their education. In the newest attempt, on June 3, Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal proposed a 15% tax on private universities, private medical, dental, and engineering colleges in his budget speech for the 2021-22 fiscal year in the parliament.
It would be the third attempt to impose a tax on private university education after the failed attempt of 2015 and 2010. In 2015 and 2010, the government had to change its course after private university students went on nationwide protests. Students under the banner of “No VAT on Education” protested the proposal this time again. According to news reports, students have threatened street protests if it does not withdraw the proposal to tax their education.
The decision to propose a tax on private university education during a global pandemic is a bad one on so many levels. The majority of private university students are from middle- and low-income groups, who have experienced financial crises during the pandemic. A few weeks ago, we saw news reports that a local level government official fined an elderly man for requesting foods from the free food scheme, as the official found that he partially owned a five-storied building.
The incident proves that people who seem to be well-off are struggling, and cannot even ask for help. Even when they seek help, they fail to convince the government that they are experiencing a financial crisis. I fear that if they have to give 15% tax, many private university students will give up their education.
Second, the whole idea of imposing a tax on private university education is discriminatory. Students who go to public universities have to spend small tuition fees for their education, and they also receive different kinds of incentives such as almost free of cost accommodation. While the public university students get all the government support, it is discriminatory to impose a tax on the education of those who are not bothering the government but getting the necessary education at the expense of their parents.
What is their fault? It is the failure of the successive governments that they cannot ensure publicly-funded education for all students who are willing to pursue higher education. Taxing their education is discriminatory and ungrateful to those who are not using government funds and are getting an education at their own expense.
Third, private universities are contributing to the country a lot by preparing students for jobs. A study also finds that the unemployment rate is lower among private university students than the public ones. A 2019 study of the state-run Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) has found that nearly 44 % of students of the private universities get jobs while the rate is 32% among public university students. I do not understand it: Why should a government create obstacles to the education of those who are helping to reduce the unemployment rate in the country? Imposing a tax on their education must be a counterproductive idea.
I am critical of the quality of education in most private universities. There should not be any denying that most of them have failed to give the services to the students in proportion to the tuition fees they collect from students. There are also allegations against some universities of grave irregularities. However, the government should not punish the students for the failures of the university authorities.
About 500,000 students study in 107 private universities in the country. Putting these students and their families in a crisis in an ongoing global pandemic is an utterly unwise and inhumane decision. I urge the government to re-think the decision and listen to the students.
Mushfique Wadud is a journalist currently pursuing his PhD in journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder in the United States.