Back in the 90s, when the idea of private universities was first introduced, many people were wary of calling these institutions universities. Some even sarcastically called them a kind of kindergarten for adults. One of the reasons for this was the attitude of private university students.
Unlike public university students, they would not take part in student politics nor clash with law enforcers for a cause. The very perception people had of private university students contradicted with what a university student should be. Some would even call private university students “farm chickens.”
As a result, I was shocked when I saw these same private university students clashing with law enforcers yesterday. Dozens of students were injured as law enforcers, allegedly, fired bullets.
The students’ demands are very clear. They have been peacefully protesting for quite some time, demanding the same thing: They want a withdrawal of the 7.5% VAT on their tuition fees, imposed in the last budget. While I do not support any violent protest that can destabilise our private universities, I fully support any peaceful protest against the imposed VAT on tuition fees. I simply don’t understand why students should give VAT for purchasing something they should be getting free of cost anyway.
Yesterday’s incident was unwarranted and unexpected, but we should not hold students responsible for the ensuing violence. Our policy-makers not only showed reluctance towards their demands, but also hurt the students with their comments on the issue.
So when the tame and apolitical private university students become violent, one question comes to our minds: Are we pushing them to take to the streets? Yes, we are. Our state is deliberately discouraging students from enrolling into private universities, despite the fact that some of these universities are doing quite well.
We have seen our Finance Minister AMA Muhith asking the students and their guardians that if they spent a good amount of money on the tuition fees of private universities, what was wrong with paying VAT on it?
Recently, a cartoon on Facebook responded to the situation perfectly. In it, criminals are seen asking for ransom and the finance minister interjects, asking the victims to pay VAT on it. Another Facebook post asked: “If lawmakers do not have to pay tax for importing cars, why should private university students give VAT on their tuition fees?” A legitimate question indeed.
However, if the students and their guardians ask the questions, our policy-makers will not find any answers. Everyone is aware that many students are not getting admitted to private universities out of choice. Our public universities have very limited seats compared to the number of students who are passing HSC exams every year.
Other than public universities, students have one other option -- colleges under the National University. But the standard of education in those colleges is low and constantly declining. Many of their graduates struggle to find work because of their low profiles.
Moreover, a student often has to spend seven or eight years to complete a four-year course from the National University. As such, students have no other option but to choose private universities. Why are the policy-makers not improving the standards of the colleges under the National University? Why are there constant session jams?
There is a common misconception amongst our policy-makers, and a big chunk of the population, regarding private university students. Many believe that only high-income families send their children to private universities. This is not true.
I personally know many private university students who bear their expenses by providing tuitions to other students. There are many parents who have sold their land only to bear the expenses of their children’s education at a private university. That is the only way their children can get work and be employed.
This VAT is an insult to these students and the sacrifices their guardians have made. And the derogatory comments that followed only add further insult to injury. And when they protest, they are attacked, rubbing salt on their wounds.
One other thing our policy-makers might not understand is that this VAT will affect our economy in the long run. When there were no private universities in Bangladesh, many students would go abroad for higher education. By imposing this VAT, we are encouraging students to go to foreign countries for their higher education again, shrinking our foreign currency reserve.
It should be the state’s responsibility to ensure that all its citizens get the opportunity for a higher education. In this regard, the state, so far, has failed. It has not taken any effective steps to stop the decline of our state-run higher education institutes. Every year, they go down in the international rankings.
And why should students have to pay for the failure of the state? This VAT does nothing more than impede the progress of a nation’s already struggling youth.