The traditional proverb about education is that education is the ultimate source of knowledge. It plays a crucial role to bring social mobility and change as well as development. Noble laureate Nelson Mandela defined education as 'the most powerful weapon which can be used to change the world.' It stimulates and empowers people to participate in their own development. Similarly a country can ensure its benchmark development by the spirit of proper education system. But if one's education system, particularly higher education system, is not in the proper direction, its future may not be smooth and sound.
Recently we have observed such a shocking direction on higher education in Bangladesh. The government of Bangladesh have imposed 7.5 per cent VAT (Value Added Tax) on private universities. It is very unfortunate that the government had decided a depths of despair decision, which may impede the growth of higher education in future. In the present age of globalisation and knowledge economy, while the whole world is investing and focusing on the academic excellence in higher education, Bangladesh is lagging behind. According to the current fiscal year budget, imposing VAT on private universities is just butt of all the jokes that hurdle the motto of 'Digital Bangladesh'.
No doubt public universities contribute to higher education but these can accommodate only a portion of total students who wish to go for higher studies. So, inevitably, the need was felt to create opportunities for the remaining majority students to continue higher studies in some institutions other than public universities. From this perspective the government realised the need for setting up private universities in 1990s. Therefore, the national parliament passed the 'Private University Act-1992' which was a landmark in the history of higher education in Bangladesh.
Now the growth of private universities in Bangladesh is increasing extensively. Latest statistics (by University Grant Commission) shows that there are 121 universities in Bangladesh while 83 universities are private with about four lakh students. This ground is just little over two decades old, and within this short span of time there have been a lot of success. Many private universities have managed to rise to regional standard by streamlining their works. Some have proactive and intellectual national as well as international educators with competitive students. Session jam in private universities is just a far cry whereas in public universities it is a common phenomenon, which dampens the productivity of our kids. As well, the rate of growth of student enrolment in private universities is also escalating. For instance, by now private universities enrolment reached to 60 per cent of total students in the campus-based universities. According to UGC Annual Report 2013, there have been 210,602 students in the 32 campus-based public universities, whereas 78 private universities have 328,736 students. The ratio of the total students between public and private is 39: 61. This report also reveals that the total students at private universities were 200,939 in 2009 and in 2010 it reached to 220,752, which shows 9.86 per cent rising, and there has been a trend of increase in total students in private universities in 2011, 2012 and 2013 with 27.81, 12.04 and 4.48 per cent respectively.
No doubt, private universities, today, are playing an epoch making role to rationalise the quality of higher education in Bangladesh. They are presently striving to provide global standard education with market and social values subjective knowledge. Though quality higher education is a challenge for Bangladesh it has enormous potential to promote success of our society. Besides, higher education---no matter whether it is in public or private---should be given a pro-poor shape. When tuition fees and other charges become atrocious amount for such educational institutions, students from poor family background take the heat. This never is an ideal milieu for higher education in Bangladesh.
The government's recent step is not rationally justified by the documentations. National education policy 2010 states that the purpose of higher education is to generate ground breaking knowledge to build up a skilled manpower's for society. The policy also mentioned that 'the non-government higher education institutions must run according to set rules so that they can deliver quality education, in particular, in the areas of science, technology and business studies.' In addition, the Private University Act- 2010 states that such institutions will be non-profit organisations to cater to the needs of higher education. It's being said that education is non-profit and at the same time taxes are being levied. It is not justifiable to impose VAT on education as it is not a product. So it is clear that the present levy on private universities is fully contradicted with the National education policy as well as Private University Act 2010.
Similarly, Article 15 of the Constitution of Bangladesh states that "it shall be a fundamental responsibility of the state.....with a view to securing to its citizens --- (a) the provision of the basic necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care". On the other hand, Article 17 articulates that "state shall adopt effective measures for the purpose of---(b) relating education to the needs of society and producing properly trained and motivated citizens to serve those needs; removing illiteracy within such time as may be determined by law". Internationally, it resonates with Article 26(1), of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which states that "everyone has a right to education". On this perspective we slightly consider education as a right.
In particular, public universities are budgeted by the government. As a result, they are extremely influenced by politics and political parties. The net result is factionalism: chaos and session-jam. On the other hand, such activities are almost rare in private universities that are trying positively to enhance quality education, though some are not equally grown up. The private universities are not only providing education at a minimal and affordable cost but also opening up a new path for cultural nourishment of the learners coming from various strata of the society. They are engaged in various sorts of extra-curricular activities like debate competition, cultural programme and international exchange programmes.
It is simply synthesised that the root of the private-university-students is in the rich strata of the social structure. But it's not that all students at private universities come from rich families. Even middle and lower-middle families are also sending their children to these institutions. Association of Private Universities of Bangladesh recently in their press conference has stated that 75 per cent students of private universities are from lower and lower-middle-income families. They have also articulated that a lion share students are involved in part-time job for maintaining their expenses along with tuition fee. There is also a perception that many private universities are making profits and it would be justifiable to impose tax on the institutions, but ultimately this levy is being imposed on the shoulder of students.
Today, students have demanded for withdrawal of the Value Added Tax (VAT). Their voice has been vociferous day by day. Meanwhile, they have formed a platform, Private University Education Rights Movement, to demand rollback of the government's decision.
Along with students, teachers and educationists have also remarked VAT as suicidal for higher education. It is also cited as a discriminatory and unexpected. The concerned authority should appreciate the feelings of students, teachers as well as educationists which lay in the tone of educationist Professor Rafiqul Islam. He said, 'VAT on education sector is unacceptable under any circumstances. Our higher education sector will be hampered. It is discriminatory as such VAT has been imposed only on private educational institutions. Higher education would be costlier. So I think government should reconsider it.'
After all, the present government targets the dream of transforming Bangladesh into 'Digital Bangladesh' with mass people and removing illiteracy from the country by 2021, while expecting that the present generation will run to compete with their counterparts in the world. If these are to be achieved higher education both in public and private sector must be given more concentration. Similarly, instead of levying tax on it, efforts must be prepared to support its smooth growth and development.
Md Fouad Hossain Sarker and Md Faisal Akber are the faculty members, Daffodil International University. Email: [email protected]