The government's decision to withdraw 7.5 per cent value added tax (VAT) on tuition fees of private universities and medical colleges has brought an end to an otherwise tense situation both on campuses and streets of major cities, including capital Dhaka. The government might show many reasons justifying the imposition of VAT on private universities but the way it handled the issue and diffused tension without being stubborn deserves appreciation. The law enforcing agencies barring at one place in Dhaka also demonstrated extreme caution when students blocked the streets protesting the VAT. The students, too, were peaceful during their sit-in demonstration. They have set an example of how protests can be made effective without being violent. However, it is hard to ignore the issue of immense public sufferings due to the blockade put up by students at different busy intersections of Dhaka city. The sit-in agitation, although peaceful, had caused unprecedented disruption to traffic movement, bringing life almost to a grinding halt. Thousands of people were forced to abandon their vehicles and walk miles under the blazing sun to reach their destinations.
Undeniably, statements coming from persons at high places on VAT since the students' protest began, appeared confusing on occasions. One, however, has to understand the truth in the Finance Minister's statement: It is the government's job to locate the potential sources of revenue. He had, thus, found the tuition fees of private universities and medical colleges as potential sources of government revenue which is not enough to meet both development and recurring expenditures. If less than a million people of a country of 160 million pay income tax, the man in-charge of the public exchequer do have justified reasons to make desperate bids for mobilising the maximum possible revenues from indirect sources.
But the idea of imposing VAT on education is not proper and acceptable. Whether VAT is imposed on private or public educational institutions, it would surely evoke instant protest. True, private universities and medical colleges are expensive. But one has to keep in mind the fact that scores of middle and lower middleclass families are being forced to send their sons and daughters for higher education since they do not have any other alternative.
The government should rather streamline the affairs of the private universities by ensuring good governance there. Allegations of mismanagement, financial irregularities and other unscrupulous activities in many of these universities are not without basis. A section of their sponsors is reported to be out to make hefty personal gains by any means. A good number of private universities, far from being run as non-profit organisations or trusts, have tended to become money-churning business entities, running their activities without having the basic facilities and properly qualified and competent regular manpower, particularly the academics, and other infrastructural support. The University Grants Commission (UGC), the regulator for higher seats of learning, has not been serious enough to deal effectively with the affairs of private universities and medical and engineering colleges. The issues concerning higher learning at private universities do deserve far more serious attention of all concerned. And as far as revenue generation is concerned, the government should look into the individual tax files of sponsors of private universities far more seriously.