Education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realising other human rights. UNESCO has formulated the definition as follows: “The word 'education' implied the entire process of social life by means of which individuals and social groups learn to develop consciously within, and for the benefit of the national and international communities, the whole of their personal capacities, attitudes, aptitudes and knowledge. The process is not limited to any specific activity.” So education is neither a commercial thing nor goods. Through it a service but not a subject matter of imposing tax. Recently, the government has passed a bill imposing 7.5% VAT on tuition fees of private universities and private medical colleges. It will hit the middle and lower income families and curb the basic right to education.
Initially UDHR, in Article 26 enunciated that everyone has the right to education. The ICESCR devotes two articles to the right to education, articles 13 and 14. Article 13, the longest provision in the Covenant, is the most wide-ranging and comprehensive article on the right to education in international human rights law. Free education does not only concern primary education, the ICESCR requires of States that they grant it progressively to secondary education and higher education: “Secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational secondary education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education” (art. 13.2.b) “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education” (art. 13.2.c).
Imposing VAT on private universities will negatively affect the education sector. In private universities, it is not only tuition fees but other expenses like development fees or convocation fees that a student has to pay. But more than 40 public universities are highly subsidised for tuition fees which is discriminatory. On 9 August 2015, The High Court division issued a rule upon the government asking to explain within three weeks why imposing 7.5 percent VAT on private universities would not be declared illegal.
According to the writ petition, though VAT has been imposed on private university students, no VAT was imposed for public university students. It is a discriminatory system when a group of students will study at a minimum cost in public educational institutions while many others do the same in private institutions with huge expenditure paying VAT. In this regard, it can be referred article 2 of the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, 1960 that prohibits all forms of discrimination in education.
Above all, Bangladesh has a constitutional obligation for right to education that in pursuant to the provision of Article 8(2) of the Constitution, this is the fundamental basic rights of Bangladeshi citizens to get basic education under Article 15 (a), 17 (b). The Constitution of Bangladesh the constitutional provisions of “equality clause” contemplated under Article 27, these must be read and interpreted together with the provisions of Article 17 of the Constitution.
The State must ensure that higher education is available in different forms to respond to the needs of the students in different settings and equally accessible to all on the basis of capacity. Under 49 © of Charter of the Organisation of American States, 1967-“Higher education shall be available to all, provided that, in order to maintain its high level, the corresponding regulatory or academic standards are met.” The National Education Policy 2010 under chapter 1 (20) also say the same thing. Imposition of VAT also does not go with the government's policy in relation to private universities. According to the Private University Act, 2010, these tertiary educational institutions at the private level are regarded as non-profit organisations so it must exempt from tax.
Higher education is a public good and it is the responsibility of the government to ensure it without imposing VAT on private universities.
The writer is Pursuing LL.M. (International Law), at South Asian University, New Delhi.