In the last decade a major change has taken place in our tertiary education. Gone are the days when only students from the upper class background - English Medium to be precise - would go to private universities in Dhaka, which now have pupils from faraway districts such as Dinajpur and Satkhira. There are parents who have to sell their small patch of land to send their children to private universities; there are students too who take up two jobs to bear their educational expenses. Rightly or wrongly, they consider a degree from the university their ticket to success. The transformation of the majority of the private university students' class character has also given birth to private varsities where tuition fees are not exorbitant and, in some cases, even cheaper than private colleges under National University (NU). However, there is no denying that the mushrooming of private universities is a manifestation of the state's failure to keep education free for all, which it is pledge bound to do.
One may argue that it is not for the state to keep the door to tertiary education open for everyone, it should limit itself to the secondary or higher secondary level. Though the argument is acceptable and the logic behind it is strong, in a situation where the state washes its hands off pupils after the SSC exams, it is crucial to open new avenues of opportunities, such as vocational or technical training programmes, for students so that, education-wise, a safety net is created, and the poor, in the least, have something to turn to in case of eventualities. On the contrary, the number of good technical engineering schools and vocational training institutes in the country is few and social acceptability of such professions is low. As a result, industrial plants or factories sometimes have to hire technicians from abroad, and to make matters even more grievous, the country misses out on the huge revenues that it could have earned if it had sent more skilled hands to European or American countries. The opportunity cost in this sector is thus huge. And it will not be long before the construction boom in Singapore or the Middle East will slow down, resulting in an inevitable sluggish growth in the inflow of remittance. Education is perhaps the biggest and most lasting investment that a country can make for its economic and social growth. The country's policymakers seem to have forgotten it or so it had seemed from the imposition of VAT on private university tuition fees, a decision the government had to rescind after it had met countrywide popular protests.
To begin with, it was a bad decision to impose VAT. It is perhaps the inexorable outcome of not doing one's homework properly. The failure is all the more pronounced in our Chancellor or Exchequer's comment that private university students are given Tk. 1,000 daily allowance by their parents. This is quite unrealistic. Given that there are only over 160,000 registered taxpayers in the country, it is not understandable how all private university parents (400,000 in all) will be able to give such a huge amount of money (Tk 30,000 a month) to their wards. It is also implausible if we, for argument's sake, hypothetically believe that these parents, in their youth, were staunch supporters of the one-child policy and do not have any other child. The country's birth rate during the mid and late nineties, when the agitating students were born, do not support this claim, neither can the Finance Minister's statement be backed up by any empirical evidence. What has been even more surprising is the Education Ministry's silence over the issue that festered our lives for as many as five days, crippling the capital's artery and resulting in untold suffering for commuters. It is indeed not understandable as to why Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid, a former Marxist and ex-General Secretary of the Communist Party, had excused himself from an issue that solely concerns his ministry. It is even more telling, because in his youth Nahid had been vociferous in reiterating the state's responsibilities in making education free for everyone.
The students' victory in their anti-VAT movement is indeed significant. This is for the first time since the restoration of democracy that students have come out in thousands from different universities to realise a demand that revolves around the education system. The movement was led by students who did not seem to be members of any one of the many student organisations that claim to represent the torun projonmo. The latter's intellectual liquidation is evident from its inability to read the pulse of the students who had been demanding the withdrawal of VAT for as many as two months before they laid siege to the capital's main thoroughfare for five days. The anti-VAT movement also tells us that Bangladesh's students have not become apolitical - it is just that political parties do not have it in them to make their politics attractive to 400,000 private university students.
The government has many lessons to learn from the #NoVatOnEducation movement. Use of live bullets (Day One of the student agitation) is unbecoming of a democratic government, especially when a party with an illustrious past such as the Awami League heads it. Bringing in thugs (Day Two; near Shukrabad) could have resulted in the campaign snowballing if the Chhatra Dal and Chhatra Shibir had infiltrated into the ranks of the agitating students. One cannot forget how a brawl in the Dhaka University playground resulted in a mini-student upsurge against the Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed-led Caretaker Government. The government should also know that research needs to be done before a policy decision is made. Also, as a minister is not the spokesperson of a ministry, it is not necessary that he should grace the television screen every alternate evening. On a different note, vocational training centres and technological institutes should be set up, keeping in mind their utilities in the economy. Vocational training can become a part of junior secondary education in rural areas where the dropout rate is higher than the national average. The government needs to set up more public universities. It is also time to think if government-run colleges under the National University are effective centres of learning at all.
The writer is an author, editor and journalist. He is the Editor of The Daily Star Literature and Head of Daily Star Books. Twitter: @ahmedehussain fb.com/hussainahmede