Dhaka, Bangladesh – Thousands of students from private universities, including medical and engineering colleges, are protesting across Bangladesh against the government’s decision to impose tax on tuition fees.
Students in Dhaka as well as Chittagong, Sylhet, Rajshahi and other smaller cities across the country are protesting on the streets since September 9.
Many of the students coming from lower-middle class fear that an increase in value added tax by 7.5 percent will put a huge burden on their families who struggle to earn money to support their children’s education in this poor nation of nearly 160 million.
“We want complete withdrawal of VAT on education. Education is not a product,” Enamul Ahmed, a student of Independent University Bangladesh, told Al Jazeera.
In a nation with per capita income of $1,314, the tax hike is like a cruel joke to the students.
Shahadat Hossain, 20, a third semester student in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Daffodil University, said that it will difficult for his family to manage his fees.
“The 7.5 percent increase on fees will increase expenditure by at least $51 (Tk 4,000) to $64 (5,000) per semester. This will be a problem for me as my family has a monthly income of $385 (Tk 30,000),” said Hossain, whose father supports his three member family.
Being the eldest son, Hossain is surviving on $89 (Tk 7,000) by sharing monthly food and accommodation costs with his friends in Dhaka. “I cannot ask for more from my family,” he said.
Abul Fattah Mohammad Nayeem, a second semester student in Apparel Manufacturing at Shanto Mariam University, said that his retired father was “forced to borrow from relatives to continue his education and the education of my three younger sisters”.
On Sunday, the protesters blocked major thoroughfares of Dhaka to press for their demands.
As buses and vehicles were blocked near Abdullahpur intersection on the outskirts of Dhaka, police personnel were seen moving closer to the demonstration area.
“An hour or so back, the police tried to converge toward us but as the students protested, they returned to their positions,” said Nayeem, adding that during the first day of protests police had fired rubber bullets on the students injuring at least 12.
Private university students were also peacefully protesting in Banani, Pragati Sharani and Mirpur areas of Dhaka as well as in parts of Chittagong, Sylhet and Rajshahi.
Professor Nazrul Islam, former chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) – that overseas universities – told Al Jazeera that the protests by the private university students “are justified”.
The office of the Bangladeshi Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith declined to comment on the issue.
According to UGC statistics, there are 122 universities in Bangladesh of which 83 are private universities.
More than 460,000 students are enrolled in the private universities as getting admission in fewer government universities is a tough nut to crack.
The Bangladesh government allocated Tk 31, 618 crore ($4.06bn) for its education sector, which is nearly two percent of its GDP, during fiscal year 2015-2016.
Students have vowed to continue the protests till their demands are met.
“We will continue with the demonstration peacefully until our demand is met,” Md Shahidullah, a law student from BGC Trust University, putting up a brave front told Al Jazeera.
Mahmud Hossain Opu also contributed to the article from Dhaka