[Video] ‘Sympathetic’ education minister meets anti-VAT protestors

– many unsure forum will bring desired result

These young ones, accompanying their parents, joined in the calls for the removal of VAT from private education. (Photo by Orlando Charles)

Ahead of a forum scheduled for tomorrow to facilitate talks between the government and stakeholders affected by the tax on education tuition, Education Minister Dr Rupert Roopnaraine yesterday met with some of the protestors who had gathered in front of his office for their routine picketing exercise.

The group of six, made up of five parents and Director of the Saraswati Vidya Niketan School, Swami Aksharananda, was engaged with the minister for close to an hour, taking the meeting time past the end of the protest, which promptly ended at 1 pm.

While the parents appeared hopeful following the interaction, citing the kindness and humility with which Roopnaraine greeted them, Aksharananda opined that, all things considered, the interaction may have been merely to “appease” parents.

“He listened and he listened sympathetically, but I think that all the issues have been raised with regards to VAT and the promises to meet different offices and so on, all of that would have gone on already, because I’m sure the government would have had a system of consulting with the Ministry of Education before they thought of imposing VAT on education. They had to consider it,” Aksharananda stated.

In this vein, Aksharananda is anticipating the need for future protest action.

“This protest will have to continue. There aren’t very hopeful signs that the government is going to reconsider the removal of the VAT, because if that were the case and they had thought about it, probably that would have happened already,” he added, noting that such an announcement would probably have been made following Tuesday’s cabinet meeting.

Aksharananda was not the only protestor who expressed this sentiment. Mark Kazim, who is both parent and student in the private education system, voiced his cynicism regarding the outcome of the upcoming forum; he said he has no expectations.

“The last time the President made an announcement on this it was to say they were going ahead and there’s no change so I’m not too eager about any announcement. I don’t know what is going to come of it, I’m just doing this [protesting] as normal as though there was no announcement, when we go Friday then we’ll see what the announcement is,” he said.

Oshana Rogers, one of the parents who was able to engage with Minister Roopnaraine, explained that while VAT on education was primarily the focus, the discussion also touched on other things, such as the notion that private schools had raised the learning standard locally.

“…At five and in Prep A as I used to call it, the children are doing reading, they’re doing two times, three times, four times tables, in private school. When I was in Prep A…, we were reading the Rampat Family. So the private schools have raised the bar in the education system in this country and that has to be recognized,” Rogers said.

She said the group also made a recommendation to the minister for the involvement of the National Accreditation Council as regards the process for setting up private institutions.

“You have to have layers of authorization before a private school can actually be formed… It also starts with the Ministry of Education because a school cannot just decide that they’re going to open their doors… Who accredited you to be a school? Who accredited your teachers? Who accredited your head? So the Accreditation Council does have a part to play in having these private schools being opened,” she stated.

The woman related that Roopnaraine promised to take the concerns raised on VAT to the authorities, including the Guyana Revenue Authority and Minister of Finance Winston Jordan.

Andrew Hercules, one of the committee members of Guyana Private Schools United, said their wish remained for the VAT to be removed, and they are hoping the minister can see past the labels of “public” and “private” education, to the “need and value that education plays.”

The members of Guyana Private Schools United had the support of the local head of the Catholic Church Bishop Francis Alleyne, who appeared on the picket line for the second week in a row.

Bishop Alleyne expressed the view that the issue at hand extended beyond tax, and stated his hopes that the protests would spark conversation on the other issues plaguing the education system.

“VAT or no VAT the thing is, education I believe, should be given every concession. Every possible reduction from everything because it’s so vital to the nation… I believe that the private schools take up a lot of slack that the government cannot handle and if anything, the opposite should be happening—the government should, if it had means—be offering some subvention to private schools to do what they do,” the Bishop said.

On Tuesday the government announced through a press statement from the Ministry of the Presidency, that a meeting with the parents and operators of private institutions will be held on Friday, April 7, at 11:00h at the National Cultural Centre. This was following two weeks of protests by the Guyana Private Schools United, first in front of the Ministry of Finance, then the Ministry of Education. The group comprises  10 local private educational institutions.

At their last protest, representatives of the group told Stabroek News that they had sent correspondence to the ministries of Education and Finance, as well as to the President and Prime Minister’s offices to request a meeting.

Additionally, an online petition started by the students of the School of the Nations’ Sixth Form College for the removal of the provision, which received in excess of 14,000 signatures, was distributed to various government ministries in February.