In the imposition of the notorious student tax, the authorities have manufactured an unfortunate and a convenient divide between private and public schools, giving the impression that private schools are not contributing to the education of the nation and students attending private schools are not Guyana’s children. All the nation’s schools are our schools and all the nation’s children are our children, and no child deserves to be punished for attending a school of his or her choice, private or public.
Having said this, one cannot help but be struck by the glaring contradictions in the position taken by the Minister of Finance as he has sought to justify the 14% tax on students. While he has asserted that the student tax has nothing to do with schools failing to comply, every time he spoke on the issue he did not fail to consistently pronounce on the sins of the private schools.
In speaking about the tax, it is the Minister who has informed us that eight private schools alone earn $2 billion in tuition fees; it is he who revealed to us that some private schools charge as much as $300,000 per term; it is the Minister who, once more, singled out the “recalcitrant” schools; and, finally, in determining how the tax is to be implemented we are told that it will be on students attending those schools that exceed the threshold of $15,000,000 in annual tuition earnings.
It seems to me clear as daylight that all these statements are offered as an unambiguous justification for the Minister’s policy. But even as the Minister rails against private schools, he cannot escape the responsibility for the failure to ensure that these schools comply with the law. For this failure students must now pay. A graver outrage and injustice could hardly be contemplated.
When one looks back at the history of education in Guyana, we are bound to find small, slow and incremental policies that have contributed to overall development. Almost every policy, colonial and post-colonial, that was implemented led to growth to make education more inclusive and available to all. What we have now, for the first time in our long history, is a truly backward move.
The other, and perhaps a more serious contradiction, lies between the stated positions of President Granger over the many months on the importance of education in terms of national development and the empowerment of youths on the one hand and the tax on students on the other.
On his first visit to our school, Saraswati Vidya Niketan (SVN), in 2015, the President reminded us of his pledge to make Guyana an education nation. “Anyone who knows me, anyone who knows about what I’ve been saying on the campaign trail for the past five years,” remarked the President, “would know that I’ve been calling for Guyana to become an education nation once more.”
I have always wondered why President Granger was literally mobbed by students and parents after he spoke at our graduation. For one, he was our new president. He also came across as approachable and amiable. But more importantly, what he said about education, resonated powerfully with all, and I believe this is where he captured the hearts and mind of his young listeners.
But, President Granger has gone beyond mere rhetoric and campaign promises and has actually delivered tangible assistance to students from the interior to the coastland. We, at SVN, are all too cognizant and grateful for this. These actions prove a genuine and sincere interest in improving not only the quality but the access to an education, and perhaps more than any other of our past presidents, President Granger has come across as a champion of children’s education. Perhaps, our first education president!
The fact that he journeyed to Clonbrook two years ago to felicitate Ms Elisa Hamilton who was her year’s top CAPE student, did not go unnoticed. The fact that he summoned an elite crop of students, including our own Victoria Najab and Vamanadev Hiralal for a personal meeting at the Office of the President, to remind them of their commitment and duty to Guyana, also did not go unnoticed.
President Granger reminded us in that first address of the many intractable problems Guyana faces and emphasized the role of education in transforming the society. I believe if he could succeed in decisively turning around this nation’s education fortunes then this accomplishment alone would be enough for an outstanding successful presidential tenure and an enduring legacy.
Coming out of the throes of slavery and indentureship, education was our only salvation. It was with education that we were able to rise to the challenges of accepting the sacred responsibilities demanded of a new people with a new destiny. What was true several decades ago about the power of education, is equally true today. The entire world is moving through perilously uncertain times, our own Guyana included. If we are to save ourselves, education alone will be our raft and hope.
When the president spoke at SVN he was not speaking to students of a particular ethnic group; he was not addressing students attending a private school, but the young people of the nation. When he singled out SVN it was not because it happens to be a private school. It was evident that he was sincerely happy to join us in celebrating our success, without any thought of private or public. It was celebrating Guyana’s children.
In the context of the promise held out by the President’s vision, I see the imposition of the tax on education as a serious contradiction, if not a reversal. As is the case with all taxes, this tax will hit the poorest the hardest. We know that, no matter how “creative” parents and other stakeholders are asked to be or can be, many will fall through the cracks. If this tax forces even one child out of school, it will be one too many. This is a loss we can ill afford. I am sure the President agrees.