On February 23rd we presented a petition, signed by more than 15,000 persons, representing more than 2% of the population of Guyana, to the President and the Ministers of Education and Finance. Part of the petition included more than 1,500 detailed comments from persons from all corners of Guyana and from more than 32 countries decrying the imposition of the 14% VAT on private education. The petition was spearheaded by a group of 6th Formers at Nations.
The next day I was met by an older, wiser head that said only “boots on the ground” would gain attention. I hoped he was wrong, but one month later there was no response to the petition. Only when persons began to protest was there any response. The cynic was therefore correct and the youthful hope that respect would be given to the petition was dashed and only fuelled the sense of disillusionment on the part of so many youth that they do not have a voice.
The disillusionment was however temporarily lifted by the announcement, by a respected media voice, that the President had indeed heeded the petition and VAT would be removed. This apparently misguided or “fake news” was corrected two days later.
There followed a series of articles by one or two government spokespersons on the rationale for the VAT.
The main arguments appeared to be:
* Only about 8 of the 58 private schools were fully tax compliant
* Some schools were “charter schools” (but no explanation of what this meant was ever given)
* Some schools paid no tax because they are “religious schools”
* If you can afford private education, by definition you are wealthy and you can afford the 14% increase
* Private schools are making large profits & should therefore pay the 14% themselves
* Parents have a choice – they can return to the free public education.
Many of these points were rehashed at the forum on Friday where Ministers Hughes and Roopnaraine and the Prime Minister met with about 300 persons at the National Cultural Centre to examine the imposition of VAT on private education.
Some of the points raised to refute these points included:
* If there are Private Schools that are indeed not paying their taxes, expose them and make them pay the taxes that we all face. There needs to be a level playing field. There is no logic in saying that because some schools are delinquent in terms of paying tax then the ones that already pay in excess of 35% tax should now attract a further 14% tax.
* Publish the list of “charter schools” and “religious schools” and explain the loopholes they have been given not to pay tax and let the public comment on the wisdom of these decisions.
* Nations held a number of meetings with parents to gauge their feelings on this issue. At the end of one meeting of 35 parents, someone put up their hand and said “I am part of the Government … when we discussed this issue it was said that the people who attend your school are all rich and can easily afford the increase … now that my child attends this school I see that is not true and that children in fact come from a wide variety of backgrounds.”
* There are more than 1,200 students at the three centres in Guyana that offer the Association of Business Executives (ABE) programme. The great majority of these students are school leavers from humble backgrounds. There is no comparable programme to the ABE programme in Guyana which is internationally accredited, accessible and affordable. Now with the imposition of the VAT already 12% of the ABE students at Nations have dropped out and will do nothing but swell the ranks of the unemployed. It should be noted that the private institutions in Guyana that offer the ABE course do so at a fraction of the cost charged for exactly the same programme in Trinidad.
* For those attending the private Aeronautical schools – there is no government alternative – if they cannot afford the 14% VAT they too will drop out.
* Guyana now has 8 offshore medical schools. About 40% of those attending these schools come from overseas – they are now confronted with massive increases in the middle of their programme.
* Part of the government rebuttal has been the idea that private schools should pay the 14% VAT themselves. The schools however already pay 35% or more in taxes. Is the goal to tax these schools out of existence? Nations already provides more than 160 scholarships – should we do more?
* Another view was that parents have a choice – they can simply return to the very public schools that they chose to leave. Ministers Jordan and Roopnaraine have both acknowledged that the public education system is “not all that it could be.” Indeed, a Commission of Inquiry has been established to address some of the challenges. Many Ministers themselves have made the choice to opt for private rather than public education for their own loved ones.
* If the thousands of students in private education were indeed to return to the public system would there be room to accommodate them? In other countries government subsidises private education … is the intention here to punish rather than support, nurture and encourage?
* Other commentators have stated there is simply no need for private education as the results of public education are still noteworthy. If the contribution of private lessons was taken out of the equation would there still be the glowing CSEC results that are posted on the front pages of our newspapers each August? Lessons teachers in fact earn more per hour than most private schools – are they covered by the 14% VAT?
* No commentator that has studied exam results over the past decade in the primary school can fail to record that private schools are greatly over represented in terms of the outstanding performers.
* Again on Friday, at the NCC, a government spokesperson quoted figures of $100,000 to $300,000 per year for fees at some private schools. When these same students leave these schools, and go overseas they will begin to pay up to 20 times those fees. Furthermore, in the debate over the projected increase in fees at UG another government spokesman, in support of the 35% increase in fees, stated that you cannot expect to receive a quality education if you are not prepared to pay for it. Is there some major inconsistency here?
The meeting at the NCC on Friday ended with a “rebuttal” by the Prime Minister. He appeared to be reading from a prepared speech as he failed to respond to a single issue raised from the floor. As he concluded by saying that a “review on the VAT issue may take place in 2018” those attending were left to ponder whether this had been determined even before the meeting had taken place and as they walked out of the meeting while the Prime Minister was still talking they were left to wonder what then was the point of the forum?
* In all this then who are the winners? Are there any at all? Is the relatively small sum of money that may be raised worth all the angst? Could that same money not be raised by raising the tax on cigarettes or alcohol, or by cutting government expenditure, or simply by promoting a more conducive business climate in Guyana?
* The losers are far easier to identify. Students will drop out of the aeronautical schools, the medical schools, the ABE programme, the MBA programme, hundreds of others will drop out from the various private schools. Guyana will be further impoverished and what will the government have earned in return? Who will sleep easy at night?
Dr Brian O’Toole
Director, School of the Nations