On September 17, 1962, students took to street vehemently opposing inter-colonial Pakistani government’s unequal and exclusionary national education policy, a policy that was built on the assumption that education for all is a utopian idea. It encouraged commercialisation of public education. Some of the traits of that policy still persist in the education policy of independent Bangladesh and struggle for equality in education continues, writes Nahid Riyasad .
Equality in education is a necessary precondition for any democracy. Struggle for equality in education had paved the way for our liberation and the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. The vast inequality between East and Pakistan was not only manifested in economic policies but also in national education policy.
In 1959, then president of Pakistan, military dictator Ayub Khan formed a commission headed by education secretary SM Sharif to draft a national education policy that deprioritised education for all. The report, popularly known as SM Sharif Education policy, was published in 1962, its recommendations were so blatantly exclusionary that it sparked a student movement in the former East Pakistan. Streets of Dhaka were roaring, it eventually compelled the military junta to suspend the policy.
Following the formation of two Pakistan, the education sector of East Pakistan—alike other sectors—was deteriorating. Number of educational institutes was decreasing, drop-out rate was alarmingly increasing and an overall anarchy was prevailing on this sector for unfavourable policies of the West Pakistan. According a different statistics, number of primary schools came down to 26,000 from 29,633 within a span of mere five years, following the partition of 1947.
The Sharif Commission report recommended that, 1) Urdu should be made the language of the people of Pakistan; 2) English should be made as compulsory from fourth grade; 3) Education should not be offered at a cheaper rate; 4) There are reasons to view investments in industry and education sector at par. Shockingly, the work of the commission was built on the assumption that the concept of free primary education is utopian and education was considered as site of investment. Inevitably, students from the then East Pakistan vehemently opposed the policy and demanded that it be repealed. Committees to protest and organise public meetings against the policy was formed in colleges and universities.
Then came the morning of September 17, 1962. Thousands of students took to the streets protesting at the discriminatory education policy of Ayub Khan’s military regime. In demand of equal access to education, students took bullets. At least three people including a student were killed. Since then September 17 is observed as the Education Day by progressive student organisations. This year too was no different.
As student organisations with left ideological orientation commemorate the students who sacrificed their lives in 1962 for emancipator education system, some of the discriminatory traits of Sharif Education Comission continue to haunt our education policy even in independent Bangladesh. Students’ organisations that brought out rallies and processions this year are still waging a fight against commercialisation of education.
In the history of student movements for equality in education, the month of September carries particular significance. In September 2015, private university students initiated another large students’ movement demanding the abolishment of vat on tuition fees in private universities. This movement came after the finance minister introduced a 10 per cent vat on higher education in private universities in the proposed national budget of 2015-16. On the face of protests, the vat was reduced to 7.5 per cent and on September 14, it was completely abolished by the government. This is an indication that the ruling class do not learn from the history.
Privatisation of higher education, starting from the early 90s, had had its fair share of criticism, however, sadly, the phenomena is rampant at present. Imposition of vat, on already staggering amount of tuition fees of private universities, shows government’s lack of sympathy on general students and also shows government’s over sympathy to the ruling class. Awami lead alliance, in 2010, imposed vat on private university tuition fees and on face of cumulative protests from students, the vat was scraped. In their following term, the government tried to impose another vat on the tuition fees but failed again.
Public universities are only chance of entering in tertiary level education for most of the youth, given the socio-economic condition of Bangladesh. However, the scenario is slowly turning. Many public universities have, in recent time, introduced evening courses in some departments. However, these courses have received immense criticism from concerned quarters of civil society as well as left leaning student organisations. Many have seen this as another step towards commercialisation of education, a stark opposite stand from the 1962 education movement. For example, since 2002, University of Dhaka has introduced professional master’s programme, as evening courses, in 25 departments under eight institutes. These departments have admitted a total of 2500 regular students in their master’s courses, however, this number is 4000 for their evening courses accumulating a staggering TK 66 crores in fees.
According to the dean’s office, a student of an evening master’s course have to pay anything between 165,000 to 350,000 for a degree, roughly 42 times higher than the regular master’s degrees.
Different students’ organisations have celebrated the national education day with a lot of activities and concerns about the current education system and commercialisation of education. Imran Habib Rumon, the president of Socialist Student’s Front, shared his concern on this issue while talking about their activities to mark this day. ‘The rampant face of commercialisation of education is acute from primary to tertiary level education at this moment. As if the system runs on one single rule—those who can pay can attain education—an evident difference from the essence of 1962 education movement.’ He later added, ‘Privatisation of education has even plagued the public universities on the name of evening courses. The astonishing cost of these courses is nothing but indication that only a few can afford these, given the socio-economic condition of Bangladesh.’ Rumon also shows his concern by saying that current condition of our education is not much different from that of 1962, when students took to the streets against commercialisation of education.
Golam Mustafa, the central president of Bangladesh Students’ Federation, a left leaning students’ organisation, expressed similar concerns while talking about their activities of this day. ‘If you scrutinise the costs of our tertiary level education, barring the public university regular courses, you will understand that only an exclusive class of people have access to such education. And now, public universities are also participating in this race by running evening courses, that too with astronomical fees. How many of us can afford such cost?’ He also said, ‘We are following the path of those martyrs who laid their lives protesting against Sharif commission report in 1962. From the British and Pakistan period, the ruling class has been deliberately commercialising education.’ Later, Mustafa added that holding student’s union elections is another point which should be raised on this day, because, without the unions the democratic practice in a campus cannot be fulfilled.
During their celebration, speakers also emphasised on industrialisation to ensure job for the young generation. A reference to World Bank-IMF’s 2006 project came up too in the discussion and they have labelled it as a modern version of Sharif commission’s report.
Should we consider the history of education, we will see that very exclusive classes of elites have sole access to it throughout the ages. However, we do not live in the age of kings and monarchs anymore. Education is no longer a luxury, rather, a necessity given the contemporary context. On this point, students sacrificed their lives fighting rampant tyrant’s decision of commercialising education system in 1962. Sadly, the current education system is going exactly towards the same direction from which it was deviated on face of cumulative protests. In this regard, the authority should pay attention to detoxifying our educational system from ‘financial investors’ and ensure a policy that gives access to education to a broader community, irrespective of their economic or social background. Education is a basic right, we mustn’t forget.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
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