Nepalis are proud to have never been colonised, and being South Asia’s oldest nation state. Keeping out the world may have preserved the sovereignty of a feudal state, but it meant that Nepal had a lot of catching up to do in terms of governance, consolidating democratic institutions, infrastructure, health and education.
For example, we have been talking about the sorry state of the education system in the country for the past decades. Writing 52 years ago in an article titled ‘Education: the Road to Nowhere’, Prof Kamal Prakash Malla bemoaned the fact that ministers of education were in the habit of boasting that Nepal’s education system went from having just one college pre-1950 to 36 colleges and a university.
Malla pointed out that this showed selective use of statistics to distort the truth, and ignore the poor quality of instruction in schools and colleges.
Five decades later, after major political changes and many trials and errors in education, the substance of the debate on the need to improve the education system is still the same. Bureaucrats and politicians still cite statistics to prove progress in education, and like Malla wrote all those years ago, we are still on a journey without a destination.
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If statistics are so important, then these tell a different story: there are still 770,000 children below 12 who are not in school, 29% of primary school students drop out halfway, 43% of secondary school students do not complete Grade 10, and government school pupils have a pass rate of only 20%.
Why is it that successive governments have not fixed the serious flaws in a system that allows 80% of students in public schools to waste time in classrooms in the name of ‘education’? It is not that Nepal's rulers are not aware of the disgraceful quality of education in government schools.
The Minister of Education’s own surveys show shocking inequity in Nepal’s education system. Among well-off families, 65% of children are educated, whereas the figure is only 12% for poorer households. Money for education is flowing into a black hole.
The federal government has been cutting its education budget every year, but the investment is not being transferred to provincial ministries of education. This is widening the equity gap in education, and leading to a steady decline in the quality of instruction. Instead of leveling the playing field, education is entrenching class differences.
The privileged get a world-class education and fit into the world’s best universities, whereas the rest migrate to the Gulf for jobs. Those who stay behind are swallowed by a corrupt bureaucracy and contaminated politics.
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The main reason Nepal still lags behind in development is our distorted and inappropriate system of education that is churning out deficient human resources. The blame game is heaped on private schools. There are regulatory issues with for-profit schools, but private school enrollment is low in districts where public schools offer quality education. Private schools and colleges are providing much-needed education in Nepali, and reducing the numbers of Nepalis who used to have to go abroad.
Punishing private schools to improve government schools never worked, and will be a backward step. The best way to reduce the commercialisation of education is to improve the standard of public schools. Government schools have a lot to learn from private ones about curriculum, instruction, management and facilities, and some PPP models have demonstrated this.
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Some government schools have made the wrong move to try to emulate private schools, and introduce English-medium instruction for fee-paying students. This is creating a rich-poor distinction within schools, which is unjust and goes against Nepal’s egalitarian Constitution.
As with everything else, the main blame goes to a political class that forgets when it gets to power the very values enshrined in the Constitution, the manifestos of their parties, and promises to voters. In fact, leftist politicians are the most prominent investors in the private school sector, and eagerly pass legislation that unfairly benefits them.
The new generation will reject politicians who thrive on hollow nationalism, but neglect education forcing them to migrate overseas for work.
We have to take politics out of education, reward good public schools and their teachers, invest in teacher training and facilities of government schools. That is the only way to prevent Nepal from becoming a failed state.
Read more: No time for school, Nepali Times