Class Act

Education Minister grapples with problems in the school system that dates back half-a-century


Earlier this week, as students studying in colleges affiliated with Tribhuvan University (TU) awaited results of last year’s exams, TU’s Office of the Controller of Examinations sent out a sheepish statement saying hundreds of answer papers of two courses had gone missing. 

Students who had given the tests in May 2023 for the Bachelor’s Population Studies and Basics of Education course were given only a few days’ notice to sit for the exams again. Such incompetence and mediocrity has been the hallmark of Nepal’s education system which has been plagued by hyper-politicisation and patronage. 

Postponed exams, leaked test questions, lost answer papers, and delays in publishing results are so common, they are treated as a given. The malaise contributes to the inability of universities to enrol students who prefer to pay recruiters to pursue higher education abroad.

“Nepal's educational institutions are crucial to political awareness, engagement, organisation, and mobilisation,” says veteran journalist and editor of Sikshak monthly magazine Rajendra Dahal. “But what has happened is that politics has taken over the education sector and made it entirely business driven.”

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Education Minister Sumana Shrestha from the independent RSP has, in the month since she took office, determined to undo half-a-century of neglect, political interference and mismanagement.   

Since everyone from university vice-chancellors to teachers in rural community schools are political appointees, Shrestha’s first order of business is to de-politicise colleges and universities.

“No amount of infrastructure or programs we introduce will yield results until the education sector… from school to university level…is freed from party politics,” Shrestha said in one of her social media monologues this week. “The law is clear … we just need to enforce it.”

Shrestha announced a probe into the missing TU answer sheets, decided to initiate proceedings to appoint independent experts as university chancellors and co-chancellors, and vowed to keep her Ministry free of nepotism and favouritism. She even urged complaints to be filed against teachers engaging in political activities, and sent a circular to all local governments to ensure that public schools do not charge any fees.

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Such radical proposals have raised hackles with politically-affiliated faculty, unions and politicians who have long milked the university system, and Shrestha is being heavily trolled on the social web. Many say making government schools absolutely free would force them to compromise on quality, or close altogether.

University vice-chancellors have historically been political appointees despite efforts to reform the system. There was a chance to do things differently this year but Prof Keshar Jung Baral was ultimately appointed vice-chancellor of TU largely due to his proximity to Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who ignored the first candidate on a shortlist by a search committee. 

Nepal’s Political Party Act 2017 prohibits teachers from actively engaging in party politics and the Education Act stipulates that teachers must not hold executive political positions. That rule has been openly and widely flouted.

It is not only higher education that is politicised, public school employees are appointed based on party strength in local government. Most teachers are active members of party-affiliated unions such as the Unified All Nepal Teachers Association (Maoist Centre), the Nepal National Teachers Association (UML), or the Nepal Teachers Association (Nepali Congress). 

Efforts to reform the system with the proposed Education Bill is itself problematic, educators say. The National Examination Board’s Chairman, for instance, is to be appointed by a committee comprised of Education Ministry officials, as opposed to the current system of selecting the candidate based on recommendation by a panel of Public Service Commission experts.  

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“It is necessary to recognise that de-politicising education will require not just administrative and legal decisions, but also political ones,” notes Dahal. “This is therefore also a political process.”

Policies are as much to blame as politics. The national school curriculum is full of holes and lacks diversity. Teachers are underpaid, undertrained and under-motivated, the government schools lack basic facilities. 

There are many who want Education Minister Sumana Shrestha’s reforms to fail for rocking the boat in the education sector. They also want her to be a lightning rod for criticism of her RSP, which is aiming to show results and become at the second largest party in the 2027 elections.

However, charges against RSP leader and Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane and his wife as well as agains the RSP’s Labour Minister Dol Prasad Aryal in fraud cases involving cooperatives are distracting the party from pushing  Shrestha’s reforms in education.

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The NC may be the largest party in Parliament, but is in the opposition. It has used the cooperative scam as a battering ram against the coalition in general and Lamichhane in particular. However, the NC is restraining itself from going all out against Lamichhane just in case it needs the RSP’s numbers to return to government. 

Labour Minister Aryal has also been on the defensive about reports that his office had resumed issuing labour permits for Russia, where many Nepalis have been killed fighting for the Russian Army. He clarified the ministry was reviewing permits for “safe places” in Russia.  

It is not just the RSP that is an education reform spree. Kathmandu Mayor Balen Shah has stirred a hornet’s nest for his directive to all private schools in the capital to adopt names of Nepali deities, people and places within 35 days or face penalties.  

Says Dahal: "The Education Minister's vow to take politics out of education can be taken as a positive step. But it will be worth noting if the ministry has decided to clean up the education sector for the benefit of a select few or for the benefit of society at large."

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Shristi Karki


Shristi Karki is a correspondent with Nepali Times. She joined Nepali Times as an intern in 2020, becoming a part of the newsroom full-time after graduating from Kathmandu University School of Arts. Karki has reported on politics, current affairs, art and culture.