Course correction

  • By fixing the education system, Nepal could take the most important step towards inclusive growth
Course correction

Jul 13, 2015-

If there is a single pedal that can propel economic growth and advance us towards a more inclusive society, it would be a publicly funded, high-quality and universally-standard high school (grade 12) education. A properly designed education policy is the best tool in advancing both efficiency (raising income) and equity (sharing income among citizens). Yet, we have been riddled with the opposite. Our education system has wasted enormous resources and widened the economic divide. So what should our goal be? Can we envision that 12 years from now, almost all youth in Nepal—irrespective of their family backgrounds—will graduate from high schools with universal standards? Can we also envision that their depth of knowledge will be on par with their counterparts in China and India? As we stand, these are tall orders, but they are not beyond our grasp. Meeting these milestones requires transforming the public education system from a symbol of despair to a beacon of hope, and establishing public schools as centers of excellence that impart a world class education. A successful development strategy requires more than getting education policy right. But education is pivotal and it creates a ripple effect, uplifting the economy to higher growth trajectory and strengthening morale and institutions.

Reflecting on reality

Compared to where we are now, our work ahead is of epic proportions. Take the recently released School Leaving Certificate (SLC) result. Among the 1.66 million students that started grade 1 in 2005, only six percent (not 11.6 percent as often quoted in the media) passed SLC this year. It works out as six percent because among those that appeared in SLC in March (405,338), only 212 thousand of them were those that started grade 1 in 2005; others were repeaters. With an SLC passing rate of 47.4 percent, only 100 thousand (six percent of 1.66 million) of 212 thousand have succeeded. Out of that six percent, at most, only half will complete grade 12. Therefore, 97 percent of students either repeat a grade at least once or drop out entirely.

Even if this colossal loss covers up the fault in public schools (as this calculation also includes private schools), the better performers, whose passing rate in SLC was 89 percent, was a lot higher compared to the 33 percent passing rate in public schools. The quality difference is even more alarming. Among the students from the private schools, about 77 percent obtained first division and distinction, whereas the percentage for public schools was 10. Despite this distinction, it is important to note that 75 percent of the students that appear in SLC are from public schools. Had they been able to afford it, they would have abandoned public schools long ago.

To recap, a large group of students in public schools drop out without getting to take their SLC exam. Even so, of those who take it, 67 percent fail. Those that succeed do so with lower scores and are unable to enroll in fields at universities that are more job-oriented. This is the situation faced by 75 percent of students in Nepal, who come from low-income families.

The message is clear. The failure is not a fluke that occurs one year and in one exam. This is happening year after year. There are failures at all levels throughout the country. The issue is not about boosting the SLC passing rate by a few percentages; this could be done by providing more grace marks or by being lax in marking. We could even stop pronouncing the word ‘failure’ entirely, as is planned, by using letter grades. Alas, none of these moves will wash away the chronic problem, but rather, worsen a system that is already broken.

Course correction

The real issue is that the system has failed to impart knowledge to an overwhelming majority of students in public schools, imposing huge costs to society. The children of 75 percent of households in the country are deprived of basic learning, and the families of the remaining 25 percent are paying high costs for taxes and tuition fees. Unfortunately, the SLC exam compares students who hardly get any instruction with those that are under continuous coaching. This continues to remain a sole predictor of the future of many students.

Despite the superiority of private schools over public schools, the privatisation of high school education is not a solution for a number of reasons. First, privatisation will shut out many youth from education, exaggerating the inequalities and hindering their potential. From both efficiency and equity grounds, the nation would be better off with a high quality publicly-funded education.

Second, a decent public education system will be cost-effective. The parents of students attending public schools will be able to provide their kids with a high quality education and parents of students attending private schools will get a better quality education at a lower cost, a win-win situation for all parents.

Third, as people are willing to pay a higher price for quality education, there is a higher profit margin for investment made in private schools. Consequently, a large amount of investments are pouring in, creating duplications of services that public schools are supposed to offer. With better public schools, investors will switch to sectors that create, rather than transfer wealth (from parents to investors), a gain for society.

Fourth, getting a high school education is a right, not a vehicle for personal profit-making enterprises. In developed countries, if there are any private high schools, they would mostly be not-for-profit private institutes with endowments, meaning that nobody makes personal profits. The returns to the endowment are distributed via remuneration, rewards and scholarships. But in Nepal, parents have to pay hefty fees that generate high profits for investors, depriving citizens of their basic right to public education.

However, the solution is not to shut down private schools but to create a situation that leads parents, willingly and happily, to switch to public schools.

Hope for future

There is only one way for a country to be richer: to produce more goods and services. And a country’s income is the sum of production of each of its workers. Therefore, the only way to make Nepal richer is by providing jobs to all and by increasing the productivity (production per worker) of all workers.

In both counts, Nepal has debilitating records: it has a very low job creation rate and has the lowest productivity in the world. Education that raises the hopes of the youth and fosters curiosity, self-confidence and independent thinking will raise employment, innovation and productivity. Imagine how rewarding it would be to provide all youth with a universally standard high school education and enable them to be gainfully employed. If the whole nation can be engrossed in this vision, we can reach it.

Acharya is an economist who conducts research on economic policies

Published: 14-07-2015 07:44

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