Private schools on target

  • The ruling party should work on improving the wider education system
- ACHYUT WAGLE

Jan 8, 2019-

Nepal’s education system suffers from a multitude of chronic malfunctions. The government is overselling the fact that the primary level enrollment of school-age children has crossed 90 percent as  ‘astounding’ success. It appears as though the single objective of the entire public education edifice, strategy and investment is concentrated only on the perpetual literacy campaign. Beyond that, the ‘system’ has virtually collapsed; both at the school and university levels.  There is also an acute lack of credible statistics to form such exhaustive conclusions. However, available statistics suggest that barely 21 percent of those enrolled at the primary level reach to 10th grade and only 8 percent reach beyond that. The cost borne by the state on a student through government or community schools is roughly $280 per month. This is almost double the cost borne by private school students which is, on average, estimated to be at the tune of $150 per month per head. The educational attainment vis-a-vis investment is horribly meager in government schools whereas private schools have generally unfailingly performed far better than their government peers. Frankly, the current so-called ‘system’ (if there is any) is largely due to private investments at every level of education—from Montessori to graduate studies.  

 

A reflection 

 The current education system, of course, is a glaring reflection of the economic inequality of a society that has its own inherent pitfalls. For upper riches, super-expensive pre-primary to high school education is available. Many also invariably leave the country for college education. There is also a second set of private education spread across the country, albeit of varied quality, that caters to the emergent middle class. This set has effectively filled the void created by the virtual collapse of government education. Except for a few ‘good’ community schools which are often qualified with ‘despite being a government school’ headlines, the public expenditure in education has been a complete wastage.  The first two set of elites are least bothered by any shape of public education policy in Nepal as they are not impacted either way, good or bad. Ironically though, these elites are the ones who are responsible for formulating the policy. This lack of ownership makes it 

ab initio destined to fail. 

No doubt, the educational sector needs a complete overhaul, for virtually umpteen numbers of reasons. Such an overhaul must be based on well-thought out plans with explained potential outcomes. Above all, the contribution of the private investment in the sector through impressive academic attainment, employment generation and retention of quality education seekers within the country must be duly recognised and appreciated.

But the current government, akin to its professed communist ideology, seems to have some ominous plans to completely obliterate the private education system in the name of ‘homogenising’. The dichotomous system now serves differently to the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. This, at the face of it, appears to be a very tempting populist agenda. A report prepared by a task force constituted by the Education Service Commission, among others, had recommended the ‘trustification’ of all privates by 2025 so as to make them entirely non-profit entities. This inchoate move naturally sent panic waves to the investors and owners of some six thousand private schools, whose investment is now claimed to be about $1.3 billion. One of the immediate aftermaths would be a cessation on the flow of private investment in the sector. Two risks are imminent: the homogenisation may convert all private schools into similar states that government schools are now in. And consequently, the trend of leaving the country for further education, even for high school, is sure to exacerbate. As it is, last year alone, about a billion dollars in convertible currency was flown out of the country for tuition and accommodation fees by students going abroad for higher studies.

 

No homogenisation 

It may be recalled that only five years ago, the government had forced private schools to register as companies and levied education tax. In more recent news, the Commission within a week has backtracked from its original recommendation of ‘trustification’ but remains firm to convert private schools into ‘non-profit’ from ‘for profit’ companies. The intent to whip them to work with ‘service’ over ‘profit’ motives is more of a subjective proposition. Such flippancy in the policy position also exhibits the government’s confusion on tackling the issue. Further, why would the private sector invest if the scope of reasonable profits were also denied? And, can homogenisation alone solve the most excruciation problem of poor outcome in terms of quality and employability and stop the exodus of youths for education?

The trigger point for the government initiative to ‘homogenise’ schools is the constitution itself. The Constitution of Nepal 2015 has defined education as one of the fundamental rights of citizens. Article 31 of the constitution relating to right to education says, ‘every citizen shall have the right of access to basic education, and every citizen shall have the right to get compulsory and free education up to the basic level and free education up to the secondary level from the State.’

The constitutional obligation of the state to provide free education up to the secondary level is indeed a benign concept. But the question here is whether this ‘free’ education meets the minimum (global?) standard. And its product garners the required skills to commensurate their years of education through employment in domestic as well as foreign labour markets. 

Our experience and academic atmosphere do not leave much room for us to be even marginally optimistic. In any pretext, if the state crowds out the private school system, the overall academic achievement is sure to be worsened further. China presents a classic example of the failures of such a guided education system. 

After half a decade of experimentation with free education at home, China has now become the largest source of students for all expensive western universities. All those who can afford it will send their kids abroad for higher studies and the entire state education system is effectively reduced to ‘congregation of poors’. Those educated in the domestic free education system cannot even dream of competing with the returnees for attractive employment opportunities.

Instead of terrorising the private school operators, the government and all other major political parties should be prepared to take some small but critical steps to rescue the system from the ramshackle. 

To begin with, if the political parties dared to de-affiliate both, teachers’ and students’ unions from the list of their sister organisations, that would be a major first step in improving the education system. The ruling party can set a replicable precedent by doing so instead of targeting private schools first.

 

Wagle tweets at @DrAchyutWagle. 

Published: 08-01-2019 06:42

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