Interim Constitution - Free education as a fundamental right

Politically, many parties in the past made their commitment to provide free school education to children through their manifestos. In the meantime, the community schools did not stop raising their fees. Even small children studying in the primary schools had to pay in the name of admission and examination fees. The government made a rule in 2052 BS that students need not pay tuition fees for grades 1-10. But it was never followed. In 2058, another rule was instituted. According to it, the schools cannot raise a single penny at the primary level, but they raise fees from grade 6 upwards. But, in reality, primary school children never received free education.

In many parts of the world basic education is compulsory but free. In Nepal, the government tried to make primary education mandatory in five districts through a pilot programme in 2055. It failed for lack of necessary homework. After the recent people’s movement, stakeholders raised their voice against the existing system and demanded free secondary education. As the government has already announced 1-8 as basic and 9-12 secondary education, it is understood that school education means grade 1-12. The stakeholders had pinned their hopes on the interim statute. The interim statute, under Section 3 (Fundamental Right) clearly mentions: “…every citizen will have a right to free secondary education as managed by the nation through laws (Article 17-2). This means that school education from grades 1 to 12 will be completely free. If any school charges any kind of fee, the students or their parents can go to court to protect their fundamental right of free secondary education.

What crises can this law create? Will the government manipulate the last phrase “as managed by the nation through laws” against the wishes of the stakeholders? These are crucial queries for everyone involved in the education sector. If the government is honest to its people, every child of this country will enjoy education as their fundamental right. The main concern is the cost to be borne by the government to make 1-12 education free. What amount of funds should the government add to make school education free? Until now the government has made no calculations. The volume of the budget must grow. However, it depends on the government’s ability to bring together resources. This can only be done through direct and indirect tax from the people, as is the practice in developed countries. The other contentious issue is the provision of free education by the private schools. Once the interim constitution is in operation, it will be illegal for the private schools to raise fees from their students. Can they provide free education? Impossible. So do they pack up their bags and head home? The answers might lie in the ill-defined phrase “as managed by the nation through laws”.

One of the signatories to the interim statute is the CPN-Maoist. The Maoists have condemned private education and advocated that education be taken up as the government’s responsibility. The Maoists disrupted school education only because the schools raised fees from the children. Now it remains to be seen if the Maoists stick to their words. Otherwise, people should come out on the streets again advocating free education as their children’s right. The positive aspect of this Article in the Interim Statute is that enrolments in grades 6-12 will rise and children from all corners of the country will get an opportunity to study. In fact, if the tax system is made scientific, the government can make even higher education free as in Sri Lanka and many European countries. This will help promote knowledge economy leading to competitiveness in the international market.

The only worry is quality of such education where quality inputs are almost non-existent. For this, the system needs to be overhauled. The teachers are the cornerstone of any education system. Unless they are made accountable, the existing chaotic situation will never improve. If teachers are not monitored and evaluated properly, trade union politics of the teacher organisations will always hinder children from receiving quality education. There should be a mechanism in place for the screening and training of the teachers. They should be capable licence holders and be able to maintain a certain standard in education. To this end, the government should come up with proper standards and an accountability system .

If the government is serious about educating its people, it should announce compulsory primary education. If not, the dream of Education for All will never be realised. The government’s inflated data has confused people about the net enrolment of 5-9 age group. No other data support government’s version that 87.4 per cent of the primary school going children (5-9 age) attend school. The dropout rate is alarming and children who have completed school never got a quality education. School education must be declared free for all with mechanisms of quality control in place.

Dr Wagley is professor of Education, TU