Opinion: Debunking Nepal's Education Sector Fallacies

‘Lokesh, a 9th grader from Bajura District, returns from his daily ritual of cattle herding and wonders about the reopening of his public school which has been turned into a quarantine centre since lockdown. On the contrary, Prabodh rushes to switch on the laptop for his regular online Zoom Class in Kathmandu after eating his delicious spaghetti.’

Covid-19 has been an eye-opener to expose the underlying fallacies of a long undervalued education sector in Nepal. Constant ignorance to understand the basics of Marginal Return on Education has created a self-fulfilling prophecy with multiple consequences, mainly widening the public-private education gap.

This has significantly impacted the ability of our children to compete with the western world that encompasses the latest technology and modern updated syllabus. The situation of public schools is further dreary in adjunct to the problem of high absenteeism, substandard infrastructure, poor quality and socio-economic impediments among many. It is an apt time to use Covid-19 as a platform to discuss pending questions of our ill performance and embedded inequality regardless of increased state spending and ambitious plans.

Where did we go wrong?

Economist Michael Kremer in his 0-ring model says -- for an outcome to bear high value, task of multi-layered execution should go proficiently. Even when our view on education is largely constrained to support economic development, indicators of a sound education system stands below par level. Sub-components of quality education have failed to integrate and synergise each other, rather have precluded their coexistence.

Despite multiple promises to overhaul potholes, policymakers have clearly failed to inherit education as public service with strong positive correlation on human capital development. Our policy making has adhered to top down planning and has debarred communities from spheres of decision making to materialise experienced-based inputs to address ground realities. In addition to that, besides the past political contribution of active politicisation of educational institutions (particularly public schools) through unionism, using teachers and students for political gain has dismantled the status-quo.

Also, over the time, a tendency of providing financial support has become rampant to sustaining political campaigns creating a nexus of politicians-private sector actors. Due to the insatiable human greed of political leaders, policies have served the private sector interest through dark money and the efforts to revamp public education have been completely overlooked. This tendency driven by avarice has scrapped public school education towards disarray while the private sector seemed to enjoy the perks.

The introduction of the Medical Education Bill, reluctance of regulatory bodies to tame education mafias are some instances that  depict how things have been working out. Serious objection by parents on bills issued by the private schools is on the rise, as private schools have shown their ultra-capitalistic nature by charging irrelevant overheads, even in this quagmire. Policy makers are wary that negligence towards the education of public school students and only resuming the online education of private schools will further add fuel to the already stretched gap of quality education.

In states like ours, the complications lie on both ends of the service providing government and recipient public. The rigid social and economic barriers have consistently challenged progressive education from an invisible front. Throughout history, access to education remained a privilege of religious and economic elites, and less of a necessity for socio-economic empowerment. Inter-generational transfer of this has (a) ingrained the psyche with fatalism for socio-structural deprivation, and (b) created a preference for economic engagement over educational attainment, which has created a lethal socio-economic construct to widen the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘haves-not’.

The Quality vs Quantity debate

The definition of improved education has shifted as the development sector seems to adhere to ‘qualitative’ aspects using assessment techniques such as schooling status and learning outcomes. In simple words, net year of schooling and gross enrollment ratio are past generation indicators replaced by questions of how much a child has actually learned after attending classes.

Our focus towards the production of more public schools, increasing the enrollment rate, and a desperate political nature to prove through numbers has missed out the qualitative improvement of education. The balance between the qualitative growth and quantitative expansion both is necessary but the realisation of both progressing parallelly is important. It is an undeniable fact that quality of education plays a vital role in the student’s performance. But what signifies quality?

Quality in the sense, whereby, we can encompass geographical and regional knowledge, emphasise on technical education, concentrate policies on harnessing the optimum potential, and opening rooms for the students to explore their interests. Also efforts should be concentrated on creating awareness and transforming the conservativeness in society, and bring students out of the narrow domestic walls of ‘doctor-pilot-engineer syndrome’. The fear that surrounds parents with regards to societal prestige has put an enormous pressure on students, has limited their choices, and bound them from exploring the unlimited possibilities.

An ambiguous prescription on reforms of education to improve quality by various organisations has raised serious questions towards the country’s policy of education. Determination of classroom sizes should be a priority so that students can receive equal and balanced focus. The situation of classroom sizes in Nepal is pathetic, depriving students from equitable education. Teacher-student ratio is another factor that hinders the improvement in quality of education received by students. Quantity to empower and teach students should definitely increase and the educational policy should be able to engross maximum audiences, however, it should not be in a rampant and dubious manner to just prove through statistics.

On the quality part, we should also be able to frame the region based educational policy and not ‘one-size-fits-all’ thinking. In the journey of realising self potential, just entering the classroom does not correlate to the fulfillment of true potential of students.

To a question on what matters more, quality or quantity? It is definitely a blend of both. Better designing of coursebooks, output-oriented education, extensive knowledge sharing with global partners, and blending such learnings in the local outset is a necessity of time.

Can we tackle education inequality?

The issues of education, health and transportation are basic foundations of a socialist state. Its relevance could remains no higher than it is today as communist leaders hold an overwhelming majority at all three tiers of the government. There is an immense need to capacitate its agencies by (a) building resilient digital infrastructure, (b) transforming the role of unions in educational institutions, (c) breaking the politicians-education mafia nexus, (d) major overhaul on mechanisms of  incentive/promotion structure, (e) enhanced child-centered learning.

Globally, internet penetration has been an effective tool to reduce inequalities and gaps. ICT in the education sector can bring disruptive changes as it has done in several countries and greatly benefit all. The concept of digital libraries cannot just expose students to worldwide courses but can help overcome perennial problems such as book scarcity often induced by limited production capacity and inefficient logistics management. The long-term investment would optimise resource allocation, overcome geographical hindrances and help students access world class reading materials both in unusual circumstances of today, and during normal time. There are several startups working in the direction to develop AI-enabled classes and provide Massive Open Online Courses which require government collaboration to promote tech-companies in developing geographically feasible cost-effective education tools.

One of the reasons why private schools in Nepal perform comparatively better is due to their widespread tendency of ‘cream skimming’. Even the presence of substandard facilities never fails to woo a large number of people. However, people with modest economic means tend to drop-out from public schools to sustain their livelihood.

There is ample evidence how our peer countries developed ‘workable policies’ to outperform themselves practising higher decentralisation with a strong compliance monitoring mechanism at the centre. In contrast, the government has considered private schools to support public schools in delivering quality education and this is a sluggish response to the grave problem persisting in the educational system. Our actions should adopt a scientific approach with robust monitoring mechanisms, fine-tune it and improve shortcomings over time. It is a well known fact that the root of all other inequalities in the society advents with inequality in education. Having said this, the causality lies on either side as other inequalities lead deprivation from education and vice-versa.

Some changes in the approach of education and improvement can certainly be witnessed with higher enrollment and pass out rates as compared to the past but such changes are self-propelled and perfunctory rather than a serious consideration of the problem. When Nepal recovers from the crisis, we have an opportunity to self-reflect on the lessons learnt, connect the missing dots, and work towards a progressive education system.

Sourav Dhungana is a consultant at the Office of the Investment Board Nepal and writes on issues related to development and economics. 

Adhiraj Regmi is a young political activist of Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and writes on issues related to development and economics.