Focussing on massive communication strategies about the existence of scholarships and how they are managed, with campaigns on radio, TV and the Internet, could be one of the ways to raise the level of accountability nationwide. Making a big buzz could be the best way to invest more on one of the best tools to fight inequity

The World Education Forum recently announced, as part of the Davos Agenda, a major new initiative aimed at boosting digital inclusion around the world. Led by Verizon, the American telecommunication corporation, the Edison Alliance has the potential to leverage the power of 5G also to help reduce the disparities in learning education in Nepal and elsewhere.

We witnessed during the lockdown and beyond how children from vulnerable families attending public schools were cut off from their right to education due to lack of connection and digital equipment. Emphasis on inclusive connectivity is important and will remain so in the future, but efforts to bridge this new divide in learning should not come at the expense of other essential and perhaps even more important priorities.

While we talk about inclusive and equitable education in a country like Nepal, we should not forget about other enabling tools that, when rolled out effectively and transparently, show efficacy and value for money in increasing the rate of enrollment among the most vulnerable children.

Scholarships and linked to them other forms of conditional and non-conditional cash transfers are one of the most effective mechanisms to create a level playing field in a country where private education dominates among the middle income and privileged families.

The latest major study on scholarships in Nepal was carried out by a group of senior educationalists led by Prof Dr Basu Dev Kafle a few years ago.

The report reviewed the several scholarship schemes being carried out under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, and it reiterated the value and importance scholarships can play in the lives of children. Targeted scholarship programmes have focussed on disadvantaged girls, children with disabilities, Dalit children and children for families who were engaged in bonded labour.

However, their management has raised several issues.

For example, there are great discrepancies in the ways such scholarships are administrated by the local schools in terms of the timing of their distribution and ineffective communication to the families and local communities. It is, therefore, not surprising that the levels of transparency and accountability in the way such scholarships are managed are dismal.

The researchers also found a lack of understanding among teachers and families about the real purpose of these scholarships, often creating wrong perceptions and further stigmatisation of those entitled to receive them. There is confusion as to whether the scholarships are rolled out on merit basis alone or are exclusively designed from an equity perspective.

This contributes to the making of underlying dichotomies, not only in terms of superiority and inferiority but also in terms of privilege and entitlement among students, especially when scholarships are distributed through community gatherings. Schools Management Committees and Teachers Parents Associations deserve a certain degree of flexibility and autonomy, elements that surely have exponentially increased since the responsibility to run local education has been transferred to local governments.

Yet it is essential to ensure common standards and that far stronger monitoring mechanisms are in place in all public schools across the country that adhere to the same procedures.

This newspaper recently reported about "irregularities in the scholarship fund meant for students of Sthanapati Secondary School located in Manthali Municipality, Ramechhap". The concerned school had lacked the most basic accountability practices with several instances of fund embezzlement.

Absence of tight supervision or simply of a proper understanding of how scholarships should be managed is widespread. It is not that guidelines are not in place. The problem lies in the overall enforcement of such regulations.

Focussing on massive communication strategies about the existence of scholarships and how they are managed, with campaigns on radio, TV and the Internet, could be one of the ways to raise the level of accountability nationwide.

This would require a major effort, financially and technically, but making a big buzz could be the best way to invest more on one of the best tools to fight inequity.

The fact that local education is now run by municipalities and that provinces also have an overall responsibility in the sector does not preclude the federal government from co-designing, out of a spirit of partnership and collaboration, new programmes that can bring order and transparency in what it is now a scattered and messy landscape.

The study conducted by Prof. Kafle and colleagues also argues for a clear focus on poverty and equity, with more resources allocated for the purpose as the major driver of a much-needed re-organisation of educational scholarships.

There is increasingly vast literature around the world on the effectiveness of cash mechanisms to support the most vulnerable students.

All the major multilateral and bilateral development organisations substantially back such an approach because these are effective tools if well administered.

Before getting enthralled with digitalisation of public schools, perhaps it would be wise to look at mechanisms already in place and make sure they work right.

Without such introspection and re-organisation, even inclusive digitalisation won't work.

"Educational outcomes are always influenced by family incomes," shared Amar Bahadur Sherma recently on this Op-Ed section.

Cash support to disadvantaged children and their families can make the difference, but better management and higher amounts are needed to impact and propel the social mobility Nepal is in so much need of.

Galimberti is the co-founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths living with disabilities