Youth education : Integral part of political democratisation

Youth constitute a real force of change in the new democratic Nepal. Their participation in many spheres of national life is however constrained by the low level of education among the majority of them.

The political change in Nepal must therefore make education of the youth an integral part of a broader agenda for political democratisation. Since education is both a source of individual advancement and a vehicle for empowerment, education and literacy should top the list of priorities of the new government. In the field of education, Nepal is confronted with two major problems. First, a great number of youths are still out of school, and second, the majority of those attending school are not getting quality education. This has resulted in the polarisation of Nepali society into groups with sharply different educational experiences and opportunities.

The problem of out-of-school children should be dealt with by launching a nationwide literacy campaign on a war footing, involving school teachers, college and university students and young or prospective members of political parties. Neo-literate young men and women should be taught bridge courses to incorporate them into the formal general or vocational technical education system. In order to motivate the disadvantaged children to remain in school and to make the school experience more meaningful and enjoyable, they should be taught in their native language, or a bilingual teaching programme should be adopted. Socio-economic programmes and educational incentives targeting poor, women, ethnic and linguistic minorities and Dalits are also needed.

The problem of low-quality education in public schools is compounded by the surge in the number of expensive profit-making schools, which cater to the children of richer parents. Although education in our society has been understood as a major gateway out of poverty and it has served this function admirably for some, academic success has been elusive for a large number of young people who are economically poor or culturally and racially disadvantaged.

Any attempt to raise the educational and socio-economic status of youth in Nepal must begin with ending of the dual system of school education, which offers quality education to just a few but denies it to a great majority. Although there are plenty of private schools that are driven by a genuine desire to educate children, others run purely to make a profit. This is incompatible with the concept of education as a public trust for future generations. The new Nepal should see to it that all children are schooled in a common core curriculum and offered common educational experiences. This, however, is easier said than done. It calls for massive improvement in the teaching and learning conditions in government schools and overall improvement in our education system, which requires heavy government and public commitment in the public education system.

Once we ensure that every child starts on equal footing, it is not essential that the state take all responsibilities for post-school education. The mass demand for higher education — a result of demographic growth and increased access to lower level education — is a reality in Nepal as it is in many other developing countries. This has made it increasingly difficult for the government to finance and support higher education. The government must therefore encourage the development of private higher education institutes as a means of managing the cost as well as broadening social participation in higher education. A purely private system will not adequately safeguard the public interest. A mixed system of public and private institutions of higher education could be the answer to Nepal’s needs. The private sector can play an important role in promoting higher education institutions, besides the universities. These institutions include short-term professional and technical institutes, undergraduate colleges, distance education and open learning programmes. In Nepal, we see many private initiatives in this sub-sector.

The aim of school education should be to create a consistent standard nationwide and equip every child with creativity, problem-solving skills and a passion for learning. Our aim in higher education should not be limited to producing ‘manpower’ required by the market but to creating a lear-ning society, one in which lifelong study as well as training and retraining are possible.

We have made mistakes in the past by not according education the priority that it deserves and the public commitment it demands. We have failed to learn lessons from East Asia and to realise the importance of education for national development and democratisation of society.

The cost of continued complacency has resulted in the widening of economic and social disparities, decline in the quality of life, deterioration of social cohesion and a reduced ability to compete in regional and global economies.

Mathema is a former vice-chancellor, TU