Those parts of education, it is to be observed, for the teaching of which there are no public institutions, are generally the best taught.
-Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations.
The popular movement of Spring 1990 which ended the Panchayat polity also opened up the possibilities for change and improvement in Nepali society. The education sector is one which is long overdue for structural reform and revitalisation, and we owe it to our young not to miss this opportunity.
Historically, Nepali education has concentrated on growth rather than on quality. The period after the fall of the Rana regime in 1951 witnessed a rapid expansion at all levels of education. Mindless expansion was also the hallmark of the National Education System Plan, inaugurated in 1971. The Plan failed, but the system of increased government intervention in education continued.
Government policy coupled with strong social demand and considerable mobilization of private finance for education led to rapid increase in enrollment. From 0.5 million in 1971, total enrollment in all levels of Nepali education had expanded to 2.4 million students by 1987-88. Presently, there are 1.9 million students at the primary level, 559,500 at the lower and secondary levels and 94,700 at the university level.
This success in enrollment, unfortunately, is accompanied by a pathetically low quality of teaching, coupled with inequity, inefficiency and squandering of scarce resources.
The gross inequities that exist in the schools throughout the country speaks of Nepali education’s regressive character. The opportunity cost of child labour (cost of labour foregone by attending schools), particularly of the girl-child, malnutrition, and the direct cost of schooling conspire to keep many children of the lower-income group out of school.
There is also the pre-school factor. Children of poorer families, even when they manage to attend schools, are seriously disadvantaged due to their poor health, under-nutrition and impoverished socio-economic background.
Seventy percent of the children who drop out early or fail to complete primary education are from this segment of Nepali society.
Taking the case of female education, in 1988, only 28.6 per cent of children enrolled at the school level were girls. Today, the literacy rate among women, at 18 per cent, is nearly three times less than that of men. A disproportionate portion of pupils who fail to leave primary schools are girls or children from disadvantaged communities
Those whose mother-tongue is not Nepali are additionally handicapped because the compulsory medium of instruction is Nepali. In these and many other ways, hundreds of thousands of children are being penalised for no fault of their own by the very educational system that is meant to be supporting them.
Disparity also exists between the towns and villages. Because urban children have the benefit of better secondary schooling, those who pass the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examinations are mostly from the towns. This becomes a severe penalty on village children, as entry into higher education is based on SLC scores.
The quality of school education is abysmal due to a lack of trained teachers, absence of instructional materials, obsolete curriculum and poorly designed textbooks targeted at urban children of higher income groups.
Low morale and motivation among teachers is a problem that has never been tackled. Teachers receive inadequate professional sup-port, such as regular sessions with subject specialists, on-the-job training, and supply of teachers’ bulletins and professional magazines. In fact, teachers are more absent from school than students. The daily teaching schedule rarely exceed three hours and hardly ever reaches five. On the average, schools are in session no more than 120 days out of a school year of 180 days.
Even when teaching does take place, it is unimaginative and fails to stimulate young minds. Intellectual curiosity, which is every child’s innate gift is constantly suppressed. Discovery, experimentation and practical learning are unheard of in our schools. Examinations are incentives only for rote-learning.
Nepali children are never taught to imagine, interpret, opine or think creatively.
All this taken together, it is not surprising that the success rate in the SLC examinations has remained at an average of 30 per cent over the last two decades. Only once during this period has it exceeded 40 per cent. Although the previous government claimed 93 per cent national gross enrollment at the primary level, a recent World Bank study indicates that 40 per cent of school-age boys and 70 per cent of school age girls remain out of school.
No thanks to government, but due to the ingenuity of some private entrepreneurs, there do exist a few relatively good primary and secondary schools in the urban centers, but they are expensive and out of reach of the majority population. In comparison to other countries, however, even these “elite” schools provide sub-standard education. Most of their teachers are untrained and their curriculum is heavily drawn from Indian boarding schools. English language teaching is equated with good education and the stress is on passing examinations rather than on the “process” of learning and intellectual growth.
Higher education is no better. Academic standards in the campuses are mediocre, with teachers, again, lacking dedication and scholarship. University classes consist of straight lectures that adhere to the text, or teaching notes prepared some years ago. Instruction is bookish, prescriptive and suffers from what Paulo Freire calls “narration sickness”.
Seminars, discussions and case-studies are unheard of in Nepali higher education. Reading assignments, term-papers, projects, and paper presentations are regarded as conventions from another planet. Tribhuvan provides neither the rigor nor the challenge of university life. Academic calendars do not exist: students leave early for vacation and return late. Unscheduled holidays, student meetings and teacher absenteeism frequently interrupt classes. College students probably spend less time in the classroom here than in any other country.
The scarcity of funding for capital investment and non-salary operating expenses has seriously undermined the institutional framework of higher education. The situation is tragic. Campus buildings are disheartening structures with graffiti-filled corridors, dingy classrooms, broken furniture, blackened walls and whitened blackboards. In the libraries, books are in perpetual short supply and professional journals a luxury. In the science laboratory, chemicals, and even water, might not be available. Basic equipment for field work are unavailable:
The University produces chemists who have never done a salt test; biologists who have yet to perform a dissection; physicists who do not know the measure for an electrical current; technicians who have never been required to disassemble machinery; agriculturists that have only read about soil analysis; and social scientists who have never collected data or conducted an analysis. Such are the qualitatively deprived graduates that Tribhuvan has been dumping into job market.
Tribhuvan’s unthinking open admissions policy is the major bane of higher education. The University is swamped by ever-increasing numbers of students. In many campuses, par-ticularly in the urban centers, the carrying capacity of the buildings themselves has been exceeded. Tribhuvan’s total enrollment is approaching 100,000 students and according to one projection that number will double within a decade.
Reforming the open admissions policy is one of the major challenges before the new government. Without admission reform, the enrollment in higher education will grow much faster than the available government resources.
Nepali education reached this low, low ebb because the Panchayat government had neither the inclination nor the political support to successfully face the challenge. Its success lay in skillfully avoiding the hard decisions required to tackle the poor quality, inefficiency and inequity inherent in the education system, The backlog of problems that await a new government is therefore enormous, with the situation further aggravated by people’s expectations, the demand for educational expansion to accommodate the growing number of children and youth through the 1990s, and the acute shortages of public fund.
Rather than shirk its responsibilities, the new government that comes to power after the election in 1991 will be expected to be courageous, clear-headed and purposeful. One things is clear: the neglect of Nepali education over the years has made the task of reform much too complex for routine methods to work.
The first major attack must be on the quality issue. Programmes to improve educational standards might include the training of school teachers; staff development and upgrading; faculty exchange; twinning arrangement with other universities; increasing the relevance of curricula and textbooks; improving the process of teaching and learning; providing vital teaching aids such as lab equipment, books and instructional material; limiting enrollment in higher education; and imposing rigorous academic discipline on schools and campuses.
“Cost consciousness” is also important. The utilisation rate of physical plants such as laboratories, workshops and other specialised facilities must be improved. Teachers’ “time on task” must be monitored and minimum teaching loads per week set, particularly in higher education. “Casual leaves” and sabbaticals must be restricted, as must the ratio of non¬academic support staff to academic staff.
Campuses and training centers should intro-duce accelerated courses and intensive training. Low-enrollment programmes such as those of the Mahendra Sanskrit University which grossly suffers from the “diseconomies” of under-utilised facilities, must not be encouraged. In the particular instance, a Centre for Sanskrit Studies would have been much more useful than a separate university. At the other end of the spectrum, high-cost institutions such as Budanilkantha High School, which are heavily subsidised by government and foreign grants, need to be completely privatised. Savings from such measures can be channeled towards the improvement of rural schools.
There is also a need to shift more of costs from public to private sources. This can be achieved by various means: gradually increasing fees for tuition in higher education, particularly in campuses where unit costs are high and earning prospects after graduation are good (such as engineering and medicine); reducing or even eliminating subsidies for meals and accommodation in student hostels; and, where possible, collecting contributions from prospective employers to help finance at least part of vocational education and training.
University campuses can mobilize their own resources by raising funds and collecting endowments from alumni and other donors in the private and public sectors. Some centrally located campuses can also raise funds by providing research, consultancy and training services to government, aid agencies and private firms. This is already being done by the Institute of Engineering.
Unequal access to education runs counter to the spirit of democracy and social justice. For this reason, special focus must be on increasing the participation of girls and children of rural and disadvantaged communities. Programmes which address the equity issue can include recruitment of female teachers which, as research has proved, can help attract more girls to school; providing disadvantaged communities with not only free textbooks, but also stationary and writing material; developing special introductory Nepali courses for children whose mother tongue is different; and posting teachers belonging to the same ethnic and language group as the primary school students.
Other possible programmes can be: establishing locally run day-care centers for preschool children in poorer communities; starting remedial programs for students coming from poor school backgrounds; providing loans for university students from under-served communities who fail to qualify for scholarships or grants; and allocating certain percentage of seats in higher education for applicants from disadvantaged groups, particularly girls.
These suggestions on possible ways to alleviate educational disparities by no means exhaust the possibilities. And it would be a pipe dream to expect all of them to be implemented immediately by the new government. Political considerations will inevitably limit the feasibility of some of the recommended measures as they will be perceived as threats to the deeply ingrained interests of some powerful groups. Some other recommended options will obviously require deeper analysis and meticulous research.
Moreover, implementing the recommendations will require financial resources that are not easily available. Some savings can be realised by enhancing educational efficiency and reducing wastage, but such savings will not be sufficient to upgrade education. Considering the prospect for growth in the economy, the government’s budget is not likely to grow much in the mid-term future, and the competition for budget any resources among the government programs will continue to be severe.
The forthcoming elected government will have to confront the need to decide where the budgetary axe should fall: on education and other human development programs, or on military spending, state ceremonies, mismanaged public corporations, or subsidies directed toward the urban higher income families.
All persons with school-age offspring now await action by the elected government. Nothing can be more harmful to the country than for such government, when it takes office, to procrastinate. The options are closing and the inevitable chain of consequences is already underway. Only an elected, responsible government can turn Nepali education around.
Kedar Mathema is former head of Tribhuvan University’s Central Campus and is presently with the World Bank programme in Nepal.