Mixing up politics with education is nothing new in Nepal. The Rana rulers understood very well that education would ultimately lead to their downfall. They made it difficult for Nepalis to attain any kind of formal education. During the Panchayat years we saw more emphasis on education, but we saw the syllabus and curriculum used flagrantly to propagate the non-party state.
In the past 12 years, the private sector stepped to fill the gap left by the government in the public's demand for quality and quantity of education. Education soon became an industry and spurred by a huge demand went through a boom cycle. And as with all booms, came malpractice. Fly-by-night schools opened, and the unscrupulous had a field day in the absence of government and bureaucracy that failed to play a proper regulatory role. Unethical norms for enrolments, exorbitant fees and dubious deposits and charges were heaped on unsuspecting parents. We had the strange phenomenon of "day-boarding" schools, 12-hour schools, 7-day schools, uniforms requiring 3-year-olds to wear ties and "re-admission fees".
When the guilty got away without punishment, the blatant daylight robbery in the name of education got progressively worse. Democratically-elected governments and unstable coalitions were too busy ensuring their political survival, fighting each other or plundering the exchequer to devote much time to educational reform.
When they did speak up, the political parties made matters worse by threatening populist measures like nationalising education and ensuring free education. In the past decade education became a free-for-all as "boarding" schools sprang up like tea stalls, with some having as little space. Many school inspectors and district education offices were hand-in-glove with school owners. On the other hand, we saw the total collapse of the government school system due to politicisation, low motivation, lack of training and budgetary cuts.
The result is there for all to see in the annual SLC results where government schools are lucky if 10 percent of their students pass the exams. Many schools have a zero percent pass rate. It isn't the students who have failed, it is the school system that has failed.
Is there nothing called shame, responsibility or guilt on the part of these school teachers and the district education office and board? Various half hearted efforts have been made to improve this situation, like the in-built system of punishment and reward for schools on the strength of their results, such as reducing government grants for poor results and giving more say to the management committees. But these efforts are half-hearted and worse, there is a danger that it will punish the already weak.
There are some 8,500 private schools in the country with a student strength of 1.5 million and approximately 700 establishments for higher secondary education. The government's effort to regulate the education sector has been restricted to maximising tax extraction from these schools. It has come out with a law which requires private schools to register themselves as a company or as a non-profit trust. If they opt for the company they are to be taxed on the gross revenue, which as they say, is not fair.
Faced with Maoist threats to renew their campaign against schools from mid-Feburary, the government has come up with a list of reforms. The private schools body, PABSON, has made recommendations for slashing school fees. Private educators want the 30-year-old Education Act to be overhauled and a separate section added for private schools classifying them as "institutionalised organisations" and not as a private businesses. They have no problems with paying taxes on the profits founders take home, but say that institutional profit that is ploughed back into development and upgrading of school infrastructure should not be taxed.
Controversies regarding the ownership, classification and fee structure, and the proposed 1.5 percent tax on total income must be resolved as a matter of urgency. If this is delayed, schools that have been hard hit by threats, extortion and property damage by Maoists will simply shut down permanently. Already, schools in 10 districts have closed. School have been adversely affected in 25 districts.
Governments everywhere cannot afford to take up the sole burden of education, they delegate a part of that to the private sector. In Nepal, there is even less of a chance that the government can take up this responsibility. It cannot even manage basic primary education with the proper application of quality standards. How can it compete with the global trends in information technology and English language instruction?
Nepal is a long way from achieving the goal of universal free education for its citizens. There is no other way to fill the gap than to promote responsible and regulated private sector participation. And there is no reason why those who can afford it should not have access to world class education in their own country. Those who can't must be ensured good, balanced, and free education by the state so that they have the same opportunities to pursue higher education as graduates of private schools do.
(Dhawal SJB Rana is the former UML mayor of Nepalganj.)