Nepali Times
Economic Sense
Private education, public diktat


It is difficult for your Beed to be amusing this week. It seems to me as if the vendetta against an un-governing government has found in schools one of its most singular and effective targets. This is terribly depressing-here we are, banking on an educated generation to come so we can all move on in tangible, important, necessary ways, and this is how we have been safeguarding and developing our resources. Are the developments of the last few weeks what it takes to shake us out of our complacence and make us realise that those conditions that make educational institutions an easy-and almost defensible-target of Nepal's revolutionaries are the very ones that would have failed us anyway, in ten, fifteen, twenty years.

Private education isn't some new-fangled institution we don't know what to do with. Until the government intervened in the seventies and the eighties, it was the only kind there was. Of course, what the state's intervention really did, due to the ineffectiveness of the National Education System Plan, was encourage the growth of private schools. In 1984 the ratio of public schools to private schools was 30:1 at the lower-secondary level and 5:1 in the secondary level. This is now 1:1.

As this dependence grew, private schools mushroomed virtually unregulated. No five-year plans dealt with them and they inspired no policy tomes concerning their number or the quality of education they offered. People will often say to this "Ah, but you see, the growth of private schools has helped in keeping resources within Nepal that would otherwise have flown out with our students." This is a fine sentiment, but let's be a little hard-nosed: at what cost to the quality of education was this happening?

A cost far too high to justify. Private education is a sellers' market, and even parents who would like to form associations and engage with their children's schools on these and other issues are scared to imperil their children's school careers by appearing to be nosy troublemakers. Every admission season parents must call anyone they know, including this Beed, and anxiously keep at them to help in their children's admission. Parents-the customers in the economic sense-can't ask for a price-cut. Once again it is the issue of regulation. Of course I also know of schools that charge high fees, but also incur high costs and after
being in operation for a decade, still barely break even.

If schools are to be run like businesses, then they ought at least be run like good businesses. The fee structure should be determined on the "rate of return" principle. If a private power developer is asked to assume a certain rate of return on its investment, why shouldn't an imagined school-fee structure be similarly regulated. Regulation and scrutiny would ensure schools couldn't charge lab fees or computer fees in the absence of either. At least fly-by-night private operators would have to realise that they are held responsible for the delivery of an important social service.

And it isn't just the fate of students at risk, also the investments in over 8,000 schools. Even at an average of Rs 2.5 million per school, there's an approximate investment of Rs 20 billion in the sector as a whole, not even beginning to count the financial institutions, service providers and intermediaries linked to it.

There simply must be an end to this impasse. There must be regulation by the government and self-regulation by associations. We need to finally talk about minimum standards of quality and facilities, and what constitutes a reasonable fee. The aspect of charges of fees needs to be addressed and of course the system of discouraging rampant mushrooming of schools. And private schools need to metamorphose from family enterprises to socially responsible institutions with avenues of public participation, whether in the form of trusts, or even public equity participation.

Readers can discuss issues at

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)