This is crisis time for the education sector as students groups aligned to various communist factions try to outdo each other in their hardline stance towards private schools. As a taste of things to come, they will force all schools to close for a week-14-21 May.
The demands are a ban on singing the national anthem that praises the monarchy, a ban on teaching Sanskrit, slashing private school fees by half, stopping "western" influences forthwith, and ultimately forcing the nationalisation of private schools.
This frontal attack on the schooling system is a part of a Maoist strategy to push what it considers populist reform and is spearheaded by a students' union at the forefront of the agitation. Unions backed by the UML and ML have been forced to harden their positions in response to the Maoists' radical stance.
However, some analysts say the agitation could prove counter-productive since the closure of schools will affect a wide swath of Nepal's middle class, including supporters of all shades of communists. The move to slash fees will in all likelihood mostly benefit richer families who are the only ones who can afford to send their children to private schools in the first place. Senior Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai himself went to a missionary-run school in Gorkha, a district where many schools have now been shut down due to Maoist threats.
St Mary's School in Gorkha and Notre Dame Higher Secondary School in Bandipur have both announced that they are shutting down from the coming academic year. Ironically, these two schools are not-for-profit even though they are private, and they have shown more commitment to quality education and motivation than most other commercially-run private schools.
"I would like to believe that the Maoists are serious about improving education in this country, but by lumping everyone together, and making no distinction between those for whom schooling is a business and for whom it is a commitment, they have proven that this is just a slogan for them," says one educationist in Kathmandu. The Maoists have so far only sent threatening letters to the two schools, and they haven't said what aspect of the instruction in the schools they find harmful. When asked, Maoist supporters give the party line on "western cultural imperialism". Says Devendra Parajuli of the Maoist-affiliated student union: "The closure of missionary-run schools is only the first step towards our ultimate goal of janabadi shikchha (people-oriented education) in all schools."
To be sure, many private schools are run like businesses, the quality of instruction is questionable, fees are many times more than government schools and there is an emphasis on English. Educationists, teachers, parents, and even students themselves, feel that schools need a thorough revamp. Successive governments have been making changes, and new models have been tried. But the standard of cash-starved government schools continues to deteriorate, while expensive private schools are charging premium rates by promising quality that is not always there.
Even the government admits that the education sector is in crisis. The reason it says is decades of mismanagement and ad hoc planning. But the students want the government to set things right within a month, or else.
The closure of missionary-run schools, pressure on existing private schools to reduce fees, and reconstruction of the schooling system to accommodate children from poor families, is already taking its toll on private schools in Kathmandu. Bhoj Bahadur Shah of the Private and Boarding School Organisation of Nepal (PABSON) says that member schools are already reporting a fall in enrolment. Only 20 percent of the students of PABSON member schools have applied for readmission, he says. Others are awaiting a confirmation that the Maoists' call would not affect their children's education.