-By Dhruba Bhandari
This article was originally published on 28 February 2016 in The Himalayan Times.
What is said to be a ‘free’ public education in Nepal is really not free at all. It is simply a subsidised public service and is funded by tax revenues of the government, loans, and grants from international agencies. In terms of government expenditure, education is one of the most heavily funded sectors and these funds are channeled into the public education system. Despite increasing investments, Nepal’s public school system is widely regarded unsuccessful. However, on the other hand, private schools are widely preferred and considered successful. School Leaving Certificate (SLC) pass rate in private schools is on average higher than 80 per cent whereas in public schools it is less than 50.
This is indeed a matter of great concern considering the fact that 75 to 80 per cent of total schools in Nepal are public schools. What this points us towards is that increased budgets only works in an environment where there is competition, proper system of accountability and incentive, and a system free from the stronghold of rent seeking teachers’ unions.
THE COST OF BUREAUCRACY
Public education system is currently under the central administration of Ministry of Education (MoE) with bureaucratic layers between the Ministry and schools. This centrally administered educational system involves a co-ordination between Ministry of Education (MoE), Department of Education (DoE), District Education Office (DEO) and School Management Committee (SMC). For example, requesting an additional teacher in the public school might look like this—SMC requests to increase the number-of-teacher’s quota, the DEO checks and analyses the need and forwards the application to the MoE before MoE finally decides and approves the extension on the quota of number of teachers based on annual student enrollment. Clearly, this process takes much longer for a public school than for a private school where they are free to hire any number of new teachers as and when need be.
Inefficiency of this centralised administration of public school is reflected not only in teacher recruitment but also in other areas like teacher absenteeism, student absenteeism, student dropout rate and student’s overall academic performance. Private schools cannot allow or afford this structural inefficiency since they have to compete for students and thus the revenues, which is clearly not the case for public schools.
UNIONISM DETERRING ACCOUNTABILITY
The stronghold of teachers’ unions in public schools bolstered by strong political alliance also perpetuate the lack of accountability and pervert incentives. If the teachers’ jobs are secured by doing better union politics than teaching, the incentive is to be better at union politics. The teachers’ unions can demand benefits without the risk of losing their jobs and it generally results in increased spending in school but in lower educational outcomes. This trend also tends to continue without any check due to collective bargaining power of the teachers’ union.
Instead of simply increasing the education budget, which is one of the major arguments floating around, it is necessary to look at innovative and efficient methods of providing education in Nepal to improve the educational outcomes. Principally, reducing the administrative and management role of government in providing education and providing choices to parents (to increase accountability) through market-based solutions is the key idea.
What market based solutions will offer to current public school system is- accountability, competition, innovation, choice for parents and in centive to perform better. One method of providing education with choice and competition can be decentralisation of all public schools. Under a decentralised system, even public schools with full autonomy and authority to charge school fees to some extent can function like private schools and can deliver better results.
Before the National Education System Plan (NESP) and Education Act, 1971 that brought all schools under a centralised state administration, each school had a School Management Committee (SMC) consisting of parents, community leaders, founders and donors. The SMC was responsible for teacher recruitment and management, determination of fees, financial management, mobilisation of resources and general supervision. Locally appointed head teacher managed the school and oversaw the day-to-day operations. Both teachers and school administration were accountable to parents and communities rather than the Ministry or district offices. The schools were operated in a decentralised system with autonomy. Other methods of providing education with choice and competition involve partnership of government with private sectors. Some system of improving educational system with private sectors can be- government funded education vouchers to attend private schools, charter schools (government funded schools that are managed and run by private managers) and low cost private schools that can cater for the low income households (which is possible with government reducing the standards and regulations for private schools).