Enhancing Public Education in Federal Nepal

– This article was originally published by Akash Shrestha in the Himalayan Times on the November 25, 2018

Education is a fundamental right of all Nepalis. But what does that mean for Nepal going forward? If every citizen has a constitutional right, then the state has the fundamental duty to ensure that. How do we approach the delivery of basic public education in Federal Nepal? Does government even have to be in the business of providing education itself? Yes, there is now a big challenge ahead for local governments, but that also means that these are times to learn from other innovations, within the country and beyond. At this juncture, it will be helpful to take a step back and take stock of what has been done and achieved so far in Nepal, where we stand right now, and assess what opportunities and alternatives lie ahead for us.

The rationale for government investment in education is that education creates positive externalities, for individuals and the society. For a country like Nepal, it means that education can play a significant role in enhancing productivity of its human resource, bolstering economic growth and reducing poverty.

Government of Nepal has made public education one of its priority areas of investment over the years. Every year, this investment has grown. The fiscal year of 2017/18 saw the Nepalese government allocate NPR. 127 billion to education sector—a historical allocation. If we observe the most recent fifteen years, we are also spending over NPR. 1.4 trillion on improving various other aspects of our public education, like teacher training programs, student enrollment programs, food for education programs, etc. It is important to note here that these programs have, to a certain extent (if not a hundred percent), met their objectives.

But since this is not any individual’s or a private business’s investment but rather that comes from all taxpayers of the nation altogether, it is important to critically review the impact and efficiency of this kind of investment.  We can clearly notice a disconnect that exists today between all the spending on public education and its outcomes. Pass rates, for instance, says a lot about their performance. More importantly, some of the other indicators that we can use to gauge the impact of this investment, viz. preparation of students for higher level degrees, creating a supply of competitive human resource that meets the demand of the market, or the overall benefit that accrues to the society, also show that our education system has been failing to produce justifiable outcomes.

This also shows that while it is important to create opportunities for students to enroll in schools, or train teachers via different dedicated programs like the ones our government has been running, its success does not necessarily equate to a quality education system. These interventions thus seem more like therapeutic solutions to the structural problems that exist in our education system but not a curative one altogether.

Now while spending has failed to draw desired result, the cost of public education has surged to unprecedented levels. One of the recent studies conducted by Samriddhi Foundation in Jhapa found that the cost of producing one graduate in public schools is NPR. 27,883. This, is only NPR 700 less than average private schools—the very private schools that often are referred to as immoral profiteers in so many of our public discourses.

What are truly needed in our public education are provisions that create more accountability towards student performances and programs that incentivize schools, teachers and parents. Considering that the planned interventions of the last six decades of Nepalese public education system has largely failed to deliver this, we can say that the need of the hour is a structural reform in the way we deliver public education in Nepal.

With the new Constitution there is opportunity for the local governments to make a big departure. Under the unitary government, the inefficiency of the government and its machineries could have been used as a scapegoat against such dismal performance. But now, with basic and secondary education under their belt, it will be their duty to ensure that public education delivers. As agents of its citizens, they will also be held to account for quality of investment in public education. They could opt to pilot alternative models of delivering public education within their jurisdictions. There are many alternatives to availing from the idea of Public Private Partnership in enhancing public education in Federal Nepal.

At this point, we could also learn from what all reforms other countries have tried and what worked and what did not. Of course, the mere fact that a certain system worked in country X or Y does not necessarily mean that it will work in Nepal as well. Nepal will need its own home-grown solution to its problems.

During much of the last six decades of public education in Nepal, we have focused on only one form of delivering education – by government, through funding and running public schools. As Nepal undergoes this massive change in its entire governance and as we create new and empowered sub-national entities, now is the right time to be discussing alternative policy options for enhancing public education in Nepal.