Low-cost Private School: Too big to ignore

– This article was originally published by Ankshita Chaudhary in the Himalayan Times on the June 02, 2019.

For decades, public schools in Nepal have occupied the prime space in the debate wherein they have produced dismal student performance despite huge public injections, year after year. Regardless of the amount of money poured into the education sector, the grades have slipped, the dropout rates have surged and the teacher quality as well as the teaching practices have fallen short. Teacher absenteeism in such schools is probably the most blatant issue. In addition, these public schools have been the foreground for political activity and have been plagued by intense political infiltration. 

In Nepal, the public education system is in a bleak state as it routinely reports on enrollment and rarely on actual learning. The poor quality of basic education in public schools is depicted by that fact that among the children enrolled in grade one, 8% drop out and 23% repeat. While only 70% children who enter grade one complete their primary education, less than one third reach grade ten. Although the enrollment rate has increased over the past decade, the data reflects that the rate of enrollment is not translating into quality education. 

Moreover, the cost of schooling is yet another drawback associated to public schools. Even though tuition is free, oftentimes, there are other expenses and as the quality of education is poor, parents are forced to pay for additional tutoring to enable their children to pass tests. Also, for majority of the parents, sending their children to school accounts for a larger trade-off as children forgo opportunities to produce income, by working on the family farm or by being involved in other menial jobs.  

These realities and sub-par outputs beg questioning, particularly when public schools entail 82 percent of the total enrolled students. This ratio stamps that the future of more than four-fifth of the students is appalling in regards to receiving quality education in the country.

Off late, an anti-private school discourse has been brewing in the public domain in Nepal. Even the High-Level Education Commission has recommended that all private schools be operated under trusts as this will prevent commercialization in school education. While private education is currently not seen as a valid alternative solution for problems besetting public education, it is imperative to fortify mechanism for private provision of education services. 

When people talk about private schools, they tend to think of highly expensive and exclusive institutions, renowned for a certain status quo with endless resources. However, the global reality of private education is a world away from the realm of the elites. A relatively new practice, gaining a steady yet widespread prominence, not just in Nepal but around the world, is that of low-cost private schools (LCPS). The LCPS include any market oriented (nominally for-profit) schools that are dependent upon user fees for operations and therefore need to function as a viable business model. 

Also, these privately-run low-cost schools tend to be smaller and more rooted in the local communities. The teachers are employed because they are known to the local people and are not unionized, unlike their public-school counterparts. Similarly, the private sector involvement not only fosters competition and innovation but also introduces a greater level of accountability. All these factors make the LCPS more result-driven. 

The gaining popularity of the LCPS can be owed to the value for money they provide to the beneficiaries. Children in the low-cost private schools outperform those in public schools, as well as these LCPS provide better quality for a fraction of the cost. The cost of sending a child to a LCPS is not much more than sending to a supposedly ‘free’ government school, as any public school requires extra costs such as shoes, uniform, books and transport, and these tended to dwarf the cost of school fees.

These LCPS are now too big to ignore as they are gradually mushrooming in the educational ecosystem. In India, for instance, the number of LCPS has more than doubled since 1993, while in Kenya, LCPS enrollment has tripled since 1997, despite the abolition of public-school fees. It is estimated that there are now one million private schools in the developing nations that charge typically a few dollars per month. 

The growth of the LCPS is itself a pragmatic response tothe enduring learning crisis in many public education systems and the failure of governments to provide a sufficient quantity of schooling to meet the demand. This echoes two competing views on the determinants of demand. Differentiated demand – where parents are seeking certain characteristics usually related to quality and innovation – and excess demand- where parents choose private schools for want of a better alternative to public schools. 

In many developing economies, low-cost solutions have gained momentum to meet the demands that the governments have failed to provide. Therefore, in case of Nepal, it is imperative to make a direct and comprehensive effort to understand the barriers of edupreneurship and the mechanisms to get rid of them. This can be done by removing regulations and unnecessary bureaucratic requirements that prevent the opening of new low-cost private schools and by examining the possibility of introducing tax incentives for relevant edupreneurial initiatives.