Restructuring Public Schools in Nepal – A Continuous Imperative

– This article was originally published by Ankshita Chaudhary in the Himalayan Times on the July 7, 2019.

Education is undeniably asserted as a fundamental right but its provision has always been a subject of heated debate, particularly between public and private school proponents. In Nepal, education has largely been paid for and almost entirely administered by the governmental bodies thus, being perceived as a public good that demands complete state supervision. However, this notion has time and again been challenged by the failing state and the abysmal records demonstrated by the public schools.

Historically, the GoN has been allocating the largest chunk of its expenditure on public education. Although it hasn’t reached the global commitment of allotting 20%, the expenditure has on average hovered around 10-12%. In 2018, the government of Nepal allocated 10.19% (Rs. 134.5 billion) of the total national budget to the education sector. So, all this spending must be yielding better results, right?

Contrary to what those in public education orate, the public education system is flush with funds, yet generates very few positive results. Take the recent results of Secondary Education Examination (SEE) as an example. The SEE known as the iron gate for decades, has once again demonstrated a massive divide between the public and the private schools, where the private schools have clearly outperformed their public counterparts. Admittedly, almost three times more students from public schools appeared for the exams than those from private schools. Out of them, only 4.3 percent of the students who appeared for SEE from public schools were able to achieve grade A or A+ as compared to 40.83 percent of students from private schools.

Indeed, the results do not stack up well regardless of the amount of money poured into the system. So, who is to blame? The parents blame teachers and administrators, teachers blame students and parents, administrators blame funding, and everyone seems helpless to actually fix the problem. While the buck is perpetually passed, the overarching question still remains as to why public schools are unable to translate the resources into quality education.

Critics believe that the major problem with public education is lack of accountability. The public-school teachers are paid by the state regardless of their physical presence in the school. These teachers who turn up sporadically have little or no fear of being fired as public schools operate from seemingly perpetual funds. Conversely, an absence of a direct fee-paying environment in the public-school warrants parents to think that their obligation to educate their child ends with enrollment alone and thus results in inactive involvement in the child’s performance. The government on the other hand, funds these schools by ripping the tax payers’ hard-earned money from state coffers without any moral compunction and fear of sanctions.

These realities beg questioning and a careful reassessment of the manner of spending and operations. It is high time that the government performs an outcome-based analysis of the current system of public education and identify alternative and effective means to ensure good quality outcomes. It’s time for the government to wake up—and catch up to the educational demands and expectations of the 21st century.

A relatively new practice, gaining steady but widespread prominence, is that of voucher system. The idea of school vouchers gained modern intrigue when it was suggested by the Nobel prize-winning economist, Milton Friedman, where he argued for the ‘denationalization of education,’ and recognized vouchers as a tool in that process. Simply put, an education voucher system is an arrangement whereby the state and/or municipal government hands out a certain percentage of the cost of education of a student in form of a cash voucher. This cash voucher acts as actual money substitute that the student can use to attend an ‘approved’ school of his/her choice (either public or private). ‘Approved’ schools shall generally mean independent schools that shall be willing to participate in voucher system schooling and maintain certain standards of schooling such as minimum common content and sanitary conditions in the schools.

The school voucher possesses a number of intrinsic advantages in its application. To start with, a voucher system means better resource allocation whereby states fund students directly rather than pouring money into dismal public schools, year after year. This gives parents and students more choices as to where they would like to pursue an education and at the same time, increases accountability of public schools owing to a sense of ownership by students and parents. The direct transfer of money also ensures accountability and better motivated teachers, as they will no longer be able to rely on a perennial income regardless of their performance. School vouchers not only induce competition between private and public schools but also reduce education budget mismanagement as well as corruption levels by directly funding students (and hence making middlemen redundant).

There is a need to look at a radically different approach to rescue such drowning schools. With all said and done, school vouchers could thus, be an imperative application to improve the overall literacy in Nepal and ensure accountability from the concerned stakeholders.