Education in Nepal: Meeting or Missing the Millennium Development Goals?

Article excerpt

Education in Nepal has a number of annual highlights. One is the National Education Day, on Falgun 12th (late February), commemorating the late king Birendra's coronation address in 1975. There he proclaimed that "education constitutes the mainspring of development" (quoted in Shrestha 1989: i). Accordingly, he commanded his government to make "primary education free of cost and accessible for all, boys and girls" (ibid.). A second annual occasion addressing education is the festival Basanta Panchami (mid February), a day dedicated to Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and learning. On that day, (Hindu) students all over the country visit temples, where they spend hours scribbling down their notes in chalk, as notes written down on this particular day will never be forgotten. While this latter day is usually celebrated and characterised by its festive mood, the National Education Day is simply being "observed" (Khadka 1997: 12), and it is a rather ambivalent affair, or even a gloomy one, and indicative for the (poor) state of education in Nepal. Some authors even find stronger expressions, as Khadka in his cynical article "Celebrating the pathetic state" (ibid.), or Shanta Dixit (2002), in her critical assessment "Education, deception, state, and society" (2002).

Further regular events when education "hits" the headlines are in March/April when class 10 students need to take the final examinations of their secondary education in order to obtain their school-leafing certificates (SLC), and again in June/July, when SLC-results are published. While the first one is an occasion of at least modest hope, the second is usually one of more or less great despair, as the number of failed students usually outnumber those who pass. While pass rates ranged between 30-36% during the last years (see SPOTLIGHT 2003), in 2004 an astonishingly "high" number of 46% students passed (see Amgai 2004a), and this rather dreadful result was celebrated as a major national achievement. Yet, this was partly due to re-introducing a "grace mark" system, when failures within a 5%-margin in a single subject were to be neglected (ibid.). Worse still, less than 10% of class 1 students reach class 10 (Dixit 2002: 193), and only less than 50% reach class 5 (HMG/UNCTN 2003: 15). These figures render the Millennium Development Goals, aiming at universal primary education for boys and girls and gender equity in secondary education by 2015 (HMG/UNCTN 2003: 19), meaningless paper declarations, ridiculing past policies and millions of dollars spent and wasted from donor agencies.

Another crucial feature is that the private sector is playing an increasingly important role in the Nepalese educational "landscape". By now there are about 8,500 private schools, providing educational facilities to about 1.5 million students. These can be found all across the country, although there is a strong concentration particularly in the Kathmandu valley and in some urban centres of the Terai (HMG/MOES 2003). Private schools are usually associated with two characteristics: contributing decisively to increasing the quality of education and yet strongly criticised for charging high fees, sometimes even termed "exorbitant" (Pokharel 2003: 19). This latter charge of turning education into a lucrative business was bound to lead to a confrontation with the Maoists, as regularly pointed out in their demands, as for instance in their early 40-point demands of 1996, stating that the "commercialisation of education should be stopped" (point 35; quoted from Thapa 2003: 394).

This issue was rather forcefully addressed when the Maoist-affiliated "student organisation" (All Nepal National Free Student Union, Revolutionary, ANNFSU-R) imposed several strikes upon all types of educational institutions during December 2002 and January 2003, aiming at pressurising private schools to reduce their fees (see Dhakal 2002b, Amgai 2002d, Amgai 2004d). A settlement was reached in January 2003 with PABSON (Private and Boarding Schools Organization of Nepal), agreeing to reduce fees in its member schools by 10-30% (Amgal 2004b). …