The discourse around public and private education is not an old one. In a country when the government fails to deliver basic education, it is left to the private sector to step in and make investments to provide quality education. In the mid 1990s, the opening of the Plus Two level education to private players meant that students did not have to be at the mercy of the Intermediate courses of Tribhuvan University, where politics and mystical examination routines made Nepali students fall behind their international peers. The private players invested in facilities and teaching staff which resulted in Nepal producing high school graduates able to compete globally. However, over time, the private education sector began to get caught in the margin game. The later entrants ensured that the business of emotions like education and healthcare was aimed at making profits. From mere profits, profiteering started being the norm. Cash generated from the education business was invested in real estate and with political money finding a good disguise, the business was suddenly about real estate and profit margins. The profiteering motive started making private education sector bad, eliciting public outcry. A toothless government that neither made public school better nor regulated private schools well remained a silent spectator as more people in politics and government got involved in the business of education.
For a society that does not believe in merit, formalities become important like in our religious or cultural functions. Therefore, the focus is on paper degrees. The continuous unearthing of cases of fake degrees do not deter people from getting those degrees, as the importance of education in Nepal has been confined to paper degrees. It does not go beyond that in terms of an all-round development of students, whether it is imparting knowledge, civic sense or ethics. This probably explains that despite so many graduates and PhD holders, we do not hear the discourse on knowledge much. We have heard many instances of parents protesting when their children were not allowed to cheat. It almost seems as if anyone can now decide how entrance examinations are held and questions are set in the country.
We cannot blame the system much, as different ways of mocking education are embedded in our culture. Someone who may not be able to write a sentence correctly will don robes and make speeches at graduation ceremonies. Honorary degrees are conferred, a hangover of the royal regime and colonial era. People who would openly admit someone else sat for their SLC examinations have been awarded honorary PhD degrees, which they flaunt in their business cards.
This mindset is also reflected on Nepalis who go abroad to work. When you ask them which training they have completed, they will show you certificates that they say cost them Rs12,000 or Rs15,000. Many times, they do not even know what training certificate they have actually received.
The advent of development organisations provided another impetus to paper degrees. Since those with a PhD are paid more, many people just started getting one quickly. People have told me in many instances that I should also get a PhD as it would ensure I get better rates. Similarly, people just enroll in different programmes with the sole objective of getting a degree that would lead to better emoluments. Along with paper degrees, if there were investments in the larger goal of gaining knowledge, staying abreast of new developments around the world and inculcating civic sense in oneself and others, perhaps we could have seen Nepal really changing.
The important discourse is not about private or public schools, paper degrees or different methods of testing merit, but about looking at where we are heading. We are imparting education that may not be relevant in the present world. The 10 top jobs in the US today are the ones that no one had thought of 10 years ago. The world is changing at a rapid pace. Technology allows students to learn basic courses online, many of them for free. Students do not need to go to college to learn what they can learn online.
They need to learn larger issues of questioning, articulating discourses, civic sense, ethics and awareness of managing oneself. These cannot be taught online; they evolve as students interact with other students and faculty members.
If we look at the statistics, Nepal’s education has come a long way in the past 25 years, be it enrolment numbers or graduation numbers. But why is it that with so many more ‘educated’ people, cities in Nepal wear a dirty look? Why is there ‘dozer terrorism’ clearing forests, plundering natural resources and making water shortage a big business? Why is it that along with the level of education, corruption has risen? Why do students with paper degrees who think no end of themselves take years to be job-ready? Why is the quality of service plummeting even when people with better education degrees are replacing the ones with less education?
Perhaps it is time to take a serious look at the education sector, as what we are doing now is clearly not right. If the focus remains on either politicisation of public education or people in private education setting their sight mostly on money, we will surely get into serious trouble that will be more difficult and costly to fix in the future.