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Unleashing Nepal: Education Mishap

Reading Time: 8 minutes

 This is the third in the series (click here for the first one about the Chakari system, here for the second one about the rent-seeking mentality) reproducing — with permission from the author — sections from the book Unleashing Nepal by Sujeev Shakya.

Though from different sections, reproduced here are three sections reproduced one after the other because of relevance. The first section The Education Mishap appear on pages 44-45 and provides a summary of the issues with the education system during the Panchayat era. The sections Education Mishaps: Politics over Governance and Nepali Only — A Grave Misstep appear on pages 129-134 and provide more details.


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The Education Mishap

A grave shortcoming of the entire Panchayat era was its educational policy. A new National Education Plan was launched in 1972 with the objective of focusing on job-oriented vocational education. However, the plan later on became a tool to produce people loyal to the Panchayat regime. Community-owned schools were nationalized and cosmetic changes were brought about by aping the US educational system — colleges were now called ‘campuses’, and there were ‘internal assessments’ of students, suggesting a mild degree of autonomy. Although the government was successful in establishing new schools and expanding the coverage of schools throughout the nations, the quality of education remained poor. The increasing number of schools could be followed up with any increase in the number of teachers, leading to an acute shortage of teachers, with most teachers barely qualified to teach. In the early 1980s, around 60 per cent of all primary school teachers and 35 per cent of all secondary school teachers were untrained.

Further, the imposition of King Mahendra’s ‘one country, one language’ policy throughout the nation, promoting the Nepali language above all others, had a significantly detrimental effect. Not only was it seen as a sign of state-sponsored caste-based repression, but it also deterred the development of an English curriculum. At the higher education level, Nepali’s first university, Tribhuvan University, was established in 1959. However, given the lack of quality at the primary and secondary level, it is hardly a surprise that very few students made it past the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exams [since 2016 known as Secondary Education Examination (SEE)] which acted as an iron gate to higher education. Education remained the exclusive domain of the urban elite, with a further stratum being created through the distinction between the English boarding school and the Nepali government school. The mastery of English that was offered at the former type of institution, combined with a standard of education that the government schools were unable to match, encouraged anyone with the means to either send their children to one of the English boarding schools or abroad, to India. The lack of human resources was acutely felt by the government, which led to it sponsoring a large number of its finest and brightest minds to go and study abroad in universities of Europe, America and India.

Education Mishaps: Politics over Governance

The Rana regime had been strongly opposed to the idea of educating the population of Nepal. This was not simple a matter of inefficiency, there were real political reasons behind it. Take the example of one Rana prime minister, Chandra Shamsher. He has studied in Calcutta University in the early years of the twentieth century, witnessing the first waves of the Indian independence movement. He established the first college in Nepal, Tri-Chandra College, in 1918. Given that education would ultimate encourage the Nepali people to revolt against the regime, this may seem like a surprising move, except that his intention in establishing the college was not so much to provide quality education as to ensure that Nepali students studied in Nepal. He saw the college as a means to prevent Nepali students from being exposed to the radicalism developing in India. Tri-Chandra College had limited success, with the majority of Nepali families who had the means and the awareness, continuing to send their children to study in India. This long-standing preference for studying in India highlights two major issues, the indifferent qualify of education on offer in Nepal and the prestige placed upon an English language education. Ironically, this prestige was partly due to the fact that Jung Bahadur, the founder of the Rana Regime, had insisted on an English education for his children, in preference to a traditional Sanskrit education. Although Jung Bahadur’s children were educated by private tutors in their stucco palaces, the royal preference for an English education eventually led to the establishment of Nepal’s first modern school, Durbar School, in 1892 [which, as I type this, is being demolished].

Dev Shumsher, the Rana prime minister in 1902, brought about some radical reforms in a then exclusive and elite educational system. He promoted primary education in the Nepali language and even opened up Durbar School to commoners; this was perhaps why his stint in power lasted a mere four months. However, his brief four-month stint as prime minister ensured the establishment of a few Nepali language schools in and around the urban centres of Nepal. This was on a very limited scale and by the end of the Rana regime in 1950, merely 310 primary school, eleven high schools and two colleges were present in a country of around five million people. Consequently, the elite Bahun, Chhettri and Newar families in the 1940s and 1950s had no hesitation in sending their sons to Banaras and Calcutta (now Kolkata) to complete their formal education. Even though it placed a burden on them, it was a great source of pride and prestige to send a son to study in the English-medium schools of India.

Nepali Only–A grave Misstep

While the sons of the well-off were heading to Banaras and Calcutta, the new Nepali government founded the National Education Planning Commission (NPEC) in 1954. This was its first step in attempting to establish a modern public education system in Nepal, and ensuring educational access to the general population of the country. This initial educational plan was drawn up with substantial American assistance and the programme met with considerable success in increasing access to primary education through an expanding network od schools. However, meeting the increasing demand for qualified teachers and creating a comprehensive and well-structured curriculum, proved to be a stiffer challenge. The shortfall of teachers was addressed to some extent when the Americans assisted n the establishment of a teacher training center in 1954 and also in the subsequent opening of a college of education two years later. Although the Americans and the NEPC had strongly advocated a decentralized system that involved the community in the management of schools, the educational system remained centralized under the Ministry of Education in an attempt to establish uniformity throughout the system.

The Banaras and Calcutta-educated sons of the elite came back to a changing Nepal and entered the bureaucracy. Their strong English-based education became a considerable asset to a government heavily reliant on foreign aid, as major donors, including the UK, USA and India along with the Wold Bank and IMF, used or preferred the use of English. Even though the democratic exercise ended all too quickly once Panchayat rule was established in 1960, for most civil servants, little changed and they continued their work. By 1959, the nation’s first university, Tribhuvan University, had been established and a network of schools was in place. The Panchayat system continued with the centralized approach to education and found it a more convenient means to propagate the system’s ideology and support for the crown. From programmes and policies to textbooks, all were prepared centrally and then distributed throughout the nation. The primary objective of the education system was to create a population that would remain loyal to the crown and produce crops of graduates who would be best suited for clerical work. The heavy emphasis on the use of Sanskritized Nepali with a very limited English language curriculum, was meant to ensure these goals. The teaching of Sanskritized Nepali helped promulgate the ‘one nation, one language, one dress‘ philosophy of the Panchayat regime, while the insularity of the Nepali language ensured a limitation of content and ideas from the broader chain of Western intellectual thought. The influence of nationalist education and the practices they had imbibed at Banaras induced in them a sense of social supremacy. They combined the best of religion and politics and used nationalism to keep from integrating into a world they did not want to learn about and could not take control of.

There are over ninety-two [according to the 2011 census report, 123] local languages and dialects in Nepal and over a hundred different social groups based on caste, ethnicity, religion and language. The Panchayat regime’s promotion of Nepali, even though it was not the mother tongue of a considerable portion of the Nepali citizenry, created an unfair advantage for those who spoke Nepali. Nepali speakers mostly comprised Bahuns and Chhettri, the top two tiers of the traditional Nepali caste system and the state-imposed Nepali language thus became a symbol of oppression, especially among ethnic and linguistic groups who did not speak Nepali. Although this system effectively instilled Nepali language as the primary means of public communication, even by 2001, only 28 per cent of the entire population spoke Nepal. [By the time the 2011 census report was compiled, that percentage had gone up to about 45.] Equally worrisome is the fact that a number of languages unique to particular ethnic groups in Nepal are in danger of dying today.

It is important to note that most tertiary-level education relied on books written in English which were impractical or posed significant challenges to translation. given the lack of a formal English education in Nepali schools, the level of English of most students was simply not adequate to the task of lecturing in English or comprehensively reading from the book. This essentially forced teachers to teach in Nepali even though the books were in English and any research or collaboration internationally required a strong command of English. The New Education System Plan (NESP) introduced in 1972 attempted to make the teaching of Nepali mandatory below the tertiary level, only worsening the plight of Nepali education and further encouraging parents to send their children to India. Although NESP was shut down a decade later with a broad consensus that it had largely failed, the damage done had been considerable. It has produced a whole generation of Nepalis with a very low standard of education, who, upon entering the bureaucracy have had a significantly detrimental impact on it.

Part of the reason that the Nepali language enforced by NESP was a growing and increasingly worrying stratification of society between English-teaching private schools and government-run public schools. The establishment of St. Xavier’s School in 1951 provided the first instance of an English boarding school under foreign management and was soon followed by the all-girls’ school, St. Mary’s School, in 1955. In 1972, Budhanilkhantha School was established under British management, with the intention of making it the Eton of Nepal. The quality of education these schools provided and the command of English that their graduates had, distinguished them from the government-run public schools of Nepal. Anyone in Nepal who understood the value of education and realized the prestige that a good command of English could buy them, wanted their children in these schools. They simply were the best option for most families who could not afford to send their children to India or who wanted to keep them close to home. All of them knew that graduating from one of these institutions was a sure ticket to success. Aware of the value of an English education, it was mostly the first-generation intellectual Bahuns, business-minded Newars and aristocratic Chhettri families that formed the bulk of the student population in these institutes, even though a certain number of seats were reserved for students from rural and poor backgrounds.

For the rest, especially the small land holder and rural elite, things were getting tougher. Of those born in rural Nepal, few would have made it to school; those who did were mostly from the higher rungs of the social ladder. Language was an issue for some families, while most could not afford to lose their labour force. Someone born in rural Nepal in the mid-1960s would have gone to school under the new Nepali language education act during the 1970’s. A Bahun from the village elite, he would have a good orientation to Sanskrit and excel at the memorization-based Nepali education. He wold then join the urbanization trend of the 1970s–which saw the urban population grow annually by 8.4 per cent–and move to Kathmandu. Living in a one-room apartment shared with four other people or with relatives, he could graduates in the 1980s with Sanskrit as a core subject and appear for the public service examinations. Passing due to his knowledge of Nepali he would then enter the government services. Receiving job training in the staff colleges while still stuck in a box of a room, he would get back in touch with his relatives and people from his hometown. By the 1990s, having worked his way through the bureaucracy from the low-income level, he would buy a small plot of land and build a small box house around Koteshwor or Sinamangal. Still in a box he would send his children to an English boarding school and then try to send them abroad. Working hard for junkets, he would go visit his children and see the bigger world, but would come back to his box and retire from government, unknown to anyone six months before retirement. But then he wold resurface as a consultant, working all those connections in the donor community that he had established during his years of government service. He could now travel abroad to see his children once a year, while his wife raised his grandchildren abroad.



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