This is the fourth in the series reproducing — with permission from the author — sections from the book Unleashing Nepal by Sujeev Shakya. (Click here for the first one about the Chakari system, here for the second one about the rent-seeking mentality, and here for the third one about the mishap with the education system.)
This reproduced picks up where the third one ends. It consists of three sections appearing on pages 134-138. All emphases are mine.
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Private Schools and a Foreign Education
By the early 1990s, Nepal had made dramatic improvements to its educational system with over 17,000 primary schools established by 1990 including as equal rise in the number of secondary and tertiary-level institutes. However, the literacy rate had only increased to around 40 per cent by 1991 and the quality of this education was questionable. Most tertiary-level education occurred in the filed of arts with very few opting to study technical subjects like engineering and medicine. This was largely due to a weak primary education in English and the limited seats available to students to enter technical fields. The low quality of government education had fostered the growth of the private English boarding school industry from the 1980s onward. After the liberalization of the 1990s, the private school industry experienced an economic boom. This had a very salutary effect on Nepal’s educational sector and its economy overall. Charging higher fees, these schools could pay less to teachers than government schools did, but were able to teach English to their students from the primary school level on. Although many schools acted only as money-making ventures, it is without a doubt that private schools in general immediately set a new benchmark for education in Nepal and challenged the hegemony of a government school education among the Nepali middle class.
Suddenly in the early 1990s, three things shook up the educational sector: passport access was decentralized, an English-speaking generation was produced, and the educational consultancy industry was established. With limitations on both the capacity and quality of higher educational opportunities in Nepal, going abroad to study was an alluring prospect. The precedent of going abroad to study had already been established by the older elite English boarding schools and foreign degrees carried an undeniable prestige. Attached to the prospect of going abroad was the eventual opportunity to work and live on in the foreign country. It was an attractive prospect for many, to shed the Nepali image and acquire a lifestyle that fitted with their perception of the West.
Peer pressure forced rent-earning parents to sell their property or to mortgage it, in order to finance their children’s overseas education. This was the only way for them [to] raise enough money to send their children abroad as they did not see a future for their children in Nepal. It is not surprising that children, adopting their parents’ world view,also saw a brighter future abroad, one much better than anything imaginable in Nepal. The educational consultancy industry literally opened up a world of opportunity. An educational market that had thus far been cornered by students of the elite schools in Nepal was suddenly made accessible to the rising masses from newly established private English boarding schools. This is perhaps a story best told in terms of numbers; in 1994-95 only about 1000 Nepali students were present in the United States, by 2012 this number had risen to 10,312 Nepali students per year. The return rate among these students remains extremely low with most choosing to stay on legally or illegally.
Given the establishment and rapid expansion of private English boarding schools throughout the nation and the subsequent rise of educational consultancies, it can be argued that education in Nepal has been an intrinsically market-driven phenomenon. With the limited scope and quality of government education in Nepal, there was an increasing demand for better educational standards and practices, especially with a growing number of educated middle class parents who were increasingly aware of the opportunities a good education could provide their children. These children, educated in the private school system, were even more aware of the opportunities they could grasp and set their aspirations much higher than their parents did. Thus, the educational consultancy industry was born out of this demand for quicker and easier access to universities abroad. The ‘secrets’ of the application process, that only students at elite schools had been privy to in the past, were made available to all — for the right price.
Private Institutions of Higher Learning
The impact of privatizations was felt throughout the educational sector. Aside from the private school boom, perhaps the biggest revolution to shake the foundations of the the Nepali educational system was the establishment of Kathmandu University. Established in 1991 through an Act (Kathmandu University Act 1991), it is the first private institute of higher learning established in Nepal and posed the first direct challenge to the educational monopoly of Tribhuvan University. In the 1992 Kathmandu University started its first class with intermediate-level courses only; since then the university has quickly expanded into undergraduate and post-graduate studies. It is currently operates six schools based on the disciplines of arts, education, engineering, management, medical science, and science. It has enrolled including in affiliated colleges, a total of around 3300 students. Setting an educational benchmark that places it in a different league than the government-mismanaged Tribhuvan University; there is an increasing trend among private secondary and tertiary institutions to seek affiliations with Kathmandu University. Constant strikes, delays in examinations, delays in publishing results, and disillusionment with the entire quality of education at offer in Tribhuvan University means that any student with ambition shuns it.
Although privatization went a long way in improving the standard of education in Nepal, the lack of governmental regulation on private schools meant that a considerable amount of profiteering occurred. Although some private schools gave you all you paid for, in terms of education, facilities and access, some, if not most of them, took the easier way out. By charging increasingly higher fees while doing nothing to improve the quality of education or the facilities of the school in return, it is safe to say that private schools often became a cash crop. By selling sub-standard uniform through designated contractors, books through cartels of booksellers and book publishers associations and charging parents for foundations, events, fairs or excursion trips, education became the best unregulated private sector. Some private schools justified these expenses by attempting to provide an international standard of education. For instance, the Kathmandu University affiliated Kathmandu College of Management started charging around Rs. 100,000 for a year for undergraduate studies but armed students with laptops and hired the best professors available, with the objective of creating world-class business managers. Its ability to deliver, albeit by charging such high fees, has encouraged some Nepali students to study in Nepal.
The costs of all levels of private education remained relatively high with the cheapest privates schools in Nepal charging rates that were easily higher than those being charged in privates schools of the same standard in neighbouring India. With school fees up to Rs. 1000 a month, private education was not a luxury that low income people, with their low minimum pay, they could afford to provide their children. These high fees have been a bone of contention between private schools and the government, add to it increasing pressures from the government to have control over such private schools and soon private schools grouped together to form big cartels with strong negotiation powers. With 5 millions children in school, this provided the largest base of customers that the service providers could profit from.
Preference for Paper Degrees
A fundamental flaw in the traditional Nepali attitude to education was a yearning for degrees rather than education. A desire to have the accolade rather than the knowledge, to have a title rather than expertise, is a trait shared by most Nepali students. This is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that an estimated 15,000 teachers of the total 150,000 qualified teachers in Nepal posses fake certificates bought in the bazaars of Patna where one could buy degrees for around USD 150 to USD 500 depending on the appearance of authenticity and the demand for the degree. [Recently, fake doctors, fake pilots and even Nepalis getting degrees from the two universities in the country using fake theses have been discovered in the country.] Although this story has been in the popular media for a while, little to no action has been taken against those holding face degrees. Considering that this is a presentation of statistics only in the education sector, the number of fake degree holders touting professional expertise in the economy must be considerable. For instance, a sharp decrease was noticed in admissions to an MBA programme in India when admission tests were introduced. Before the admission tests were introduced, more than half of the class size consisted of Nepalis, which dropped to less than 5 per cent as soon as the system of admission tests was put into place. Such a love of degrees combined with a disregard for actual knowledge and learning are dangerous signs of an economy that neither has regulations, nor values expertise.