This is the fifth 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, here for the third one about the mishap with the education system, and here for the fourth on about the education system since the 1990s.)
This reproduced section comes from pages 225-228. All emphases are mine.
* * * * * * * *
The Power of Education
Historically, education has been a political tool in Nepal, be it the kings leveraging the knowledge of the Brahmins, the Rana rulers discouraging educational institutions, or the Maoists, during the insurgency, denying children access to education. It is perhaps this knowledge of the power of education among the ruling elite that has made it a highly politicized and contentious sector. The educational sector has completely been infiltrated by political hardliners and most government-run institutions function as indoctrination centres for various political groups. This dates back to 1940s, when educational institutes were used by political parties as cetres of anti-Rana activity. This was followed in the 1950s by the establishment of political party-affiliated student wings which contested student union elections. Contituting the lower level cadres for political parties, the student-wing organizations became testing grounds for the political leaders, from where they eventually made it up the ranks into the party hierarchy.
The politicization of the education sector did not end with the students, but gnawed its way into the hearts of the administrative staff and teachers. This resulted in the formation of one of Nepal’s strongest unions, the much-vaunted teachers’ union. In rural Nepal, a teacher and a politician become synonymous as the job of the teacher was the one at the bottom of the job pyramid. People who could not become doctors or engineers or take up jobs at government offices and private companies were left only with the job of a teacher. During their college days, many had spent a great deal of time in student politics, which likely left them bereft of the academic qualifications that might have allowed a wider set of job options. They chose to keep in touch with their political master and the most suitable job then became teaching, because it came with the advantages of a flexible work schedule, the opportunity to indoctrinate students and access to parents and other communities around the school.
The challenge now is to make a departure from the above-mentioned opportunistic and self-serving attitude to the youth, on the part of political leaders. An Indian example explains a lot; while non-retiring student leaders in the Indian state of West Bengal made a fiasco of the education system there, the non-political enterprising youths of Karnataka helped Bangalore become the second Silicon Valley. The one-point agenda therefore should be to free students unions and teacher unions from any political affiliation by allowing students and teachers to group within a particular school or college in the form of clubs or committees but do away with the system of elections to these unions. The political parties should go away with the practice of affiliating these student and teacher unions, as the days when they were needed to wage proxy political battles in an autocratic state are gone, Nepal having emerged decisively as a democratic republic. Politics should involve the youth but not through student unions.
The shift from a paper and degree-oriented education system to a quality-based educational system would require not only a shift in government policies but also changes in the mindsets of people. When the bulk of employers were government and quasi-government firms, the ‘piece of paper’ approach to educational qualifications worked, by with the presence of more private firms and self-employment opportunities both of which share the fundamentals of efficiency and competition, education cannot be merely symbolic. In the past, a piece of paper that identified an individual as having a bachelors degree in archaeology would allow him to sit through the civil service exams. By looking over old questions and memorizing answer, he could secure adequate marks and pulling some strings could easily make it into the department of archaeology. He could then spend the rest of his days contributing little to nothing to the proper documentation and preservation of Nepali’s archaeological history as long as he scraped out a few reports, drank a lot of tea and maintained cordial relations with everyone. It is safe to say that such practices should never have been and can no longer be tolerated.
The need of the time is to hire the best person for the task. There can be no time allocated for dilly-dallying at the local tea shop when deadlines are looming. What is required are people well educated not just in churning out reports bu in actually understanding and resolving problems and becoming solution providers. Education has to be pursued to gain knowledge and not degrees; therefore, the entire education system needs to be transformed to deliver knowledge. A student of archaeology must be trained to understand and appreciate Nepali’s cultural history, rather than to be a clerk who produces reports. He or she must be able to relate the past with the present and analyze facets of present-day Nepali society based on its past. He or she must believe in the preservation of archaeological remains and have valid rational reasons for working towards this end. His or her job can no longer be one of obeying orders from above bu working as part of a team that believes in documentation and preservation through innovative means that ensure conservation in practice as well as on paper. This can be best done by encouraging progressive and liberal educational practices that meet international standards and do not just teach a student read but to understand and analyze as well. What is needed is an education that makes students think rather than obey. Such a standard can be achieved if private universities, international accreditation programmes that allow Nepali institutions to deliever internationally valid degrees, e-learning and continuing education are encouraged in Nepal. The biggest boon for Nepal in bringing about this change has been a rapidly improving communication network — far-flung areas that were never connected to the mainstream in Nepal are now connected through community radio and even mobile phones. This shift from the physical classrooms to virtual classrooms will open up education a larger population.
A primary problem with education has always been its reach. In most cases it has been unsuccessful in reaching the poorest of the poor. This has resulted both from acute poverty and limitations within the educational system. Often, the system has been dominated by upper-class elites which have made it hard for lower castes to participate. In other cases there simply have not been enough teachers and infrastructure to reach all potential students. The use of communication technologies can go a long way in addressing the barriers of insufficient teachers and caste discrepancies. However, the problems of poverty and infrastructure still can pose significant barriers. Later in this chapter, I will discuss success stories of the use of information and communication technologies in promoting and spreading education in Nepal.