Towards Contextual Education
Dr. Balmukunda Regmi
Education can hardly be precisely and unanimously explained. Rather than definition, more pertinent are its processes and outcomes. States and societies have paid varying attention to the aims and provisions of education throughout civilised history. Education system of a territory has been largely reflective of the social system of that territory at the given moment, and also reflective of its association with the past, the current political and religious environment, philosophical outlooks, economic and business environment, collective psychology of the people and the level of technological development, among others.
I remember Nepal of my childhood years, during 1970s and early 1980s, when the rights of the people were summed up in the slogan “provision of food, shelter and clothing.” Life was hard; the rain-dependent agro-based economic productivity was meagre, with traditional methods of cultivation and low-yield seeds. The country was mostly rural, the settlements were scattered here and there largely reflecting the productivity of the land they ploughed. Tribhuvan Highway linked Kathmandu to South plains, Mahendra Highway provided linkage between east and west, Araniko Highway linked Kathmandu with Nepal-China border at Kodari. Pokhara, Dhankuta and a few other cities were also connected by roads. Many remote district headquarters had access by flights. Postal communication was popular; telephone was limited to cities. There was some use of telegram messaging but the service was based in district centers. Hospitals, health posts and primary health centers were booming though with insufficient facilities.
Most of the employment was generated along the ancestral lines. Son followed father; daughter, mother, and mother-in-law after marriage. While the carpenter would be splitting a log with the handsaw, his son would help the father fix the log in a proper position and watch how the father was creating a kerf. The wife would report to the carpenter that the flood had left a timber in the river bank after a rainy night whereupon they would go to bring it home. Whenever asked the available family member would carry out errands for the carpenter. When the son was trained enough to work as an independent carpenter, he would pursue the profession. I noticed similar phenomena with tailors, blacksmiths, butchers, potters, priests, shopkeepers, farmers, and many others.
The country was recruiting employees in construction, education, health and security sectors. Our youth was also attracted to the British and Indian armies. Many were attracted to these jobs as these offered good income and social prestige. Those with formal education in languages, mathematics and social studies were also able to get such jobs. Students could enroll in technical schools for free, sometimes with stipend and with contract for future employment. Too attractive, such developments led to social emphasis on formal education. Nepal declared Falgun 12 as National Education Day, (formal) education was equated to “bright sunshine”. However, unknowingly, the traditional family business began to be neglected in the process. The “educated” son does not join his father in the fields or workshops; the “educated” daughter does not join her mother (-in-law) in her traditional roles. The result is, the day a child joins the school, s/he becomes carefree. Soon after graduation, they find themselves jobless. There are more job-seekers than the vacancies, sometimes the ratio exceeding 100 to 1. In January this year, the Public Service Commission had announced vacancies in five thousand different posts for which there were over 500,000 applications. In despair, these youth apply the tools like pleasing the political leaders, bribing, and whatever means they hope work for their benefit. Unable to win, most of them try to go to unknown territory abroad, taking on chance, as everybody is familiar with the stories of their seniors who had sold their properties in the process and had a miserable life afterwards. Everyday, a new workforce is joining the rank to earn blood money for this mismanaged country.
In a matter of four or five decades, our worries are different. We have a socialism-oriented constitution. Putting aside the theoretical debates, the grassroots want a job that guarantees them a decent life. Call it human rights, socialist idealism, or basic need, a living man needs livelihood which can be achieved through prudent use of natural resources, labour of all those concerned, and equitable distribution of the resources and products. Who plans it – the state or the market – is a different issue, but profiteering cannot be trusted to solve the problems. Had we cleared out the misinformation, the profiteering would have been wiped out, industry and business would have prevailed.
Then what is the misinformation? Where is it? It is in the very concept of education and development. We equated education to the ability of communication in English; development, to the monthly salary-paying employment. True, efforts have been made in the development of infrastructure such as motor roads, airports, bridges, hospitals, cement and other processing industries, telecommunications, hotels and hydropower plants. But their absorption capacity is far outnumbered by the production of respective manpower. Take example of pharmacists. There was, and is, a dire need of skilled pharmacists to provide pharmacy care to people living in remote, hilly regions. Keeping in view of this, the CTEVT started Diploma in Pharmacy programme after SLC, and the pass out students were supposed to work in retail pharmacies throughout the country, both in urban and rural areas.
What happened is the assistant pharmacists were too ambitious to work in rural setups, and intended to pursue Bachelor’s Degree instead, thus creating market for Bachelor of Pharmacy programmes and helping establish many colleges that offered such courses. What they found after graduation was a job market far less attractive than they had hoped for. This was time that they were expected to self-support. After investing at least 17 years of their prime time and hard-earned money of the parents, they now find themselves exposed to the brutal truth: most of the available jobs cannot support their family, let alone the payment of the debts incurred for the education.
Should we suggest them to join Masters programmes to buy a few more years to seek a job? Of course, these programmes also create teaching jobs to some pharmacists with higher degrees. But without the students ultimately getting out of the academic institutions and going to the society for professional service, how can they contribute to the productivity of the nation? Who needs these “unproductive” forces? The situation is more or less similar with each educational programme. Without placement for the skilled manpower, is it prudent to produce them? One may suggest skilled human resources get better opportunity abroad! But why should we make Nepal a breeding center?
Time to rethink
Compared to the uneducated, the ratio of unemployment is higher for educated people. Well-dressed and adored with university degree, our high status youth is unwilling to work in the fields and low-grade workshops. The youth has left for cities and foreign lands. Old parents are unable to continue their traditional jobs. Our family businesses are collapsing. Our agricultural fields lie barren. We do not keep cattle, goats and sheep. We import staple food, milk and dairy products, fruits, flower, meat, medicine, stationary and clothes. Following the footsteps of their parents, the uneducated, otherwise unemployed, semi-urban youths continue to plant vegetables to generate income.
From the above discussion, it is not difficult to see our education has been for the sake of education. Our education system has been unable to pay back what the society had expected. It is time the leadership rethink about our approach to education, development and employment, not only in papers but also in practice.