Understanding Private Sector Education
Shak Bahadur Budhathoki
Over the years, the issue of private education in Nepal has been highly discussed in public spheres taking twists and turns. The policy discourses have also undergone unique experiences historically – from nationalization of schools in 1971 to rapid proliferation of private schools in the post-1990 years. The radical shift in the policy pertaining to private schools has been the result of political regime changes at times. It is also because of lack of understanding about Nepal’s private education sector as well as private school operators coupled by inept policy approaches.
In observing private education policy discourses of the last four/five years, it becomes pretty clear that successive governments have misunderstood the private education sector or have not understood it in its totality. The clear instance of this is that private education sector is often homogenized as a single category. All the policies the government has recently come up with seem to consider all the private schools similar in their objectives, operations and nature. As a result of this, the policies have been little successful till date.
The Government of Nepal (GoN) introduced a directive on private education sector in 2016, which barred registering private schools under the company act and provisioned for converting company private schools into public trust if they wish so. Furthermore, the directive also aimed at closing down all the company private schools in three years in case they do not fulfil a minimum of 33 standards as specified in the directive mandatorily. At that time, I had argued that it would be impossible for the majority of private schools to fulfil the standards as most of the private schools were not in a condition of doing that then. The GoN also needs to understand that a significant number of private schools cater services to the lower middle or poor families charging minimum fees from the users. At this point of time, the policy makers and the present Education Minister seem to have forgotten what they had intended just three years ago. And the present Education Minister seems to have realized that private schools need to be better regulated, which I have stressed on as the best alternative for long.
As education policy makers little understand the private education sector in its totality, they often come up with unrealistic policies and plans that turn out to be unsuccessful. Additionally, they are coming forward without proper planning, devoid of expert ideas, only to fail one after another. It is just three years ago that they expressed they would close down company private schools, but now the same Education Minister opines publicly that private schools need better regulation forgetting the directive he formulated back then. What a shift it is! It would be better for the government authorities to assess the ground reality before coming up with tall promises. Also, it would have been better if the existing policies were being implemented in better ways rather than coming up with new radical policies one after another that would largely remain unimplemented.
At present, the GoN has come up with another idea that private schools should provide scholarship to 10 to 15 per cent students. At this time, it needs to be taken into account that there was a provision for 10 per cent scholarship to disadvantaged groups in private schools in the past as well, but this provision was hardly being implemented in most cases coupled with lack of transparency on the part of private schools. The GoN hardly gave any heed to making private school fulfil this provision transparently, and in many cases it is the government officials who made their children receive such scholarship entitlements; an immoral nexus between them persisted while the needy ones were deprived of such facility. This year, I was attending a Parents’ Day Celebration of a reputed private school in Kathmandu. In the middle of the programme the anchor announced that the authority of Kathmandu District Education Office was the guest and also a parent for eight years. What a nexus they could have! It is likely that the government authorities fulfil the petty interest of private school operators at the cost of public good fulfilling each other’s’ vested interests. It clearly shows that the government authorities should first correct themselves instead of beginning from others.
The policy makers should understand that there is diversity in private schools in terms of physical infrastructure, management, ownership and so on. Hence, policy on private education should not be homogeneous. The policies should come up to monitor and regulate those few schools that violate state rules and make unethical profits. Those commercially oriented schools need to be controlled in the country so as not to defame the private education sector. Those few schools charging exorbitant fees need to be sanctioned. This should be the first step towards controlling impunity and negligence of private schools.
Targeting those few corrupt schools will weaken the unity of private schools as is often observed. Over the years, private schools have resisted any state policy provision at the first place. They have negotiated and asserted in their favour. For instance, they did not pay 5 per cent tax to the government in 2012; instead they paid 1 per cent tax, and they collected it directly from parents. This is a mockery of the policy provision. The resistance from the private sector has been surprising. Many of the private school operators are in the parliament, who openly profess that they are there to assert policies in the interest of private education sector.
In short, one size fits all kind of policy provision should be avoided as much as possible. Understanding the depth and breadth of private education sector, policies should be as specific as possible. This is because one policy provision cannot be implemented in all contexts uniformly. Therefore, policy needs to be context-specific to make it more relevant, practical and useful. Above all, the first priority should be in implementing the policies that are already in place, instead of producing policies after policies only to fail. Therefore, the proper implementation of existing policies is more important than introducing the new ones.