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The struggle for education

May 20, 2001

Nepal news


Last week 8,000 private schools across Nepal were closed through the demands of Maoist affiliated students. Their reasoning was simple. Private education is a system that favours the wealthy. The rich can always buy a better education than the State provides for the poor. Their children will always receive better qualifications and find better employment. Consequently the machinery of wealth remains locked in the hands of a few wealthy families whilst the poor have no hope of ever improving their circumstances. Equal opportunity for everyone is a classic Communist ideology and the Maoists wish to abolish private schools to achieve that.

And there is more to their argument. Many private schools are charging high fees for low standards. Unqualified businessmen often run them for purely economic motives. There is no effective government control over standards or facilities and basic corruption is common. With a few dollars wealthy families can bribe teachers to reveal examination papers in advance. They can even purchase school certificates for their children and avoid the examination system altogether. Consequently many wealthy students are buying their route into power and influence without gaining the education and training required to do their jobs effectively. Private education is big business in Nepal and the entire nation is paying the price for it.

Of course there is also another side to this dispute. Without private schools any government would have a monopoly over the entire educational system. Radical regimes could easily inflict ruthless propaganda on every child and establish a political dictatorship. Even a well-meaning government would have difficulties in maintaining educational standards. Without private schools the State would have to provide facilities for everyone and the costs would be enormous. Worse still, a centralised educational system would never evolve properly with changing times. Private schools must compete with each other for business and those offering the best teaching standards and facilities will always lead the way. A government monopoly would result in stagnation. Any changes would have to be simultaneously imposed on every school and the huge costs involved would always tempt a government to resist improvements.

Many readers have also expressed fears about other private institutions if private education was abolished. The principle of centralised control could be extended to hospitals, transport and even industrial production. Those in government could gain control of every aspect of our lives and effectively make us their slaves. Plainly many citizens have serious concerns over some Maoist policies even though they have great sympathy for their general cause.

How then can we find a solution to this difficult problem? Certainly there can be little dialogue until the student leaders have been released from custody. The current government must learn the lesson that Amir Singh Thapa once taught the British. Nepali people do not surrender their principles through force and Nepali Maoists are no exception. Like the Gurkha regiments in the British army, they will fight till the last man and endure any suffering for the sake of their cause. For the sake of everyone in the nation, particularly the children, this dispute must therefore be resolved so that both sides are content.

As long as government education is unsatisfactory, there will always be a demand for private education. If we abolish private education in Nepal the wealthy classes will simply send their children to schools in India. The Maoists must therefore consider which is the greater evil. Surely it is far better for our children to be educated in Nepal than suffer the culture of Mumbai or Delhi. And if we suddenly abolish private education when government schools are so bad, surely we will destroy the lives and dreams of a whole generation. Many citizens who can afford a private education in Nepal will not be able to afford it in India. Their children will be disadvantaged. Only the super wealthy will gain a good education and the elite in Nepal will become even smaller and richer. These are vital aspects that the Maoists must consider.

But the government must also realise the importance of providing a good education for the poor. That is one of the main reasons why this dispute has developed. Two years ago the Congress Party was elected on a promise to improve government education but their current leader has done very little to achieve that. A good government school system is essential to provide equal opportunities for all children. Class sizes must be limited to 30 students and every school must teach a full curriculum including English. In a world governed by America, it is essential that every Nepali can understand its language and so gain access to the West. But most importantly, all tuition, books and examination fees must be provided entirely free to those with low incomes. It is vital that no children are deprived of education through the poverty of their families and the government should be compelled to achieve that.

Of course this will need to be paid for. The government must invest much more of the national income in education. The economy is currently growing at nearly 6% and the citizens deserve a much greater share of business profits. Taxation of large companies should be increased to 30% in line with the rate for banks and financial institutions. At the moment a business employing a thousand people pays the same rate of tax as one with only a few workers. But a large business will always make more profit from the labour of each worker. It is fair and logical to increase their tax burden and reduce that for the thousands of small family enterprises around the country.

And the government must improve the collection of business tax. Frequent abuse by tax officials overlooking company profits in exchange for personal gifts is literally robbing our children of a decent education. This must be stopped and any government that actually works to achieve that will earn respect not only from the people but also from the Maoists. And mutual respect is the only route towards peaceful settlement of any argument.

With my best wishes to you all,