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The Education Business; Money for nothing

January 7, 2001

Nepal news


In a few days the Nepal Congress Party will meet to discuss the crisis within its ranks. The governing party has a lot to think about. If there was an election this week, most people tell me that Mr. Koirala and his team would be swept from office by a landslide of votes against them. Certainly I can find little support for old 'Girija' or the government. Who can forget the chaos of the recent school strike or the scenes of thousands of tourists being thrown from their hotels a few weeks ago? Price inflation has easily outstripped wage inflation over the past year and real hardship is now felt by millions of citizens.

During my recent travels around the country I've been told about the discontent. Over endless beakers of tea by the warmth of your fires, you the townspeople and villagers of Nepal have told me of your anger with the whole system around you. Stories of corruption at every level of administration, details of massive tax evasion by the wealthy, tales of police brutality and general baksheesh dealing at every turn. They were the same in every house I passed through. But one particular resentment seemed to directly affect everyone; the great education swindle!

"We were promised free education by this government", so many of you cried out, "but now we have to pay more then we ever did before". Tuition may be free in government schools now but admission fees, examination fees, special tuition fees, travel fees, books and uniforms are now essential purchases for every household. In my own family near Pharping, the annual cost of educating the children has nearly doubled over the past year. Sometimes families even have to sell their rice crop just to pay the examination fees. It's a serious monthly expenditure for almost every family whatever school the children attend.

Education is seen as essential. We are all told that good school qualifications are vital for almost every worthwhile job. Without them our children face an uncertain future fighting for survival among millions of other unqualified young people roaming the cities of Asia in search of work. For one thing is certain; the traditional way of survival, living from the land and transferring it with each generation, has been smothered by over-population. No longer can second sons expect a share of their father's land for their family to feed from. Even first-born sons will find it increasingly difficult to survive in the modern economy with just the land their fathers farmed. And, besides the better opportunity to find employment themselves, daughters are now thought to be less attractive in marriage without a good education behind them. So education is in high demand - and it's not surprising that a rather lucrative business should grow around the supply of it.

What makes education such a good business is that the consumer has no choice but to buy the product. Moreover, he doesn't even experience the product himself. He simply pays his money and accepts the school reports as an accurate indicator of his child's progress and potential. The fact that being top of one school might be the academic equivalent of being bottom of another is never revealed in these reports. And, more often than not, the consumer hasn't the level of education himself to appreciate exactly where his child stands on the academic ladder. There is little or no effective control over teaching standards in each school or even the license to set one up. Any crook can set up a school, employ a group of half-wits to teach in it and start making money. The result is a huge potential for charging high fees whilst giving low tuition standards; in short, taking money for nothing.

But the problem is much worse than that. Besides the common practice of total absurdities such as teaching all subjects in English when most of the class cannot understand half of what is said, the entire scope and direction of education is modelled on a Western curriculum - and a totally outdated one at that!

All emphasis is put upon the traditional core subjects of the Colonial era. Whilst maths still revolves around algebra and trigonometry, English is taught through textbooks that contain an ancient grammar unheard in the native land since the Empire days. Children learn about the constitution and history of Nepal and the geography of SARC but know virtually nothing about the world outside it. If the government is indeed investing public money into education for the benefit of the nation, the results appear to give a poor return. Millions of children have no idea where America is let alone what 'globalisation' means, most of them cannot speak a word of English beyond a few parrot phrases like 'What is your name' and many cannot even add three numbers together without needing paper and pen. In short, it appears to be money for nothing again.

Nepal is a developing country. Like the American west about a hundred years ago, a new culture is sweeping through the land bringing huge changes with it. New skills are required and the role of education must be to give the people the expertise they require for the world they live in. Algebra was useful in the days before computers but quadratic equations today are as relevant to the average Nepali as the result of an English football match. It would be far better if practical skills were taught. Modern methods of agriculture must be transmitted so sons can help their fathers utilise the land more efficiently. Domestic education could teach all children about nutrition and new styles of food preparation so they may help their mothers save time and improve their diet. Skills such as furniture making and bricklaying could help every household as well as safeguarding employment prospects and encouraging the development of manufacturing industries. Nepal was once the home of some of the greatest woodcarving in the world but very few youngsters are given any encouragement in that skill today.

We cannot train every child to be a manger or a doctor or a lawyer for there are simply not enough 'white collar' jobs to go round. So we have to accept both the need and the worth of artisans. At present we seem not to do this. A son who fails in algebra somehow feels inferior to a brother who has not. And yet he may well be a better goatherd and know more about the land than his 'gifted' brother. If we allow the notion of academic snobbery to grow in our families, our country will be the poorer. Our young are already leaving the country in great numbers simply to find training and job opportunities abroad. Were they given the basics of skilled work, far more employers would be tempted to base their industries in this country. But perhaps more importantly, far more of our young people would become employers themselves and take on extra staff as they pass on their skills to increase their own production. In short, Nepal needs a nation of skilled people, not a generation of dreamers.

Oh, and by the way, I've never personally used a quadratic equation in all the 30 odd years since I learnt them!

With my best wishes to you all,