Anti-federal moves in educationThe outdated Education Act 1971 is still in force, albeit with dozens of amendments.
Nepal’s public education faces systemic failure as evidenced by the low success rate of students in the Secondary Education Examination (SEE), Grade XII tests and their continued exodus for higher education abroad. In both the SEE and Grade XII levels, nearly 50 percent of the students score “non-grading” or fail. Nearly 85 percent of the non-achievers are from community (public) schools which drain the public coffers for staff and teacher salaries, infrastructure and operational expenses. This calls for comprehensive reform which is long overdue in the school education system of the country.
The reform process, if any, of the school education sector has been extremely tardy. An outdated Education Act 1971 is still in force with dozens of amendments of a darning and patchwork nature. With the promulgation of a federal constitution in 2015, the government envisaged a bold structural transformation. Schedule 8, provisioned under Article 57 (4) of the constitution, states that secondary-level education is the exclusive “right” and responsibility of the local level or municipal government.
In line with this constitutional arrangement, in April 2018, the government dissolved the District Education Offices and handed over a majority of its functions to the local levels. But the District Education Offices continued to exist in their new avatar as District Education Development and Co-ordination Units headed by an officer deputed from the federal Ministry of Education. This devolution was in the spirit of the federalism polity that seeks to reduce the demand and supply mismatch of public service delivery. Practically though, some sort of turf war between the federal and local governments about their functions and duties persisted. Delays in formulating laws and regulations reflecting the changed politico-administrative context are largely to blame for this state of affairs.
On the one hand, managing secondary education has proven to be too large a responsibility for the local governments even after the completion of two elections. They failed to take this important devolution of power in due cognisance. More importantly, they lacked the expertise and workforce to make this transition functionally.
On the other hand, before dissolving the District Education Offices and handing over responsibility to the local governments, the government failed to properly educate the newly elected executives about their unequivocal constitutional responsibilities on school education. The need to capacitate them to enable them to carry out these duties and make their own customised plans and budgetary allocation was barely considered. The federal government continued to pay the salaries and benefits of the teachers and decide the number and nature of teacher quotas to schools. As a result, duplication of authority and confusion persisted, attracting multifaceted controversies.
The new bill
Amidst all this, a new major law governing school education had become inevitable. The current government has registered a Bill Designed to Amend and Integrate the Education-related Laws in the federal Parliament. It contains many controversial, debatable and contentious issues, many of which are already in public debate.
For example, Section 4 of the proposed bill seeks to convert privately-owned schools into non-profit education trusts. This provision has been fiercely challenged by organisations representing private schools. The bill also seeks to abolish the SEE. The national-level board examination will be held only for Grade XII.
The bill envisages authorising the local levels to establish and operate schools based on national standards, limiting school education to basic and secondary levels, and conducting teaching-learning and examinations in accordance with the national curriculum format. The local levels will also oversee appointments and transfers while the Teacher Service Commission from the federal level will announce vacancies and issue recommendations for appointment.
Part 9 of the bill entitled Departmental Action and Punishment to Public School Teachers, from Sections 84 to 91, has immensely empowered the local levels. Section 84 authorises the chief administrative officer of the local level to admonish teachers. Salary increment or promotion may be withheld for up to five years under Section 87 “if a teacher fails to fulfil the teaching responsibility, acts recklessly, and does not follow the instructions given by the principal or the school management or the local level (government).” Sections 88, 89 and 91 authorise local governments to sack, take departmental action and suspend from duty, respectively.
These “harsh” provisions infuriated schoolteachers who poured into Kathmandu from all over the country last week and forced the government to sign an agreement on Friday to soften these provisions and address their concerns like automatic rather than competition-based tenured positions and promotions. Despite the agreement, some teachers like those from the “relief quota” still do not seem to be satisfied and were back on the streets on Saturday.
Apart from several lacunae at the structural level, the most serious is the policy confusion the bill has created that weakens the federal polity. First, it has proposed reviving the dissolved District Education Offices with added authority to carry out activities including teacher enumeration, mapping of schools, collection of education data, capacity development of teachers and coordination with higher authorities. This clearly has intentions of centralisation and limiting decision-making at the local level.
Second, the bill seems to devolve authority to the local levels, but without adequately manning and enabling them to exercise this power rationally and responsibly. Consequently, the resistance from the teacher community, which on the surface looked like a protest against certain provisions of the bill, provided political fuel to those forces working to subvert the federal polity.
Third, the bill is against the principle of “market-enhancing federalism” as it jeopardises the interests of private school owners and investors. It looks as if the state is on a definitive course of gradually nationalising private schools. This certainly will have immediate and costly economic as well as political ramifications.
Finally, one of the biggest lapses in the bill is the legal framework to uplift the quality of the public education system, attract adequate qualified teachers, mainly in difficult geographical areas, and ensure that public investment in education yields some convincing results.