Sensible education policy neededEight years post-constitution, our education system still lacks federalism-friendly practices.
A few weeks ago, a daily newspaper reported that about 550 colleges in Nepal were close to closure for lack of students as large numbers of them were going abroad for higher studies. The news said that approximately 100,000 students had obtained No Objection Certificates from the Ministry of Education, and nearly the same number had departed for foreign countries in the past year.
Israeli Ambassador to Nepal Hanan Goder had cautioned me as a parliamentarian about the potential repercussions of this youth migration. The government and the political parties should show a heightened sense of concern and take proactive measures.
I will delve into this matter in greater detail next time. For now, I will highlight the Education Bill and the issue related to new universities.
When bills are introduced without adequate discussion and consultation, it is natural for disagreements to arise among the stakeholders. Furthermore, the issue of ownership is problematic, and this may hinder effective implementation.
Public school teachers and employees have conducted protests against the School Education Bill recently tabled in Parliament. While the protests ostensibly focus on improving service facilities and other demands, their underlying concern is to avoid being placed under the jurisdiction of local authorities.
The bill should have been introduced only after thorough discussions with teachers and other stakeholders. The government should have explicitly stated that the authority over school education belongs exclusively to the local level.
Following the protests, the government was compelled to reach an agreement with the teachers to address the issues, but in the end, the responsibilities and burdens are likely to be shifted to the local level. The constitution has vested the authority over school education in local governments, yet the government often appears to undermine this right by avoiding consultations with them.
The bill has overlooked the fundamental constitutional goal of advancing socialism and appears to promote private education. Additionally, the initial proposal to move private schools into trusts within a five-year timeframe has been omitted.
The proposed legislation has significant shortcomings. It overlooks crucial aspects, such as the recruitment of gold medallists and highly accomplished university graduates as educators, lacks a comprehensive strategy for subject-specific educators, and avoids addressing the controversial issue of political influence in the teaching profession.
Moreover, the bill suggests that the Education Department and the District Education Offices should be placed under the Ministry of Education, despite already having been dissolved. This move may increase the financial burden and infringe upon the rights of the local and provincial governments.
The Federalism Implementation Study and Monitoring Parliamentary Special Committee of the National Assembly had recommended dissolving half of the departments at the federal ministries because their functions have been devolved to subnational levels. The committee's proposal was unanimously approved by the National Assembly.
The prime minister had also pledged to adhere to the committee's report. But instead of implementing its recommendations, the government has reorganised the previously abolished departments and offices. This goes against the objectives of federalism and represents an unfortunate turn of events.
Eight years post-constitution, our education system lacks federalism-friendly practices. Delayed bills have perpetuated education sector issues, leaving important matters unaddressed.
On the one hand, the state of school education is in a critical condition, and on the other hand, the government is haphazardly creating new universities. Recently, the bill pertaining to Nepal University was approved by the National Assembly. In the last year, bills related to Yogamaya and Madan Bhandari universities were also passed and have become law. Currently, there are a dozen universities in operation.
The constitution has granted the provinces the authority to establish provincial universities, resulting in a rapid proliferation of university openings. The federal government is also participating in this race. It is important to note that whether a university is federal or provincial, the financial resources ultimately originate from the same pool.
Determining the number and type of universities in Nepal post-federalisation is intricate. A comprehensive study is essential to formulate an inclusive education policy embraced by all three levels of government.
Consider the data of the University Grants Commission which shows meagre enrolments of 201 students at Gandaki University, 417 students at Rajarshi Janaka, and 482 students at Lumbini Buddhist University. These numbers wouldn't sustain a primary school. This begs the question: Why persist with opening more universities?
We must ask what rationale guides the creation of new universities while the existing ones are falling dormant. Do these decisions stem from economic, scientific or sociological factors, or are they purely political manoeuvres? Clarity is crucial for Nepal's educational future.
I've consistently voiced concerns in Parliament about the government's insufficient commitment to the education sector. Prioritising education and implementing reforms to meet evolving societal needs is paramount. This entails not only addressing the quantity and diversity of universities, but also ensuring quality education and equitable access within the federal framework. My advocated approach involves crafting an education policy as a first step, followed by a comprehensive umbrella law for universities based on this policy. Only then should new universities be established if deemed necessary under the provisions of this law. Regrettably, I stand alone in championing this perspective in Parliament.
How many universities?
I've actively opposed the consecutive creation of three new universities through my votes, but it's disheartening that none of my fellow Members of Parliament has raised concerns about the government's direction. During a recent visit to Switzerland, I sought insights from Prof Johanna Schnabel at the Free University of Berlin, Germany regarding federal government-run universities. She said that there were none, as all institutions were under provincial jurisdiction. Swiss Prof Sean Müller at the University of Lausanne also said that there were only two federal universities in Switzerland. Both emphasised that the distinction between federal and provincial universities was less critical; the focus should be on maintaining educational quality and generating employment opportunities. They stressed that while ample resources allow for new institutions, their long-term sustainability should align with constitutional mandates.
Education profoundly impacts human life, contributing to individual and national development. It plays a pivotal role in global economic, scientific, social, and cultural progress. The government must genuinely commit to the country's education system. The federal, provincial and local governments should collaboratively develop a unified education policy, serving as the foundation for legislation, schools, colleges/campuses and universities in line with the constitution's spirit. Such unity is crucial to ensure Nepal's transition to federalism is meaningful.
Finally, Germany and Switzerland, both highly developed countries, differ significantly in their federal university systems. Germany has none, while Switzerland only has two such institutions. In contrast, a country like ours, which faces economic challenges, should seriously consider the necessity of having numerous federal universities.