The digital divideIt is wishful thinking that supporting private investment in education will increase access to learning during the current crisis.
The Covid-19 crisis has reached a point where it is difficult to offer solutions that will benefit all. The downgraded economic projections, at an abysmal rate of just over 2 percent, were contingent upon the economy reopening after mid-May. So, if the lockdown were to be extended, the economy is sure to tank further. Yet, for all the warnings of a major recession, completely opening up is also out of the question. Hundreds of thousands have succumbed to Covid-19 all around the world, with many countries paying a high price for delayed lockdowns or early reopenings. For the foreseeable future, many sectors will be challenged to find innovative solutions to support human society going forward.
A sector that will be significantly burdened is education. All over the world, educators are struggling with the dangers of the virus as well as the dangers to the young due to an extended isolation period. Humans are social animals and the whole system of education, at least until the higher secondary level, has been built around centralised learning and social interactions. Yet, schools, should they reopen, will most definitely become hotspots of community transmission. For a country like Nepal, with an already weak public education system, this comes with additional challenges.
For the past two months, schools and colleges have all been closed—on the surface affecting all learners the same. However, how schools and colleges have responded to the crisis has exposed the massive inequality that always existed in the education sector. Some private schools have readily embraced a form of digital learning, holding regular virtual classes. To be sure, even educators in this privileged class have come to understand the challenges of imparting knowledge through the internet. However, many do not even have the luxury of holding online classes. That is because most learners in Nepal do not have access to fast, reliable internet. Most do not even have access to devices that would allow them to receive personalised lessons in any form.
Amidst this inequality, it is surprising that Prime Minister KP Oli, a supposed communist, was reported to have made some surprising remarks concerning education. Oli has pushed for the promotion of online education, completely oblivious to the fact that most students in Nepal do not have access. And, instead of announcing measures to strengthen the education sector for the benefit of all, the government has also announced its plan to promote private investment in education in the upcoming fiscal year.
The government’s plans seem to have been announced without considering the ground realities. Article 30 (2) of the Constitution gives every citizen the right to free, and compulsory, education up to the basic level and free education up to the higher secondary level (grade 12) from the state. This means that, no matter how expensive it becomes, the state has to bear the burden of education all children. There can be an argument made for private sector innovations helping educate the masses during such uncertain times. But educationists and organisations advocating for the right to education have claimed that supporting the private sector in education will only make learning more expensive. Moreover, even if the technology used for remote learning could be shared with the public education sector, students would still not be able to afford the equipment to receive the materials at home.
Amidst this uncertainty, some local governments are moving forward with plans that may be more feasible. Tansen municipality, for example, is testing a programme where volunteer teachers reach students at their homes a few times a week. Others are looking to test small community group-based learning. While the effectiveness of these need to be tested, they are more feasible than online learning for all. For the long run, the federal government must boost its spending on education. The current lockdown can be used as an opportunity to rebuild the necessary infrastructure: only 26 percent of 7,553 educational institutions damaged during the earthquake have been reconstructed and, more alarming, only around 8,000 of over 20,000 public schools have the most basic required infrastructure.