What’s the controversy surrounding the new education bill?The bill must be passed by both chambers of Parliament before it becomes law and replaces the Education Act-1971.
Ever since the promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal, successive governments made enacting a federal education law their top priority. However, it took eight years and several failed attempts for the new education bill to land in Parliament.
The government on Wednesday registered the bill necessary to manage the education sector as provisions by the new constitution. Voices for and against several proposed legal provisions have surfaced even the House starts deliberating the bill. Here is a look into the bill and why it has become a hotly contested issue.
What is the bill all about?
The Constitution of Nepal that institutionalised federalism devolved several authorities the central government had been enjoying to the provincial and local levels. The local units now have more authority to manage school education as per the statute. However, constitutional provisions remain unimplemented in the absence of requisite laws. A study by the Legislation Management Committee of the National Assembly shows that 40 laws, including the school education Act, still need to be promulgated for full-fledged implementation of the constitution.
It was mandatory to pass laws related to fundamental rights within three years of the charter’s promulgation. The federal parliament endorsed the bills on 31 fundamental rights a day before the September 19, 2018 constitutional deadline. As per the statute, the Acts that contradict the constitution must have been revised within a year of the first meeting of the federal parliament elected after the promulgation of the constitution. That meeting took place on March 5, 2018. But successive governments failed in preparing such laws, flouting the constitutional deadline. Years after, the federal education bill has been introduced.
What are the major provisions in the bill?
As per the bill, the local units will have full authority to establish and operate schools. They, however, will have to put together the resources necessary to manage and operate the schools. The authority to decide on school mergers, upgrades, downgrades and relocation will also be with local units. On the one hand, the bill empowers the local units as envisioned in the constitution, but by proposing to revive the district-level Education Offices, the federal government has shown it is unwilling to give up power easily.
The 2015 constitution institutionalised federalism and ended the existence of districts as administrative units. With it, the education offices were reduced to education units.
Backtracking on the previous bill that was withdrawn before registration in the House, the new bill leaves it to existing private schools whether to convert into trusts. The previous bill said the existing private schools registered under the Company Act must be turned into trusts within five years. It had received strong objections from private school operators, forcing the government to back off.
Creating hurdles for the new entrants in the private education sector, the bill says, they must first be registered as trusts. This provision, which would curb competition among education providers, was introduced to serve the interests of existing schools, say educationists.
The Department of Education, renamed as the Centre for Education and Human Resource Development five years ago, will also be revived, as per the bill. The bill prescribes English as the medium of instruction for Mathematics, Science and Computer Science subjects. It says Social Studies and other arts and culture subjects should be taught in Nepali.
The local units would operate the Early Childhood Development Centre, the bill says. It also proposes a minimum bachelor-level qualification for basic and master's for secondary teachers. Moreover, it bars teachers from engaging in political activities and organising demonstrations.
What about examinations at different levels?
If the bill gets endorsed, the national-level board exams will be conducted only at the end of grade 12. It doesn’t talk about the Secondary Education Examinations that used to be held at the end of grade 10, which means respective schools will be giving the test. The National Examination Board will hold grade 12 tests across the country.
The local units will conduct grade eight tests. However, education offices in the respective districts will prepare question sets for compulsory subjects. The local units will develop questions only for optional subjects. The previous bill allowed the provincial boards to conduct grade 10 tests. The bill doesn’t give any role to the provinces in examination management.
What is the response of stakeholders?
There has been a mixed reaction. It has pleased the private sector. DK Dhungana, chairperson of the Private and Boarding Schools' Organisation Nepal, said their main concern was the right to property, which the bill addresses. “Conversion of existing private schools into trusts would go against the property right," Dhungana told the Post.
However, the National Campaign for Education (NCE), an umbrella body of over 300 non-government organisations working in education, says this bill only promotes commercialisation and privatisation of school education. “The bill completely ignores the recommendation of the High Level Education Commission,” it said in a statement.
The High Level Education Commission, in 2019, had recommended converting private schools into trusts within ten years. The report, prepared during the tenure of then-prime minister KP Sharma Oli and which the private school operators had strongly resisted, was never made public.
Even though the constitution gives every child the right to free education, the NCE said the bill would allow private schools to charge prescribed tuition fees. “This is totally against the spirit of free and compulsory school education and socialism-oriented constitution,” it added.
Local governments also have joined the protest. They have stood against the move to reinstate education offices and to allow them to prepare question sheets, monitor schools and keep school records. Khim Bahadur Thapa, general secretary of the National Association of Rural Municipalities Nepal, said reviving education offices, even as the constitution doesn't recognise any administrative units like districts, is unconstitutional. “We demand a revision of the unconstitutional provision. We are firmly against it,” Thapa told the Post.
The Nepal Teachers Federation has taken to the streets against the bill that will allow local units to recruit, transfer and demote or promote teachers. The authority to transfer and evaluate teachers also lies with the local units. The federation wants the authority to remain with the federal government. “The bill contradicts the agreements reached with us in the past,” Laxmi Kishore Subedi, general secretary of the federation, told the Post. “There will be no job security for the teachers if the bill is endorsed.”
The teachers recruited under the relief quota are also protesting.
Khem Raj Adhikari, chairperson of the struggle committee of such teachers, said they are against the provision of allowing only half of the relief quota teachers to compete in internal competitions for permanent postings.
All 40,000 teachers under the relief quota must be allowed to participate in internal competition and there must be a golden handshake for those who don’t qualify, said Adhikari. The school staff council too has raised its voice against the bill.
Is the bill complete?
No, according to the educationists. Pramod Bhatta, who has a deep understanding of Nepal's education sector, said failure to set minimum criteria for establishing schools is a major flaw in the bill. He said several schools do not meet the minimum standards of teaching-learning. “The bill must have listed such standards and given a deadline to meet them,” Bhatta said. He also pointed to a lack of clarity in defining public schooling.
How will the endorsement process go ahead?
The new bill will be presented at the House, where it will be discussed before lawmakers file amendments to it. It has to pass both chambers of the federal Parliament before it becomes law and replaces the Education Act-1971.