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May 6, 2013

Why blame private schools?

Like an annual customary event, public grievances against private educational institutions in Nepal are currently making headlines once again as the new academic session has begun. Private schools have been accused of charging exorbitant fees, selling stationery and uniforms within the school premises to make profit and not providing adequate infrastructure. This has led to the public asking for more government regulations and some political parties have even demanded that new registration of private schools be ceased. The controversy is even being wielded as a weapon to denounce the liberalisation of the education sector itself and advocate for outright nationalisation of education. Amidst the heated debate, a few things are being ignored in the discourse that might have grave implications for the educational scenario of Nepal.

Value variables

The advent of democracy in 1990 was a crucial moment in the history of education in Nepal. Primary education was to be provided freely by the government while move towards open economy helped proliferation of private educational institutions. As a result, the education sector in Nepal has come a long way since then. According to the Ministry of Education and Sports, there were 33,160 primary, lower secondary and secondary schools, 3,067 higher secondary schools and five universities in Nepal as of 2011. Some 15 per cent of the institutions are run by the private sector. However, more than a quarter of the total students of Nepal attend these institutions.

Despite the availability of free public schools and the accusations of exorbitant fees charged by private educational institutions, more and more people are flocking to these institutions to educate their children. The phenomenon provides an inkling of the dire state of public education in Nepal. Moreover, it also suggests that the general public values the importance of education more than policymakers and education officials who supposedly are in charge of educating Nepal think they do.

This is also highlighted by the fact that education is among the top four expenditure areas for households receiving remittance. On an average, 3.5 per cent of amount received from remittance is being spent on education. From this scenario, it can be surmised that parents value education enough to spend a considerable amount of their earning for education.

Regulation restraints

When there is a free alternative available and parents are free to choose where to send their children, it is hard to find reasonable criteria for the government to dictate price controls for these institutions. Parents being the

direct stakeholders have a higher incentive and at the same time a responsibility to find out if schools are milking them exorbitantly.

Similarly, the fee structure of a handful of elite private educational institutions neither reflect nor represent the overall private educational scenario of Nepal. The wide spectrum of private schools ranging from low-budget schools such as Samata Sikshaya Niketan to high-end elite private schools like Shuvatara is lost during the debate regarding private educational scenario in Nepal. The call for more regulation fails to acknowledge the fact that same set of regulations cannot accommodate wide spectrum of private schools. Regulation through price control might not hurt low-budget schools but will affect high-end schools, forcing them to compromise on quality. Alternatively, regulation through standard setting might not hurt high-end private schools but will force low-budget schools to either operate illegally or raise their costs.

In fact, more regulations might end up making private education more inaccessible to the poorer segment of the population. The proposal to prevent registration of new private schools is one of them. Basic law of demand and supply dictates that whenever the supply of a good or service is restricted, prices escalate.The proposal which was tacitly endorsed by the existent associations of private schools will not only restrict the supply of new private schools but also allow existing schools to charge premium prices owing to the increasing demand for education. It will also give leeway for crony capitalism and syndication of private schools as the number of players in the market gets limited, making quality education further inaccessible for the poor.

Quality quotient

In this scenario, if our policymakers and concerned stakeholders really want to make quality education accessible to a higher number of people and drive down prices, they should promote more competition in the sector by making it accessible for more entrepreneurs to invest in the sector. The presence of more competitive and cheaper schools will be more of a check to the private schools charging premium prices than the government agencies will ever be.

Similarly, actions of political parties, media and social activists envisioning equality in education would be more effective if they focused more on improving the quality of public schools rather than criticizing the private sector. If the public sector could provide better education for their students at a lower cost, there is no reason to assume that parents will continue flocking to private educational institutions with their hard-earned money.

--Surath Giri

(Published in The Himalayan Times- Perspectives of 5th May, 2013)