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Jun 17, 2014

Who failed in the SLC exams? Students or the Government?

The Iron Gate has opened ajar. Only 43.9 percent students taking the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exams made it through. As it happens every year, disappointing results come out, the education officials make a few apologetic remarks; the government promises yet another education plan with huge funding; public intellectuals berate private schools for their success and lament the inequality; people make consolatory remarks such as passing SLC is not everything; and after a week or two, the hue and cry dies and then it’s business as usual.

SLC may not tell much about the prospect of a student in life but it does tell a lot about the educational system. The pass percentage, despite relaxation of standards and cheatings allowed during exams, is embarrassingly low. If we segregate the SLC performance of public and private schools, a clear picture emerges which points out to the root of the problem. Ninety-three percent of students from private schools have passed the exams this year as compared to 28 percent from public schools. For the past four years, the pass rates for private educational institutions have been above 80 percent whereas the maximum pass rate for public schools was 46 percent in 2011. 

The problem is not with the whole educational system but with the public schools and the way they are run. Private educational institutions are doing just fine and in fact are the saving grace of our educational system.

Why such a disparity? Most people, like the Ministry of Education spokesperson, would be quick to point out higher investment in private schools as the reason behind better results. But there are many private schools with less investment than government schools and are yet doing much better. Consider Samata Siksha Niketan, popularly known as Bamboo School, which charges Rs 100 a month and yet achieves 100 percent result; or Melamchi Ghyang Secondary School in Helambu which has achieved glorious results despite being in a remote place and without much investment. It is also interesting to note that one of the toppers of this year’s exam, Sanjog Karki, comes from Reliance Academy in Kapan, a school catering to middle or lower middle class, and not from an elite school.

Upon being asked about their secret to success, many schools attribute it to good management and dedicated teachers, which are precisely the things lacking in public schools. Government school teachers are paid ranging from Rs 14,000 to Rs 31,000 whereas private school teachers generally get paid between Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000. But these costs for government school teachers are just the tip of the iceberg. 

Lifelong pension after retirement and additional benefits for rural assignments comprise another major chunk of overall cost. It is important to note here that millions of dollars received in aid through government and non-government channels are also spent on public schools. And yet, the excuse government comes up with is lack of investment as if more investment in the past has done any better. A full 331 community and government run schools across the country had zero results this year. There is just no justifying that. 

Lack of a linkage between the performance of the school/teachers and the revenue they get is a more credible reason behind the poor performance of public schools. As news reports in the past have highlighted, teacher absenteeism is a major hurdle towards learning for pupils in public schools. We have had many news reports detailing how teachers of government schools are more interested in side jobs, political activities and protesting for permanency rather than teaching. Early at the start of the educational year, reports surfaced about millions of rupees allocated for textbooks being embezzled by school officials, and pupils were denied access to something as basic as textbooks.

Hence, the problem is neither with the overall educational system nor lack of investment in education but more with the incentive structure of the educational system. In fact, as much as a billion rupees is being spent on ‘fake’ schools, as reported in April 2014, using the same channel (the government) to invest more is completely ludicrous. 

One of the major flaws with the government-run schools is that the guardians never have a say on the revenue generation or rewarding of the school or the teachers which encourages them to neglect their responsibilities. Since the schools and the teachers generate their income from government rather than the guardians, they have very little, if any, incentive to heed the wishes of the children or their guardians. 

The first step towards reforming our educational system would be to change the incentive structure. The government should fund the students, not the schools. The government expenditure on education is for the sake of the children not for the sake of the schools or the teachers. Experimenting with the education voucher system being practiced in countries like India, Sweden and the US (as well as with charter schools) could be one way to restructure the incentive system. Similarly, encouraging and helping organizations like Teach for Nepal is important because they truly care for better education in the country. 

There are dozens of measures the government could take to lift public schools’ performance and set them at par with the private schools. Pouring more money into the existing structure is not one of them.

-Surath Giri

Jun 8, 2014

Luxury or necessity?

Google’s driverless cars are making headlines once again. These self-driving machines have logged more than 10,000 miles already without a single ticket and are being touted as the future of transport, at least for the developed world. Similarly, automatic drones which can be controlled by smart phones are revolutionizing industries ranging from online retails to pizza delivery through more effective and efficient transportation. 

On the other side of the world, however, we Nepalis are being forced to look at a simple four wheelers with wistful eyes. Thanks to the exorbitant rates of import duties and taxes the Government of Nepal levies on the import of automobiles categorizing them as luxury items, vehicles are out of the reach of the majority of Nepalis.
Nepal government levies 241 percent tax and duties on vehicle import. This is the highest imposition of tax on the automobiles in the world. As a result, when the world’s cheapest car Nano entered Nepal it was already seven times more expensive than it was in India, effectively out of reach for majority of Nepalis. As of April 2014, the number of vehicles registered in Nepal is only about 1.7 million which means our penetration of vehicle rate is just 5.67 percent of the population which is one of the lowest in the world. 

It is interesting to note that while the government thinks vehicles are luxury goods and not every Nepali should have access to them, the government officials and politicians ride on ultra expensive vehicles with taxpayers’ money. Hence, we have a scenario where only the rich, the government officials and the politicians can afford four wheelers. For the rest, the choice is between purchasing a two-wheeler with safety hazards and using the public transport which is not just unreliable but risky and costly if you consider the opportunity costs.

The usual justification given for the exorbitant taxes and duties is that it will minimize the use of private vehicles and thereby save environment, prevent congestion and save our foreign exchange reserves as the country has not been able to produce any vehicles of its own. The justification is true only as far as the theory goes. 

In practice, the question would be: Has the NRs. 11 billion plus revenue generated from the exorbitant import taxes, duties and road taxes and license fees translated into better roads, better public transport and better traffic management? Not exactly! In fact, it works the other way round. Because of the poor road conditions and unreliable public transport system more people are opting for private vehicles. Nepal could very well be the only country without a mass transit system in the world. The public transport run by cartels is as unreliable and as costly as things can become when impunity from both crime and competition is granted and ensured by the government.

Road construction is mired with corruption and government negligence in action. Roads are black-topped during the rainy season which last only for a few weeks before they are patched again. 

Because of the high taxes and the resulting increase in prices, primary medium of transport for many Nepalis, especially for those living in the cities, is two wheelers. Two wheelers are inherently less safe compared to other vehicles, resulting in more fatalities during accidents. The risk has been increased tremendously by the condition of roads and lack of traffic rule enforcement. As a result, we lose thousands of precious lives every year because people are compelled to ride unsafe vehicles. Roads are relatively safer for the rich but not for the poor because our government thinks safer and more comfortable vehicles are a luxury, not a necessity.
One of the concerns shared by the policymakers and general public with regards to lowering of import taxes is that it will encourage everyone to own vehicles and lead to high congestion in the roads. The fallacy stems from the trend of thinking of only cities and urban centers while designing national policies. 

The road network of the country does not even receive traffic enough to make them sustainable. Although road networks have connected all the 75 districts of the country, the actual utilization of the tracks is very low. The highest vehicle movement per day in Nepal is along Nepal-India borders which get 2500-3000 vehicles. On the other hand, most of our roads get only 300-1000 vehicles per day making it hard to sustain the regular maintenance and upgrade of these roads because of the low revenue generated from less traffic.

It is high time our policymakers rethought this policy of treating vehicles as a luxury item rather than as essential goods required for economic growth and development. Only when we make automobiles affordable in this country will the infrastructure development and its intended benefits materialize. But above all these concerns, the primary question we need to ask is: When the world is dreaming of affordable space travel why should we be denied access to something as basic as a four-wheeler?

- Surath Giri