In recent years, globalisation of the world economy has helped to bring unprecedented demand for a great diversification in higher education. At the same time, higher education is being challenged by new opportunities related to technological advances that drive innovation in both education and research. Higher education is the most valuable asset of a knowledge society. It enriches and inspires people. It brings social and economic benefits and hence helps transform people’s lives. In the context of Nepal, the questions of significance are — (a) Are our academic institutions prepared to capitalise on the creation of and use of frontier knowledge? (b) Are they equipped with competent teachers and facilities to educate and inform students for success in the global society?
Former Prime Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai opined sometimes ago that “education system introduced by private schools has led the society to nowhere and commercialisation of education has benefited only a handful of people”.
It is true that a handful of private schools in the country, in the name of quality, are exacerbating the divide between the ‘advantaged’ and the ‘disadvantaged’. It is also true that students aren’t getting the education they need. Nonetheless, to a large extent, the general public are sympathetic to the way the private institutions have raised up the education standard, improved learning environment and brought up new facilities to people’s reach. On the other end, the public schools are poorly performing for quite some time. This is revealed from this year’s School Leaving Certificate (SLC) result too. Among the total of 547,165 examinees appeared in 2013’s SLC exam, 76 percent were from public or community schools and the rest from private schools. Out of nearly 416,000 students from public schools only 28 percent have passed the SLC exams. It is not good for someone in the education policy level to have such a dismissal result in which nearly 300,000 students failed from the public sector alone.
Education is a public good and it is the state’s full responsibility to make school education assessable, affordable and valuable to every one. Along with a rapid expansion of private institutions, a new set of problems and challenges have emerged. Education management, relevance of programmes, skills-based training, societal disparities based on economic class and location, employability are some to name. Privatisation of education has also created some social problems – for example, a few private schools are apparently taking only those students whose parents are millionaire or can travel in their own vehicles.
The country’s education policy over the past decade has resulted in a gradual disempowerment of value, skills and knowledge-based education. Political instability, brain drain and weak implementation of laws and policies have contributed a lot to this. For the growing failure of the public institutions, people largely blame country’s politicians and especially their student wings and affiliated organisations which still believe in mob culture and pad-locking. Another important reason is the country’s socio-economic pattern – a majority of public schools are in the position to enrol underprivileged or less motivated students in the community, especially in the urban sector. If the government and education policy makers are serious about changing the landscape of school education by improving teaching and learning environments in the public sector, then efforts must be made in the following areas as they are the same reasons for which parents have opted to send their children to private schools.
1. Focus on personal development — Private schools help students to get ready for college education, develop personal maturation and development that go hand in hand with academic preparation. After high school they usually come up with both a degree and some great purpose for life.
2. Attract highly qualified teachers – Most private school teachers have a first degree (or Masters’ degree) in their subject. When private schools hire teachers, they usually look for competence in and passion for the subject a candidate will teach and also review how the teacher actually teaches.
3. Maintain small classes and teacher-student ratio – Private schools usually maintain a small class size – typically below 30 students in a class and 1:15 9 (or even less) teacher-to-student ratio. Why are small class sizes important? The main assumption is that every child will get the personal attention he/she needs and craves. Private schools distribute programs in different clusters and every cluster is fairly small.
4. Provide better facilities for students – In addition to access academic facilities, such as, library and athletic facilities, extracurricular activities have been a major part of school programs. Choirs, orchestras and drama clubs are offered in some private schools.
5. Multimedia and web-based learning – Many private schools are (being) equipped with modern technologies like, computer and web-based learning.
It is important to recognise the reasons as to why private schools have been showing a much better performance in the SLC exams and post-secondary levels. It is largely because of their successes in delivering education with better management and facilities. It is also due to a continuous movement of good students from public sector to private sector, especially, in the urban and semi-urban areas. Along with improvements in the above mentioned areas the country’s public education system requires some fundamental changes and renewal it has never been required to undertake so as to incorporate deeper dimensions of morality and ethics in teaching and learning.
Of course, there are academic challenges as well. These include (i) how to move forward from teacher centred education to a system that has component of an active learning in class, (ii) how to increase teacher’s competence in and passion for the subject, and (iii) how to encourage the students to be active in sharing ideas.
What educators, policy advisors and communities must do to meet growing challenges in education?
1. Develop education system that help improve our students, our teaching methods, and ourselves through analysing data and addressing what is working and what needs to be changed.
2. There are already huge investments in education from the private sector. These investments have come not just from education promoters and academicians but also from country’s largest business groups, so it is important that the profit motive and education should not be allowed to mix.
3. It is necessary to strengthen the existing public (community) schools by providing extra facilities and recruiting (and retaining) young and highly qualified teachers.
4. Most public schools are suffered from poor physical facilities and high pupil-teacher ratios, but what is most contributing towards a failure of public education is the low level of teaching activity taking place in them.
5. In private schools, the teachers are accountable to the manager or founder (who can fire them), and, through him or her, to the parents (who can withdraw their children). In a public sector, the chain of accountability is weaker, as teachers have a permanent job with salaries and promotions unrelated to performance.
6. It is necessary to cultivate into every teacher’s mind that education is ‘lifelong learning’, embracing all forms of education – formal, informal and non-formal.
(Neupane, PhD, is Royal Society Fellow and Adjunct Professor of Physics, University of Canterbury, New Zealand: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)