PABSON stronger than any government body

Prof Dr Mana Prasad Wagley

REPUBLICA There is a lot of debate surrounding school education in developing countries like Nepal. The argument centers on whether the state is best suited to educate all its young, or if the private sector should be allowed to promote quality education. The jury in Nepal is still out. But following the government’s issuance of the Private and Boarding School Directive 2013 to regulate private schools, private school operators feel the odds have been stacked heavily against them. Private and Boarding School Association of Nepal (PABSON), the umbrella body of private schools, has thus refused to obey the new guidelines. Why this tussle? And what is the state of school education in the country? Mahabir Paudyal sat down with noted educationist Prof Dr Mana Prasad Wagley to find out.

Why do Nepali private education establishments seem so wary of regulation?

You have to look into history to understand why. In 1971, the government nationalized all private and public schools. A decade later, in 1980, the government reversed its course and invited the private sector to establish private schools. The private school owners took this U-turn as a license to do as they pleased. In 33 years since, they have virtually colonized the country’s education sector. Now they have their organizations like PABSON and N-PABSON which have become stronger than government bodies. The private school owners think of themselves as more powerful than the government. And because the private schools produce higher percentage of SLC graduates than government schools, they think they need not abide by government rules.

But in doing so aren’t they placing themselves above the law?

They are. Private schools are yet to follow the country’s education regulations, which is mandatory for all schools. In this context, how can the government expect them to abide by simple guidelines issued by the Department of Education? The government should have strictly imposed education regulations on private schools first.

PABSON representatives were consulted while preparing the guidelines. Why the tussle then?

The government had invited representatives from PABSON and Guardians’ Association of Nepal (GAoN) for advice. PABSON officials had initially agreed to government guidelines too. But just before the guidelines were made public, some private school owners expressed their reservations and said they would not be able to follow the guidelines. Given their open defiance of education regulation, this is not a surprise. The regulation says that private school teachers should be treated on par with their government counterparts. But virtually no private school in the country has done so. Another reason private school bosses defy the government is their connections with government ministers. For example, former president of PABSON, Umesh Shrestha, is a member of the advisory committee in Baburam Bhattarai government. Such connections make private school operators believe they are the stronger than the state. If the private schools do not follow government rules, they should shut down. PABSON is trying to justify the unjustifiable. It is opposing even the simple and most basic regulation regarding classroom size, hygiene and nutrition in school and hostel and charges on registration and admission fees.

Could the guardians of school going children have put more pressure on PABSON to follow government guidelines?

Perhaps the Guardians’ Association of Nepal (GAoN) president Suprabhat Bhandari has done all he can. This time he has even sent a black flag to PABSON central office. But he cannot do more because GAoN is a powerless entity. And private schools are aware of GAoN’s weakness. But I don’t mean to dismiss GAoN altogether. In fact, it was the first organization which protested the excesses of the private schools in 1995. I myself was working as its senior vice president then.

You seem to imply that no one is really committed, from the government bureaucrats to private school operators, in regulating private establishments.

Exactly. For a number of reasons. One, private school owners have to distribute certain scholarships. A PhD dissertation from Kathmandu University School of Education has clearly pointed out that private schools are not transparent in scholarship distribution. Beneficiaries of scholarship are often the near and dear ones of the secretaries, joint secretaries, politicians, ministers and parliament members. Two, there is evidence that private schools bribe district education officers. In fact, private school operators have even paid for the wedding ceremony of the daughter of one education secretary. In such a situation, I do not believe the government will be able to control private schools. The recent guideline is only a farce.

If so, will the irregularities in private schools never be eliminated?

How will they be? Sitting and former education ministers have their own private schools. Secretaries have their shares in private schools. In this situation, how can we expect them to be committed to eliminating irregularities?

Are you implying that education minister Dinanath Sharma also owns a private school?

I came to know about this during BBC’s Sajha Sawal in which minister Sharma and I were in the discussion panel. Sharma claimed that he had done certain things for “my school.” Sharma is not alone. All past education ministers vowed to regulate private schools. The fact that the monopoly of private schools has only gotten worse suggests government ministers and secretaries are part of the problem. I believe the government came up with the new guideline not because it really wants to regulate private schools but because it was forced to do so after a Supreme Court verdict which set clear rules for private schools. If the SC had not issued the verdict, perhaps the government would not have introduced the guideline.

The guidelines have drastically cut back on registration, admission and monthly charges that private schools can levy. How will the schools sustain themselves on such meager revenues?

You have a point. But private schools have been charging exorbitant fees even for things like swimming pool and furnishing the principal’s office. They sell textbooks at inflated prices. They sell dress items like ties, belts and shirts and pants like retail shoppers. The SC verdict and government’s guidelines are meant to check such irregularities. If the private schools had been providing quality education, perhaps their resentments would have been justified. But they are only promoting rote learning and have shown no creativity. Their sole objective is to have a high SLC pass percentage. How they manage to maintain such results is interesting. They set up everything beforehand. For example, if students of my school have exam center at your school, I request you to group weaker students with brighter ones so that every examinee passes. The guideline has proposed merging schools with few students and poor infrastructure with bigger schools. I do not see why the private school owners are so keen to run schools with less than 100 students by paying thousands in monthly rent. Despite all this, it would be a mistake to put all the blame on private school owners. Even the government is facilitating privatization of education.

How so?

Take Kathmandu valley where there are less than 300 public schools but more than 1,200 private schools. Because there are so few public schools, even the poorest of the poor have no option but to send their wards to private schools.

We have a government led by UCPN (Maoist). The party has made its opposition to private education known since the insurgency days. Are the new guidelines motivated by Maoist ideology?

Not at all. Around 300 private schools are run by Maoist leaders. And why would they want to abolish private schools when their student bodies have made private schools a lucrative source of income?

You have been a vocal critic of Nepal’s education system. What is the major problem of our education system and how can it be fixed?

Our education system is outdated. There are certain things the government can do to revive the system. First, the national philosophy of education must be defined. The government is not clear what it wants the educated people to do for the country. Two, it should set core minimum standard (CMS) in all subjects. And unless the students meet CMS, they should not be allowed into higher grades. Once we have CMS in place, every SLC graduate, no matter where s/he may have passed SLC, whether from Darchula or Kathmandu, will gain certain standard. There would not be vast competence gap between students of Kathmandu and, say, students coming from public schools from remote areas. Third, curriculum should be designed so as to promote student competence. The current practice is that textbooks are taught without following the curriculum. Office of the Controller of Examination sets questions based on textbooks. Our text-book based teaching is only promoting cognitive learning, leaving the other key domains like affective and psycho-motor learning untouched. Fourth, we have to have standardized tests like TOEFL and IELTS instead of teacher-centric tests like SLC. If we follow these four guidelines, the standard of public schools will definitely improve. And with it, problems of private schools will be solved. People will stop sending their children to private schools. In eight or ten years, we will have very few private schools in Nepal.

How should private school education be regulated then?

I would say private sector should not be allowed to run schools at all. School Sector Reform Plan (SSRP) has clearly defined grade one to 12 as school education. School education should be the state’s responsibly. After all, people pay tax for basic services like education and health. The government needs to take a bold step to shut down private schools and take up the responsibility of educating its people in its hand.

That sounds a little utopian.

Not at all. If the government passes the resolution today and issues a strong directive, I do not believe this is an impossible task. What the government lacks is strong will (daro mutu). Short of shutting them down, we need to have a separate act to regulate private schools, for act would be more binding than directives and guidelines. If we had a private school act in 1980, we would not have had to bear with the anomalies in private schooling now.


source: republica, 14 March 2013 photo courtesy: republica