Scientific discoveries and inventions have brought about tremendous changes in modern times which were not possibly imagined in previous ages. Alongside these, the development of technology has changed the face of the entire earth. We are happy to use modern facilities that have made our life easier and more comfortable. On the contrary, we will be most unhappy in the future. This presumption is not without reason. We have ample ground to anticipate that misfortune. While developed nations have gone far ahead, developing nations have lagged quite behind. Apart from the ecological imbalance caused by excessive development in some nations, it has also caused injustice to underdeveloped nations. Considering these pressing issues, the United Nations has set some sustainable goals for individual nations.
Quality education is a global agenda that crosses the border of an individual nation. Regarding the issue of quality education, the United Nations has set educational targets in the fourth order of priority among 17 sustainable goals expected to be achieved by 2030. The UN document states, among others, a significant target "By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational, and tertiary education, including university". This target assumes that every citizen of a country, or more broadly, each human being of the entire globe, has a fundamental right to quality education at all levels, from primary to secondary to tertiary education.
As a member country of the United Nations, Nepal also has to ensure equal access to education for all – the underprivileged and privileged, women and men, and rural and urban dwellers. This very concept of quality education that should reach every citizen on equal terms is contradictory and controversial among the stakeholders. Can we achieve the sustainable goal of quality education set by the United Nations in our context? What is more important for the development of our country – one hundred per cent literacy or ten per cent excellency in education? Have we seriously thought about the costs involved in achieving this goal? How can we afford to pay for quality education for all? These are the issues we need to be clear about.
Education authorities have fixed their targets to make all people literate. The 2021 census indicates that the literacy rate has significantly increased from 33 per cent in 1991 to 71.2 per cent in 2021. This is undoubtedly a visible achievement in the case of Nepal. It proves that we have achieved much in quantity. But the question of quality does not yet seem to be satisfactorily addressed. Regarding education, several commissions and task forces have worked to identify the problems and suggested remedies for improving the situation.
They have already submitted reports on what education system can be the best in our country. Numerous recommendations have been made to the government. However, we have not achieved what we expected to achieve.
Despite a significant increase in female students in schools and colleges, educating all children in remote places is still difficult. Nor is it easy to reach the children of underprivileged and marginalised groups. There is visibly a huge gap between the efforts made and the results achieved. It suggests that, as the famous saying goes, it is easy to say but difficult to do. In such a context, we have to face several challenges to achieve the goal of quality education. First and foremost, we are still confused about the educational structure in the changed context. Since we have three levels of government after the establishment of the republic, we need to fix the scope and responsibility of each government regarding education.
There are unsettled debates about which level of education should be under the management and supervision of which level of government. Is it a good idea to segregate, for instance, basic education to operate under the local level government, secondary education under the provincial government, and tertiary education under the federal government? Have we looked at the best international practices in this regard? Or even if we have, can we copy the same model here? If yes, the model of which country? Such issues need elaborate discussions among the stakeholders, and the parliament has to make laws to suit our purpose accordingly.
The next issue is proper financial management. Since the 1990s, we have been imparting education through two types of educational institutions – those entirely funded by the government and those privately funded. A large amount of the budget is spent on education for government-funded institutions which aim at providing education for all. Such is the policy of the government, which is but natural. Despite these efforts, people's grudges over the achievements have surfaced. On the contrary, private-funded institutions have focused on quality education despite the frequency of their products fleeing the country for better university education and employment abroad, which sends a tremendous amount of our money to foreign countries. Recent information states that more than 100,000 students go abroad for university education.
The third issue is the politics-free education in our country. When we say politics-free education, we should not understand that educational institutions must prohibit any political discussions and debates. It is indeed educational institutions that should educate the politics of the federal democratic republic as provisioned in the constitution. But we should immediately stop the intervention of partisan politics in educational institutions, which has ruined the educational system limb by limb.
Besides defects in recruitment practices and partisan influence in official appointments, organising employees' associations and students' unions separately under the direct influence of each political party is against the spirit of politics-free education. These three major issues, among others, are the major impediments to achieving the goal of quality education. But there is no escape. Without quality education, nobody can generate good ideas for development; without it, no one can put state policy into best practice. We must thus internalise the fact that quality education is essential for sustainable development.
(The author is the chairman of Molung Foundation.)