Monday, 6 December, 2021

Managing Education Sector

Mukti Rijal


Education sector has been worst hit due to COVID-19. For the last four months, educational institutions have remained shut down. In fact, it is not the case of Nepal alone. It has been a grave global challenge. Though online classes are being tried out, they are not effective and inclusive enough. The reach of digital technology is very limited in the country characterised by sharp digital divide. As a result, not only rural areas but semi-urban hinterlands are out of internet reach. Apart from the problems presented by logistics deficit and digital divide encountered during these days, education sector has long distressed due to lack of clear institutional provision and arrangement.

Lack of clarity
The new institutional arrangement to create a democratic and decentralised management of education has been provided in the new federal constitution promulgated almost five years ago. But the new constitutional arrangement also lacks precision and clarity in some aspects. Needless to repeat, the federal constitution has entrusted the competencies related to school education to the local governments - rural municipalities (Gaupalika) and municipalities (Nagarpalikas) exclusively as stipulated in its schedule 8. At the same time, the education has also been defined as the concurrent competence of the three levels of the government – federal, state and local – indicating some kind of overlapping of jurisdictions. This also shows that the respective layers of the government have to share the functions in the administration and management of education.
The principle of subsidiarity which is generally accepted as the guiding principle of federal state structure requires that the function related to education should be vested in the authorities as close as possible to the people. Principally, federal government should focus on the development of national policies and standards. It should leave the provision of education management and service delivery to local level while some supervisory and coordinating role could be entrusted to the provincial level. Lack of local level capacity should not be used as an excuse to interfere in the powers and competencies of the lower level government. In Nepal, we have constitutionally adopted the principle of cooperative government. The notion of cooperative government can bear fruit only when truly collaborative but non-interventionist relationship between the federal, state and local government is fostered.
When the three levels of the government work in tandem, the quality of education can be enhanced in the country. However, Nepal's education landscape has been effectively dominated by the private sector. From higher level down to the primary levels, private sector-led institutions have occupied bigger space. Some voices have been raised against the privatisation of education on the ground that it is against the principle of welfare state. Moreover, the constitution commits to create a welfare state based on egalitarian values and principles. The recommendations of the high level commission formed by the government last year has emphasised the need to gradually increase role of the state in delivery of core services including education.
Though the private schools cannot be nationalised and brought within the full control of the state, they can be better regulated and governed to serve the public ends. In our context, it has been the case that, private schools have captured larger educational space. This is also due to the fact that the performance of the government aided community schools has been poor especially in terms of generating learning outcomes. Though the government has poured sizeable resources in improving physical infrastructures and capacity development of teachers employed in the community schools, teaching-learning situation has failed to progress and improve in commensurate terms. The development partners and donors have also put their money and extended technical assistance to reform the public education system too.
However, the support and aid has not been able to bring about and garner substantive change as the many public schools have been steadily losing students out to the private schools. Many schools in the Kathmandu Valley reportedly received no student enrolments during the previous academic sessions as a result of which they had to be merged into the neighbouring schools. At an interaction held other day, the educationist and policymakers lamented over the drain of the resources in the education sector without producing proportionate outcomes and results. The gross resentment and dissatisfactions have further amplified over the increasingly deteriorating results at the cost of investment made in the education sector. But reining in on the private investment will make sense only when priority is given to halt the decline in the public education.

Capacity building
Definitely a new context has dawned in the country following the implementation of the federal constitution that has made the school education the responsibility of the local government. However, there are cases that the federal government has not done much to build local capacity to properly manage and run the schools. The federal government should not interfere with the competencies and mandates of the local government and assist and cooperate to implement mandates according to the spirit of cooperative federalism. The federal government should look after the major policy issues, including the central universities and setting policies and standards for education. 
The state government should undertake some supervisory and support functions whereas real implementation mandate should go to the local government. At this juncture, the report of the  High Level Education Commission formed  by the government needs to be made public and deliberated thoroughly as they not only give new direction to the education sector but also thrash out the complex institutional issues relative to enhance the quality of the education in the country.

(Rijal, PhD, contributes regularly to TRN and writes on contemporary political, economic and governance issues.