Worlds of Education

The debate about private education in Nepal: Struggles for access, quality and equity

published 11 October 2017 updated 11 October 2017

By Tejendra Pherali, University College London & Pramod Bhatta, Tribhuvan University

In recent decades, private network schools and ‘low-fee’ private schools have grown significantly in low-income contexts in Africa and South Asia. The former represents increasing commodification of education and the education sector as a domain of business/commercial investment and; the latter has emerged as a pragmatic solution (at least rhetorically) to the crisis of quality in public schools and the high costs involved in private education.

This pattern in educational provision is based on a discourse that suggests any educational choice is rational and equal, quality education can be provided at low costs, the promotion of English-medium education and that private fee paying schools are an alternative to the crisis of quality in public schools.

Particularly, the emergence of low-cost private schools represents a new type of market-oriented approach underpinned by the neoliberal notion that “the poor should be allowed to be consumers, like middle and ruling classes” (Mcpherson, Robertson and Walford, 2014, p.15). This particular trend deflects genuine public efforts to improve quality of provision in public schools and seriously undermines the agenda of free universal education.

Theoretically grounded in the debates about neoliberalism and its impact on education, we argue that the private provision in education is underpinned by neoliberal ideology that regards education as a product, learners as consumers, and educational institutions as business enterprises. The cost of education is transferred to learners and local communities.

There are serious concerns about indicators of success, financial sustainability and equity in access and quality of such provisions.

Nepal has seen a massive proliferation in the number and share of private education institutions over the past two decades. Private schools are funded exclusively from student fees, with an exception of some philanthropic support to low-cost schools.

More importantly, such growing penetration by the private sector into school education (constitutionally mandated as free and universal, and considered the prime responsibility of the government in Nepal), raises serious concerns about the nature of the Nepali state, as well as its capacity to promote equity and social justice through education.

The private sector is a key player in the national education landscape of Nepal. However, there are significant gender, geographical and socio-economic disparities in participation in private schools, resulting in public schools becoming residual places for the poor as the rich move to private schools. The growth of private schools is also attributed to the lack of regulations and appropriate mechanisms for monitoring the private sector involvement in education.

There is also a growing penetration of 'international' education programmes in Nepal's school system, including the growth of franchise schools, and affiliation to international curricula, examinations and co-curricular and extra-curricular programmes.

Likewise, schools under individual proprietorship are gradually being converted into chain or network schools involving mergers, acquisition and partnering, indicating the rise of more organised and powerful groups in the education sector.

Associated with the rise of private provision has been a spread of a very constricted view of education with a high degree of standardisation, heavily relying on the educational success only in terms of student performance in national exams. This process has perpetuated the narrow view of ‘quality’ and capitalised on the conventional assessment practice that rewards rote-learning.

The prevalence of uncertified, under-qualified and untrained teachers who work under severe constraints characterised by low salaries, long working hours and congested classrooms has contributed to a general de-professionalisation of teaching, undermining the need for teacher education and their continuing professional development.

There is also an interesting gender dimension of teacher recruitment in private schools. In a gender-hierarchical society such as Nepal, where women have traditionally been confined within home, private schools (including, the low-cost ones) seem to be offering low-paid teaching positions to females who do not possess relevant professional qualifications or training.

As public services such as health and education are now the responsibility of local government under Nepal's new Constitution, there is some optimism for positive change in the education sector, especially with respect to restoring the quality of education in the public schools. However, there are also concerns about the lack of local capacities and resources to provide quality education for all.

There is an urgent need to increase investment in public schools.

The realisation of the constitutional right of free and compulsory basic and free secondary education will require not only a reversal in the current trend of education financing but also a substantial increase in resource allocations to reduce the direct and indirect costs of schooling, and improve the overall quality of education in public schools.

We also urge the government of Nepal to develop stronger regulation for private schools given that the contribution and the role of the private sector in the provision of school education has been firmly accepted by the Constitution, political parties and dominant development discourses.

Private schools need to ensure that they adhere to financial regulations including, tax liability, fee structures, curricula, and teacher deployment, in order to ensure accountability and compliance with the legislation. Teaching must be regarded as a profession that requires professional qualifications and continuing professional development training that is rewarded with adequate salary and other benefits.

The report, Nepal: Patterns of Privatisation in Education. A case study of low-fee private schools and private chain schools. Bhatta P. & Pherali T. (2017) is available here.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.