School Sector Reform Plan: Will it address the quality issue?

2014-04-05

Himalayan News Service

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Nepal’s recent political changes have necessitated changes in the state education system handed down since the Shah dynasty of monarchs and the feudal family of Rana rulers. Nepal’s erstwhile rulers not only showed a lack of interest in the economic well-being of the masses but also in providing education to the common people. In fact, Rana rulers’ opposition to mass education has delayed the massification of education long witnessed in many countries. The education system, in particular higher education, has remained essentially an elitist system, which has not yet become a mass institution in Nepal.

The restoration of multi-party democracy in Nepal in 1990 saw a budding of the formal education institutions, mostly private. A majority of middle-class living in the cities and urban centers began sending their kids to these elite private schools and colleges. What is noteworthy is that the awareness among parents to educate their children has risen four-fold. Parents were never before so attentive to the educational needs and future careers of their children as now. They are literally involved in the education of their children and spend a huge amount of money on their education. Their class sizes are relatively smaller and their peers intellectually stimulating. Similar is the picture at the private colleges and universities. Teachers and professors are outsourced from the public colleges and universities to ensure that they deliver quality lectures in the class. Thus, Nepal prepares to respond to the global knowledge economy by educating its fortunate minority in the cities and towns. No doubt, a good start has been made, albeit in the cities and towns toward mass education. But the effort is too small, and confined to ‘elite’ private colleges and schools. The larger picture comprises of a large majority of public schools, colleges and universities, most noticeably across the desolate countryside battling to cope with the tremendous increase in enrollment.

In many developing countries, the number of private educational institutes has increased as a result of dissatisfaction with the public education system. The trend in Nepal has emerged largely as a result of incapacity of the state to satisfy the increasing demand for quality education at all levels. It is also partly created by the changing role of the state in education. Nepal is one of the countries whose public schools have failed to deliver quality education despite huge state funding and donor support over the years since early 1990s. The gap between the passing rates in School Leaving Certificate showed around 80 percent for private and 15 percent for public schools. This is being perceived as a glaring example of the failure of the public school system despite huge budgetary support from the donors.

With the recent political change in Nepal, the new regime has expressed a fervent desire to alter this situation through the ambitious plan for reforming the education sector and has embarked on a policy to restructure the present education system under what is known as ‘School Sector Reform’ (SSR) plan. The plan, among other things, talks about ‘integrated school system’ from grade 1 to 12 and ‘quality education’. While the concept of an integrated school system is timely and draws fewer controversies, the concept of ‘quality’ education is fraught with a number of problems, most notably the very understanding of the term ‘quality’. For instance, the policymakers have recognized school infrastructural change with a focus on physical or outward appearance as constituting ‘quality’. The document is silent as to what are the quality indicators that are required to transform the present education system. Thus, the SSR raises a number of questions, most importantly: Will physical facilities alone address the problem of quality? Though the policy document mentions about instructional process, teacher management and assessment of student achievement, it does not mention the quality indicators acceptable on a global standard. Mostly, quality is understood as basic inputs, such as increasing enrolment rates in schools and physical infrastructures rather than what the content or the curricula should look like and how the state will protect academia from excessive commercialization which comes from expansion (including private) or massification.

The things that need to be done for quality assurance system are many. Most importantly, such a need stems from the fact that massification of education and the haphazard growth of private educational institutions tend to lower the quality, prestige and morale of education. Thus, to check such commercialization and unbridled growth of education institutions, quality assurance mechanisms should be put in place. The growing student and labor mobility, the emergence of World Trade Organization and General Agreement on Trade in Services are other reasons for developing a quality assurance mechanism. Yet another reason why quality assurance is important stems from the fact that what is taught in the classrooms consists of subject matter that has hardly been revised during the last few decades. As a result, a vast majority of students attending schools and colleges in Nepal have standardized education designed for the economy, which is neither knowledge-based nor industrial. Thus, the most of today’s graduates are ill-equipped to compete in the ‘high-value’ global economy, which demands skills and competence-based curricula.

Quality and quality assurance have become the mantras of modern knowledge-based society. Coming back to Nepal, the document on SSR has tried to address the issues of access and equity, expansion and massification, decentralization and governance, but when it comes to quality issues, it defines the concept loosely. For instance, the government links quality to a competency-based learning program and providing training to teachers, head-teachers, and School Management Committees. At the secondary level, the plan is to provide expensive physical inputs such as laboratories, libraries, computers, and extracurricular activities. A great deal of discussion about quality in education is thus related to very basic input issues such as physical resources. The plan fails to address what has today come to be known as ‘new quality assurance agenda’, which cut across quality control, quality audit, quality assessment, quality management or sometimes total quality management. The plan is also silent about evaluating whether students’ qualifications have maximum applicability and comparability. There are also confusions concerning what constitute the criteria for quality and what they should focus on. No less crucial are the issues of privatization and commercialization amidst the rising tide of globally-articulated knowledge economy calling for stricter regulatory and quality control.

To conclude, Nepal will face daunting obstacles to make the present state education institutions recognizable in the knowledge economy if it does not develop the principle, process and tools for improving the quality and attractiveness of its educational institutions, the content of studies and curricula. It also needs to take account of increasing evidence in many countries that most of the models of quality assurance are moving to considering new quality assurance agenda, including curricular renovation and the concept of lifelong learning rather than merely providing basic physical inputs.

(Writer, a former Erasmus Mundus scholar, holds an MA (Ed) in Educational Sociology.)
(Source: Republica daily)