Once a month for the past three months, thousands of government and private schools have been closed down by strikes called by teachers themselves, leaving millions of students unable to attend classes for the day. Despite the fact that students play no role in the problems they cite or possible solutions, teachers’ unions continue to hold schools hostage as a way to voice their demands. By stifling the students’ desire for and right to education, they hope to raise their own voices loud enough to force the Ministry of Education to respond.
The Nepal Educational Republican Forum (NERF), an alliance of UCPN (Maoist)-aligned teachers’ unions, recently called the third school closure of the year to demand that temporary teachers be given permanent status. This is the second school closure announced by this union, following the strike organized by the Temporary Teachers Struggle Committee (TTSC) on May 27. Protests have continued since despite the Minister of Education’s reported commitment to provide permanent status to 15,000 temporary teachers who have taught for at least five academic years.
At one sit-in protest which took place in front of the Ministry of Education on July 12, Pravin Neupane, NERF representative and teacher at JP High School in Thamel, Kathmandu, said, “We’ve talked many times (with the Ministry) but our demands haven’t been met.” When asked if he felt the shutting down of schools was fair to the children, he commented, “The Ministry of Education should think more carefully about the temporary teachers.” Statements such as these provide a valuable glimpse into the tactical use of education as leverage.
In a similar fashion, Ram Prasad Adhikari, Central Committee Member of the All Nepal Teachers Organization, stated, “Children need to be educated, they have a right, but we close the schools so our demands can be resolved. It’s bad, but we want our demands to be met.” Despite being designated as a “zone of peace” back on May 26, it seems that schools and students are still being used as a bargaining chip by the very teachers their education is reliant upon.
While a nine-point charter was submitted to the Ministry of Education, addressing a variety of temporary teachers’ demands, the major demand is for the Ministry to implement the conversion of temporary teachers who have taught for at least one academic year to permanent status. Since 1999, there has been no announcement for permanent teacher selection competition, which has resulted in a shortage of qualified teachers in the country. Not only would permanent status for these teachers provide them with job security, it would also benefit them in terms of salary, living allowances for remote areas, and retirement benefits.
The real issue at hand, however, is the fact that the Ministry of Education plans to open vacancies for permanent teaching positions to free competition, as opposed to the internal competition system favored by the temporary teachers’ unions. Free competition would open the positions up to the latest generation of teachers, a process that might quash the dreams of temporary teachers who, although they may have been teaching for decades, may lack the proper training or qualifications needed to compete with recent graduates.
While many of these teachers have been performing a vital social service to the children of Nepal for decades and throughout the years of conflict, automatic conversion to permanent status raises the question of the quality of education in primary and secondary schools across the country. What is best for the educational system would be to recruit the most qualified teachers, regardless of their previous status, or lack thereof in the educational sector. As if the school system has not been disrupted enough by the recent school closures, continuing protests, and years of conflict – automatically converting undertrained or under-qualified teachers purely because of their temporary status would further harm the system at the students’ expense.U
This is not to imply that temporary teachers should not be given the opportunity to compete for permanent status, as they constitute a significant portion of the country’s primary and secondary teaching force. But if education is considered the right of the child, and the teachers’ unions involved have the students’ best interests at heart, then they should be willing to allow for free competition for permanent posts.
The disadvantages of temporary status may also contribute to other factors that affect the quality of education, such as a teacher’s level of motivation to instruct a classroom as opposed to participating in a strike. While the Ministry of Education blames the centralized system for the recent disappointment in government school SLC exam results, school closures and protesting teachers beg the question as to where this confirmation of poor education quality truly stems from. Thus, it is important that the Ministry of Education take a firm stance on improving the quality of schools across the country, and in order for this to occur, the most qualified teachers need to be given the opportunity to compete for new positions. A process should also be implemented to gradually weed out under qualified teachers from the system and replace them with those better prepared.
Whether or not the government succumbs to the demands of the teachers’ unions, the question still remains: Will students continue to be used for political gain in the future? Permanent status is not the only grievance of teachers in recent years, and many issues remain to be addressed. On the issue of salary alone, for example, teachers’ demands range from parity between private and government schools, to salary adjustments for the cost of living depending on whether a school is located in a rural or urban area. If teachers’ unions can attempt to justify three school closures in three months, what else could education be used to bargain for? It is therefore crucial that all the people of Nepal, particularly those involved in the educational sector, strive to keep schools a zone of peace for the sake of the students’ education and future. As the future workforce and leaders of the country, it is imperative that students and their futures are not leveraged, bartered or bargained away.
The writer is a student of the Graduate Program in International Affairs, New School, USA.