Nepal is a developing country. But the educational facilities in this country lag far behind those of the rest in the same category. Young people coming out of our colleges and universities are mostly unemployable. They are bookish and lack requisite skills.
The number of colleges, universities and professional institutes are so limited that admission tests have in fact become elimination tests. There is not an iota of doubt that a huge fund is required to enhance the quality of education and increase educational facilities. So private funding in the education sector is needed for the greater good.
Declining quality of teaching
I am, of course, only too conscious of the importance of enhancing both the quality as well as the size of the higher education sector in Nepal. Anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with our universities and colleges must be only too aware of the steep fall in the quality of teaching and research in these institutions.
The decline in quality has been matched only by the relative stagnation in the number of colleges and universities - the numbers have simply not kept with the pace with the increase in population.
The only option is a massive increase in private funding of higher education. An overwhelmingly large number of schools in the urban sector are private schools. But, except for a few medical, engineering and increasingly large number of management and information technology institutions, the private sector has hardly any presence in the higher education sector. There are no Harvards, Oxfords, IITs or BITS in Nepal, institutions funded largely by private money.
Of course, the number of Nepalese who are wealthy enough to make really significant donations to educational institutions is miniscule in comparison to the numbers in the US or developing Asian economies. But this cannot explain the virtual absence of any Nepalese university financed largely by private sector funding.
The real reason for this is the widespread animosity towards private funding of higher education in Nepal. This is more or less the declared policy of the ultra-left parties of Nepal. There is little doubt that most political parties share the views of the ultra-left on this issue.
Most people believe that private sector funding of higher education will worsen the existing inequalities in the society. The typical argument runs as follows. Private institutions will charge substantially higher fees, and this will make university education inaccessible to large numbers of the poorer students.
It is certainly true that student fees in private institutions will be much higher than those in universities and colleges financed by the government. But this would not necessarily make higher education more upper class than it already is. The failure to increase the number of colleges and universities obviously means that the competition to get admission is becoming increasingly tougher.
However, the majority of those who do well in the higher secondary examinations go to the better private schools. And the majority of these schools charge fees which are several times the fees charged by government colleges.
Since entry in these schools and perhaps subsequently into specialised coaching has become more or less a prerequisite for gaining admission into the better colleges, the present system has already priced out the poorer students.
I am not aware of any large-scale realistic study of the class composition of college and university students in Nepal. But, one would be very surprised if the poorer students - even if attention is restricted only to those who want to enter college - get adequate representation. Competition drives them out of the system because their prior training and marks have been bad.
In fact, an increase in the number of colleges will actually reduce competition, and perhaps make it easier for students from the lower income groups to enter colleges.
However, privatisation of higher education can have adverse implications, both in terms of access and equity. Private educational entrepreneurs would tend to concentrate more on IT-enabled and market-oriented courses to the relative neglect of pure sciences and humanities which are of fundamental importance for long-term progress of mankind.
Statistics show that the private sector which had miniscule share in engineering and medical courses scores of years back are a dominant player nowadays. However, they have not taken similar interest in creating opportunities in liberal arts education. There is a need to undertake an empirical study of the class composition of college admissions in Nepal.
Another problem with private funding in education is the fear that this might create a two-tier system. The private institutions may have the financial power to pay substantially higher salaries, and thus draw the best teachers away from government institutions.
In fact, inadequate supply of teachers is one of the biggest constraints preventing the healthy expansion of the higher education sector. Every year, large numbers of the brightest Nepali students go abroad for their masters and Ph.Ds. Most of them do not come back. Only a trickle of Nepalese who do not go abroad opt to enter the teaching career. A substantial rise in the pay, to an extent, can be a remedial measure.