Thursday, 2 July 2009

Educating a people !

By Biswas Baral
This year's School Leaving Certificate (SLC) results, with 68.47 percent students clearing the exams, is the best ever in the annual exams' 75-year-long history. Though doubts linger about the underlying reason behind the better-than-expected outcome — regarding the amount and appropriateness of grace marks, for instance — the educationists deserve a pat on the back. Secondary education reform, especially since 2007, when the government introduced the provision of incorporating only questions from the grade 10 syllabus in SLC question papers, has been particularly effective.

But not all envisaged reforms have produced the desired results. The much-hyped National Literacy Campaign (NLC) launched by the erstwhile UCPN (Maoist)-led government with the aim of making about 2.6 million Nepalis literate has turned out a damp squib. The Non-Formal Education Centre (NFEC), which has been tasked with overseeing the programme, hasn't even been able to pay the teachers working under its watch.
It was strange that NFEC couldn't put together enough money to fund NLC. Notably, for the current fiscal year, the erstwhile Maoist-led government had set aside Rs. 38.98 billion of the total Rs. 236 billion (U.S. $3.5 billion) national budget for education, which amounts to 16.5 percent of total budget, a massive share of the pie by any standard. (The second biggest cut of Rs 15.58 billion went to health.) This begs the question of where all the money is going.
Nonetheless, the Maoist intent, nicely captured in their budget-related slogan of “New Nepal, Learned Nepal” cannot be doubted. And nor can their aim of providing primary education to 91 percent of all Nepalis by the end of the current fiscal year.
But the sad fact remains that Nepal's adult literacy rate hovers around 50 percent — which means nearly half the populace is still uneducated. More problematically, just 60.6 females are educated for every 100 educated males. To this day, there are enormous social constraints which prevent girls from attending school. Most school-age rural girls are involved with household chores and parents are reluctant to take up the tedious work.
The good news is: even small scholarship schemes amounting to no more than a couple of hundred rupees have proven successful at getting girls to school. The provision of free snacks and food ration in return for sending children to school has also been effective in some parts of the country. The government's bid to educate parents on the importance of education, too, seems to be working.
Overall, there are enough reasons not to cut the education sector's share in next year's budget. Certainly not in one of the least developed countries in the world. It is no coincidence that the countries with the best literacy ratios (U.S., Japan, South Korea, Germany, Sweden — all at 99 percent) are also the most developed, while the least educated (most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with under 40 percent literates) are the least developed.
Health and education are increasingly being seen as among people's basic rights, right around the world. Policymakers are realising that higher development and economic goals are nigh on impossible to achieve with an ailing and uneducated population.
As the period of transition lengthens, it will be easy for policymakers
to be distracted by petty demands and lose sight of the bigger picture. But it will be a huge mistake to overlook the growing importance of education in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.
Education will be equally important in maintaining peace and stability in the country. Educated people are tolerant people, and more likely to warm to opposing views than those deprived of the inner light of knowledge. Educated people, more often then not, are employed, and less likely to engage in anti-social activities. Educated people are also far less likely to be swayed by political rhetoric and more likely to demand concrete action and hold their elected representatives accountable. In other words, a healthy and educated people will be the future nation builders.
Noble Prize winning economist Amartya Sen could not have put it in better words when he said, in the course of his Commonwealth education conference 2003 speech in Edinburgh, Scotland: “[H.G.] Wells was not exaggerating when he said, in his Outline of History: 'human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.' If we continue to leave vast sections of the people of the world outside the orbit of education, we make the world not only less just, but also less secure.”
And so with Nepal. For all these reasons (and so many more impossible to enumerate here) education must remain at the top of government priorities at least as long as all Nepalis are not educated and thus equipped with the capacity to see the right from the wrong. To wit: Only an educated populace can ensure long term peace and stability in Nepal.

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