No more private school, Nepal's Maoist government declares

The former rebels plan to put all children in public schools by 2010, saying it will even the playing field.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Making the grade: In Nepal, private-school students are more than twice as likely to pass the School Leaving Certificate exam than their public-school counterparts are.
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The massive election win last April by Nepal's former rebel Maoists put them in the position to set the government agenda, and bring about drastic changes they promised during their campaign.

But their initial proposals on education – to end private investment in schools and distribute academic certificates to Maoist fighters – have left many Nepalese worried.

They're concerned that their new government will take the country in too radical a direction that favors its former fighters and Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology.

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"Recent statements by Maoist leaders are indicative of their political immaturity," says Krishna Khanal, a political scientist at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. "They have made strange announcements to please their cadres and fighters."

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) wields considerable legislative power to advance its policies. The group, which fought a 10-year insurgency from 1996 demanding a new constitution and an end to monarchy, is the largest party in Nepal's 601-member special assembly. With 220 seats, it has twice the representation of the second biggest party, the centrist Nepali Congress.

The government also has few moderates who might push back against a radical agenda. The Maoists' biggest alliance partner is the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), third largest in the assembly, which also has radical roots and a history of armed violence.

An 'unequal education system'

The controversial announcement came Nov. 6, when Finance Minister Baburam Bhattarai declared the government would end private investment in education by 2010. Private investors, he added, should limit themselves to investing in universities.

The Maoists have long opposed private investment in primary and secondary schooling, arguing that it produces an unequal workforce – those coming from private schools have an edge over their peers from public schools, they claim.

"We have fought against this unequal education system for years now," said Himal Sharma, general secretary of All Nepal Free Students' Union (Revolutionary), the Maoist party's student's wing.

"We are pushing for a declaration next year of free education in public schools till class 8. And a year after that, we want the provision expanded for up to class 12. Ideally, we would want an end to private investment in schools by then," he said.

But the announcement has experts worried that the transition will undermine youths' quality of education. According to the Ministry of Education, private schools account for nearly one-third of the country's 41,000 schools.

"The plan is extremely ambitious and highly unlikely to succeed," says Mani Wagle, principal and proprietor of Miniland School in Kathmandu that runs classes from nursery to 12. "Two years aren't enough time for the government to provide an alternative arrangement for millions of school-going children and thousands of teachers in private schools."

Nepal's government-run schools tend to have poor infrastructure. Newspapers here regularly run stories of government schools in the remote hilly areas where classes are conducted outside due to insufficient number of classrooms.

The passing rate of public school students is poor. According to figures from the Ministry of Education, 82 percent of private school students who take the School Leaving Certificate exam pass the test, compared with 36 percent of public school students.

People like Professor Khanal, of the Tribhuvan University, say that privately-run schools have provided the quality education that public schools have not.

Suprabhat Bhandari, president of Nepal Guardian's Association, calls the announcement ridiculous. "Is the state intending to produce a mediocre manpower in the name of equality? And how will the state ensure that Nepalese children who do their schooling outside Nepal are not more competent than those who study in the public schools here?"

Fighting for a degree

Mr. Battarai further announced that the government is working to give academic certificates to Maoist fighters who couldn't attend schools during the war.

"Our friends who could not continue their education due to involvement in the armed conflict but have the necessary skills and knowledge should receive due academic recognition," he said.

Khanal, calling the idea unacceptable, likened it to the thinking during China's Cultural Revolution, when a degree holder in agricultural science was valued less than a farmer who hadn't received formal education.

"These are the same revolutionary leaders who said Nepal's formal education is useless, and asked youths to leave schools and join the war. Why the need for certificates now?" he says.

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