We have in this space repeatedly written about the politicization of our public schools, thanks in no small part to the teachers who are card-carrying members of this or that political party. Of the roughly 300,000 school teachers in the country, 85,000 are affiliated with Nepali Congress-aligned Nepal Teachers Union while another 72,000 belong to the CPN-UML-affiliated Nepal National Teachers Association. Many others are linked with teacher groups of smaller parties. They often skip classes to attend political gatherings, safe in the knowledge that should any question be raised, the parties they are linked with will bail them out. This is particularly true of around 107,000 permanent teachers, who, just because of their permanent status, consider themselves immune to any inquiry of their conduct. Yet another troubling aspect of these permanent teachers has now come to light. It turns out that many of them draw salaries without ever setting foot in the schools they are assigned to. They do this by deputing their juniors to stand in for them, for which the substitute teachers get a cut of the salary. The Office of the Prime Minister, it turns out, has been inundated with complaints about these no-good proxy teachers.
According to officials at the Ministry of Education, most of these absentee teachers are members of various teachers unions and as they are mostly busy in political activities they routinely skip classes, or depute some juniors to take classes in their stead. Ministry officials say that as many as 50 percent of all complaints are forwarded for ‘action’ and that a ‘few’ absentee teachers have already been punished. Yet the ministry cannot furnish a single instance of punitive action against an errant teacher. Pressed further, ministry officials admit that they can only ‘recommend’ punishment and it is not their duty to ensure compliance with their recommendation. But if so, which then is the responsible government body to take action against these teachers? Since no teacher has ever been punished, seemingly, no one knows either. Unless there is a clear dividing line between education and politics, our public schools and academic institutions are sure to continue on their hallowed tradition of churning out hundreds of thousands of ‘unemployable graduates’ every year. And for this, they will continue to be rewarded with generous pay and perks.
Tackling this problem does not require rocket science. Even if a handful of teachers are punished for dereliction of duty, it will set a strong precedent, and act as a deterrent for thousands of other work-shy teachers. But that can only happen when political parties stop employing public school teachers as their foot-soldiers. It should be illegal for political parties to have their separate teachers unions; if collective bargaining is the goal, then there should be one, strong teacher union that speaks on behalf of all working teachers. It is also shocking that in this age of information technology, and easy availability of cheap personal identification tools, proxy teachers can safely sign in as the permanent teachers they are replacing. It is clear that at least some of our public education bosses are not doing their jobs well.