“I understand how things work now. Some people with 58 percent, 60 percent, have already been admitted in these good schools, even Science stream. These are the people who will grow up to be doctors and engineers. As for us, we don’t have the money to fill out the forms for these schools, let alone fulfil our dreams. I am sad to understand how things work.”
– A recent SLC graduate, returning from a visit to prospective schools
There is a vibrant discourse on whether education leads to greater freedoms or the reproduction of existing inequalities. Amartya Sen has argued that schools can help students acquire skills and knowledge to be productive citizens to facilitate social mobility and equality. However, Pierre Bourdieu has argued that schools are not just neutral venues that solve society’s problems (such as poverty and inequality), but also representative institutions that reflect the very society they purport to change. This debate is playing out quite powerfully as the 20 SLC graduates from Atithi School (name changed) in rural Lalitpur consider their next decisive step.
Amidst the cacophony of concern, criticism, and despair that engulfs community school performances, Atithi can hold its head high. Four students passed with Distinction and the other 16 managed First Division. This is no small feat, considering the challenges they have overcome.
These students come from extremely poor backgrounds, and most of them belong to historically marginalized communities. Ten of the students are indigenous (janajatis), four of them dalits, and the other six allegedly high-caste, but their socio-economic status mirrors their peers. Many of them come from broken homes, and they balance being students with being domestic helpers, laborers, and semi-skilled workers.
The particular challenges community school students face have been well documented, but even the best and the brightest who triumph against a system stacked against them get shunned by it. They are enthusiastic for education, irrespective of their caste, but their poverty remains their biggest liability.
The students commute a couple of hours into the city in the hope of gaining admission to good schools, only to be dismayed by the costs. Many of their families would have had struggled to contribute even a few hundred rupees for their schooling; they cannot fork out the kind of money they now need to embrace their aspirations. Devastatingly, they also find that while their results might be unparalleled in their communities, their ‘low Distinctions’ and First Divisions pale in comparison to the thousands of ‘high Distinctions’ from private schools, with whom they are now expected to compete.
Private colleges are not the only options, but the disparity between private and public spheres is starker in higher education. After all, given the fanfare surrounding school enrolment in lieu of projects such as Millennium Development Goals and Education for All, the education budget is hijacked at the primary and secondary levels. If most public schools are struggling, higher education is plagued further by incoherent policies, incomprehensible politics, and irresponsible strikes. The public system produced many reputed innovators and intellectuals in Nepal only a few decades ago, but those possibilities have rapidly diminished. Students only look to the public system in desperation now, as an unfortunate last resort, not in euphoric search of endless freedom.
In the private sector, students are expected to pay, on average, Rs. 1,500 to 2,500 a month. In the Science stream, only 10 colleges charge less than Rs. 2,000 a month. These numbers do not account for the steep admission and annual fees, let alone other associated costs. In a country where the average per capita monthly income is about Rs. 3,000 (World Bank 2010), how are the poorest and most marginalized, who make far less, supposed to rely on education when the public sector is not good enough and the private sector not affordable?
Even as a parent weeps her pledge to “sell everything I own” to let her Distinction-bearing daughter study Science, the daughter quietly convinces her mentor to put Commerce in her form, with a tear, because she is aware of her home economics. We as a society tell children that sky is the limit as long as they ‘study well’, but we don’t tell them how high they fly depends largely on the depths of their pockets.
Despite the darkness, doomsday has not arrived yet. As these students wonder and wander, the Higher Secondary Education Board (HSEB) provides some hope. In the last few years, HSEB has hosted scholarship examinations for hardworking disabled, dalit, janajati and poor students exclusively from community schools. Those that pass are officially recommended to pre-listed colleges of their choice, or similar alternatives. HSEB requires private colleges to secure seats for these students, bridging the gap between community schools and private colleges.
HSEB scholarships have made it possible for some community school students to afford higher education but voices from the margins suggest that even this wonderful scheme does not go far enough. Parents have expressed their deep gratitude for these HSEB opportunities, but recount numerous tales of employees expecting personal kickbacks to admit selected students. Further, the best schools are often reserved for friends and relatives rather than deserving performers. While admission and monthly tuition fees are waived for selected students, they still shoulder expenses for transportation, exams, and extra-curricular activities.
As one parent lamented, “Even with the scholarship, attending the better schools is beyond our reach. We have to give them at least Rs 100 a day just for transportation and snack costs, which comes to about Rs 36,000 a year. That might be cheap for rich people, but we do not have that kind of money.”
The program might not be perfect, but it still goes a long way towards transforming the education system. Some more significant steps could push these gains further.
For many of the poorest families, the bottleneck exists before admission and tuition fees, because of the application form fee itself. Almost all private colleges now hold entrance exams, and charge up to Rs. 1,000 each. This has become a business onto itself.
Education adds greater value to society than just the benefits to private beneficiaries. HSEB, if not colleges themselves, should introduce application fee waivers to certified poor and marginalized students to encourage greater and more informed choices.
Similarly, competing schools should not be allowed to hold entrance exams on the same dates/times, or should at least be encouraged to host multiple entrance exams, as some schools do now, to facilitate opportunities, rather than juxtapose one choice over another.
HSEB’s policy of providing scholarships to disabled, dalit, janajati and poor students should set the standard to negotiate inequality more broadly.
HSEB should schedule its scholarship exam (July 14 this year) earlier, as colleges pressure students to benefit from ‘Early Admission’ discount offers. Some students are borrowing hefty amounts to get admitted now, but colleges are unlikely to return their money even if they receive HSEB approval later.
Perhaps too optimistic, but as more comprehensive steps, HSEB should consider extending support to include associated educational expenses, so that they provide adequate support to the poorest and most marginalized. I recognize my ‘naive idealism’ but, nonetheless, HSEB should also push to restore public institutions to once again provide good, affordable higher education.
The calls for a more equitable society have been long overdue but debates on inequalities have over-emphasized ‘ethnic v/s economic’ dichotomies. HSEB’s policy to provide scholarships to disabled, dalit, janajati, and poor students should set the standard to negotiate inequality more broadly, addressing together the long history of marginalization of entire ethnic groups and the concurrent marginalization of some sections of even dominant ethnicities. Equal opportunity in education provides a powerful medium to level the playing field. Secondary school enrolment and achievement over the last decade have been noteworthy, but further gains for poor and marginalized communities require greater support for higher secondary and tertiary education. HSEB provides an important bridge to reduce inequalities and extend possibilities but it has the opportunity to go further to support those that need it most.