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Nepal: Education in Times of Crisis

Murray Laurence, Travel Writer, Business Consultant, International Education

I am writing this in the midst of yet another crisis in this country, which has had more than its share of crises in recent decades. On 1 May, the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) began a protest movement and ‘indefinite’ strike, the intention of which is to topple the ’puppet’ government, a coalition of the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) under Prime Minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal.

To strengthen their position the Maoists bussed and trucked in thousands of ‘cadres’ from the rural areas which have always been their heartland. The predictions were that up to half a million young men and woman would come to Kathmandu to support their leaders in a final push to establish a coalition with the Maoists as the main party and their chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, as the prime minister. Comrade Prachanda, as he is known from his underground years, has been PM once before – as leader of a short-lived coalition government in 2008.

The number of supporters may be short of that ambitious figure, but it is clear that the strike to date has been a success, if stopping all movement of vehicles, forcing all shops, businesses and offices to remain shut, and closing all schools and colleges is a measure of success. It is the most comprehensive strike I have ever witnessed.

Tourists are wandering about forlornly, wondering what to do and how they will get to their next destination, while children take the opportunity to play ‘crickets and footballs’ (according to a local paper) on normally traffic clogged and polluted streets.

One of the Maoist actions before the strike that angered a large section of the population was the forced closure of private and boarding schools by the All Nepal National Independent Student Union (Revolutionary), depriving over five and a half million children of schooling. The dispute was supposedly over fees, but some commentators have said that the action also allowed the Maoists to house their combatants in these schools during the days of protest.

Private schools have developed rapidly in recent years largely because of the myriad difficulties faced by the government sector. Over half of Nepal’s population of 29 million is under 20, and so the pressure on schools is huge. The country cannot decide whether private schools are businesses that should be taxed, extortionists to be vilified, or an essential component of the educational landscape. While some of their names seem whimsical and inappropriate (Mother Goose, Whiz Kids, Disneyland) these schools cater to millions of families, are indicative of the demand for a type of education that the government schools struggle to meet, and deserve more rational treatment.

Nepal had about 2% literacy at about the time that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa climbed Everest (1953), and now has 58%, attesting to tremendous changes in society and great investment by the nation and foreign donors. Young people have many more opportunities than ever before, and it could be argued that education is Nepal’s development success story.

But immense problems remain. Anyone who visits a school in a rural area, even one that is not in a remote, inaccessible district, will see that facilities are absolutely minimal, classes are large, textbooks few and teachers often inadequately trained. Many children walk for hours to reach school, and, while education is valued by parents and society, they are often absent at harvest time, or with other demands of family and country life, such as carrying loads to markets which might be several days’ walk away.

Further, a very large number of children missed out on years of schooling altogether during the long-running Maoist insurgency which saw schools and teachers as targets (of both sides) and teenagers as ready conscripts to the anti-government forces.

Books set in Nepal during these long, ruinous years, like ‘Palpasa Café’ by Narayan Wagle, have among their themes the utter sadness of villages and schools empty of young people.

”’I haven’t even given her a decent education. I feel bad about that’, the old man said. (of a girl being conscripted by the Maoists)

‘Don’t worry father, when she joins the People’s War she’ll become wise.’”

Manjushree Thapa in ‘Forget Kathmandu’ quotes Budha, the head of the teachers’ union in a rural district,

“‘The teachers have it the worst,’ he said to us. ‘The Maoists force us to join their party and donate five percent of our salaries to them. They’ll kill us if we don’t agree.’ The Maoists had in fact killed a disproportionate number of teachers throughout the country, teachers who had refused to go along with their agenda. But teachers also fell victim to government reprisal. When the district education office found out that they were donating part of their salaries to the Maoists, it froze their salaries… Most importantly, the war was devastating the lives of an entire generation. ‘The older students have all fled to the district headquarters for fear they’ll be recruited by the Maoists,’ Budha said. ‘Or they’re afraid the security forces will kill them, taking them for Maoists… A whole generation have seen their education destroyed.’”

These youngsters, now in their twenties if they survived the war, are amongst the thousands now in Kathmandu and other cities for the protests or among the combatants still confined to UN supervised  cantonments, under the 2006 peace accords,  pending agreement between the Maoists and other parties on their integration into the Nepali Army. The failure of negotiations on this was one of the sparks that precipitated the current crisis.

The other factor has been the failure of all sides involved in the Constituent Assembly to make any progress whatsoever on development of a new constitution. From the outside it seems that the participants are unable to leave their political feuding aside for the benefit of a nation that desperately needs leadership.

From the inside, too, as an astute observer, Kunda Dixit, noted in the Nepali Times, ‘It shouldn’t come as any surprise to our political leadership and elected representatives that the Nepali people are sick and tired of their inability to build on the success of the pro-democracy movement and move the peace process forward’. Widespread disillusionment is ‘accompanied by a gnawing fear that politicians have squandered the gains of the past four years and the country is headed back to conflict.’

The fact that the Maoists have not entirely distanced themselves from ‘khukuri rattling’ (Dixit, a reference to the famed Ghurkha knife), a fondness for revolutionary rhetoric (‘bourgeois compradors’) and, worse, a brazen campaign of extortion of businesses, small and large, and educational institutions across the country to fund their campaign and feed their combatants, appear to have lost them valuable support and compromised the credibility of their claim to the democratic high ground.

But their opponents in politics have shown themselves to be incompetent and short sighted, and equally as responsible for the crisis. The political classes have traditionally reached their positions through caste and connections, and it shows. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Nepalis have been let down by their own systems, institutions and leaders.

Meanwhile Nepalis with the ability and wherewithal try to leave. In recent years very large numbers have come to Australia for tertiary education, as well as to the UK and the United States (the traditional destination of the elites). While it might seem damaging to the country’s future to have so many of its best young students leave for overseas, and to have them migrate permanently if they qualify, the benefits are the remittances of cash sent home which may fund a younger sibling’s schooling or a new business, and the fact that, wherever they are, well-qualified Nepalis will contribute something to their country’s future. They will return as entrepreneurs, as professionals, as tourists; if they remain abroad they act as ambassadors for Nepal, raising the country’s profile and making a significant symbolic contribution.

The pressure to leave has become so great that both Australia and Britain have introduced more stringent requirements for education visas. It was not the fault of Nepalis that Australian state and federal governments have had no coherent strategy for the international education sector, a situation that allowed numbers of unscrupulous and unqualified people to operate colleges and agencies in an environment where the migration system favoured hairdressing and cooking as trades over qualifications that were more demanding. Nepalese people move towards opportunities like water flowing down a system of channels. When one is blocked they will find another.

This perseverance and adaptability is a great national characteristic. Everyday, as I walk to the college where I teach, I pass the Danish embassy. There is always a queue waiting to apply for visas. They will go to Denmark, learn Danish and study or work.

As the anthropologist, Dor Bahadur Bista, noted in his seminal, if controversial,  book, ‘Fatalism and Development’,  the challenging geography of Nepal and the extraordinary ethnic diversity of its people  produces ‘a strong commitment to productive labour,  a high capacity for endurance, efficient cooperative organisational styles, and a high adaptive propensity at individual and social levels’.

This means that given the opportunity of education, Nepalis will make the most of it. I teach in a hotel management college. The students are middle class, with reasonable English, and most are looking forward to further study and work abroad. Their schooling has clearly not been very rigorous, nor has it given them much capacity for analysis and research. What is remarkable, however, is that the ethnic diversity of my classes, as shown in the students’ names and appearance, indicates great and continuing social mobility and adaptability.

Sherpas, whose origins are the distant high mountains, Tamangs from the central hills, Rais and Limbus from the east, Gurungs and Magars from the mid-west, all districts where even today roads are few and far between, as well as Bahuns, Chhetris and other caste Hindus from villages and towns everywhere, Tibetans, and a variety of peoples from the plains bordering India, join the established Newars of Kathmandu Valley in a shared ambition.

This mobility attests to the value of education, even if it takes place in a remote village school, the hard work and vision of parents and grandparents, and the capacity of Nepalis to take an opportunity and run with it.


The Maoists called off their ‘indefinite strike’ after one week when it became clear that the masses in Kathmandu were not about to rise in support. In fact a ‘peace rally’ was staged in the ancient heart of the city that attracted tens of thousands of people, not necessarily hostile to the Maoists but to politicians on all sides for their failure to achieve anything of lasting value during the two years since the demise of the monarchy. The people of Nepal were then left wondering whether the term of their elected Constituent Assembly would be extended before the deadline of 28 May, as it was amply clear that no constitution would appear before then. The Maoists, as well as the leaders of the other main parties, were oracular during this hiatus, and it was not until five minutes to midnight on the 28th that the collective leadership announced that they had agreed to a one-year extension.

With such brinksmanship, these politicians once again treated the Nepali people with disdain. As well, the 27 May anniversary of Buddha’s birth in Lumbini, Nepal, 2554 years ago, gave these same suspects an opportunity to cash in on the festivities, so adding to a ‘strange days’ atmosphere which brought into focus the short-term cynicism of the country’s present day leaders.

About the Author

Murray Laurence has been involved in Australia’s international education sector since 1987 when the Commonwealth government first opened up Australian education to full fee overseas students. He has been active in promoting Australian education services and capabilities throughout Asia and beyond, and in developing and managing high profile institutions. Murray was a key participant in the establishment of the pioneering pathways to higher education sector and the transformation of Insearch at the University of Technology, Sydney into one of Australia’s most successful and prestigious education brands.

As managing director of Insearch (1998 – 2007) he received state and national export awards on Insearch’s behalf.

Murray Laurence is also a writer and has published two collections of travel narratives and numerous articles and is currently based in Nepal.

Copyright 2010, Murray Laurence. All rights reserved. All material in this article is the Intellectual Property of Murray Laurence and cannot be reproduced, copied, published, quoted or disseminated without the prior permission of Murray Laurence.