Higher education in Nepal

The education system in Nepal is plagued by various shortcomings including poor quality and inequitable access, which seriously undermine its potential to facilitate positive, transformative outcomes, particularly for the poor. These problems are further compounded in the public school system, where resources are scarce, accountability is weak, teaching is ineffective, and socio-economic conditions are not conducive to learning.

Major international initiatives such as Education for All and Millennium Development Goals have emphasized literacy and primary education and literacy leaving little resources for investment in higher education. However, in today’s ‘education age’, secondary schooling is not enough to be competitive in the job market.

Further, scholarships dry up even as higher education costs skyrocket. Most I/NGOs and corporations are focused on supporting students at the school level where many students can be supported with fewer resources.  

Poor Access And Quality

Poor access is a key problem for students from poor and underprivileged households. Firstly, not many students make it past 10th grade. The 10th grade or the School Leaving Certificates Exam (SLC) is considered the most important “iron gate” to higher education and employment opportunities.

 In 2015, the pass rate for this exam stood at a dismal 47%, with only 34% of public school students passing the exam. About 80% of students taking SLC attend public schools. The scoring system of tenth grade exams changed in 2016. However, issues of access and quality remain.

 Secondly, passing 10th grade doesn’t ensure enrolment in higher education. The cost of higher education is often well beyond the means of many students from rural communities. Students from richer households are 8 times more likely to enroll in high school compared to those from the poorest households (National Living Standards Survey III).

Finally, there are very limited scholarship opportunities at the higher secondary level and beyond. A few scholarships provide partial support to cover either tuition or books and uniform but virtually no scholarship covers all expenses including accommodation. The Higher Secondary Education Board (HSEB) does provide some scholarships to talented students from community schools, but these scholarships only waive admission and tuition fees.

For those who do gain access, the public higher education suffers from poor quality and lack of market relevance. The problem of poor quality in the education system at the school level persists and is even more pronounced in public higher education. In addition, the low market relevance of higher education means that even those with degrees struggling in transitioning to the labor market.

Social Capital

Beyond access and quality, students from poor backgrounds lack the socio-cultural and economic capital that enables upward mobility. As the generation of students undergoing mass schooling aspires to middle class status, language of instruction becomes increasingly important, with English preferred as the international language. 

As  public  school  students  make  the transition  to higher  secondary  education, their  inexperience in‘ modern’ settings  (lack  of  cultural  capital)  as  well  as  their  lack  of  language  fluency  affects their performance in higher education. Further, even those students that persevere to pursue higher education and complete their degrees often  fail  to  get the  jobs  they  expect,  as the  competition  for  jobs  is  fierce  and  they  do  not  have the right networks to facilitate their transition into the job market. 

Education  holds  the  potential  to  change  peoples’  lives  for  the  better,  as  we  have  found  from personal  experience,  but  it  is  unlikely  that  the  kind  of  education  these  students  receive  would transform  their  lives  as  effectively.  The  education  system  is  sold  as  a  story  of  hope,  where  any student  who  works  hard  can  reap  the  fruit  of  their  labor. The  reality,  particularly  for  the  rural poor,  is  completely  different,  as  talented  students  are  discouraged  from  pursuing  their  dreams because they have neither the financial nor the social capital to turn them into realities. Often, entrenched inequities are reproduced by the system. 

Samaanta Foundation seeks to address some of the problems in higher education by providing comprehensive fellowships to make opportunities available to deserving students from rural communities.