Education in Nepal: The Three R's and Beyond

Features Issue 95 Jul, 2010
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

When my daughter was four I decided to put her in a school. Galaxy Public School had just been established near my place in the Gyaneswar area so I enrolled her there in the nursery class. But even as I was putting her in Galaxy, my mind was already thinking of ways to get her admitted into the more renowned St Mary’s School in Jawalakhel. Two years later, we did just that. I remember waiting on the school’s grounds as the entrance exams were being conducted in a hall at St Mary’s. My daughter was the first to come out and I asked her as to how she had done. “It was easy Papa,” she said. “Only, how do you spell ‘musa’?” (mouse in Nepali), When I told her, her response was, “I think I got it wrong.”

The question on my mind was how the students would be selected, since I couldn’t fathom what difference in intelligence there would be among six-year-old children sitting for an entrance exam in which the questions could not be but simple. The school authorities no doubt had a huge task on their hands as typically more than 2,000 apply every year for 200 seats in this premier school. Anyway, the long and the short of it was that my daughter gained the coveted admission to the prestigious school and 11 years later graduated from Class 12. The fact that she is a St Mary’s alumna will undoubtedly be one of her greatest assets in life, just as my being a St Joseph’s (Darjeeling) alumus is a big asset for me. I confess that when I went for my first job interview, this fact alone gave me quite an unfair advantage over the other candidates. A good basic school background is certainly as important as a good college degree.

The foreign and the local
And, when talking about basic education in Nepal, is it possible not to mention Darjeeling schools? Many of the Nepal elite have sent their children there for early studies till recently, and many still continue to do so. The fact that many members of the royal families of Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal (including the late King Birendra and Prince Dhirendra, and ex-King Gyanendra), as well as scions of the once princely Indian states studied in St Josephs and other similar schools in the Darjeeling region, has lent an aura of glamor to those who were educated there. As a matter of interest, the late Queen Aishwarya did her schooling from St Helen’s in Kurseong, West Bengal. There are numerous well known names in Nepalese industry and business who also were educated in Darjeeling schools. In addition, many teachers from that region have been involved in the establishment of reputed schools here in Nepal. One example is the Brihaspati Vidyasadan school established in 1985 by Maurice Banerjee who was not only the principal of St Joseph’s (Darjeeling) at one time, but also one of the better teachers to be found anywhere. Another example is Shuvatara School, whose founder Principal, Rita Raj Gurung Kakshyapati, is also a Darjeeling alumna.

In recent years, however, the tendency is more towards Nepalese students going out of the country for higher studies rather than for early education. The reason is obvious: now there are plenty of good schools within the country itself (the late princes Dipendra and Nirajan studied in Budhanilkantha School, and the late princess Shruti in St Mary’s). The rapid progress in the educational sector is something that has to be appreciated, and now there are plenty of reputed schools that can claim to be local standard setters, as good as many Darjeeling schools. Schools like St Xavier’s, St Mary’s and Budhanilkantha School and quite a few other quality education institutions have come up in the last two decades.

During the 1950s, there were only 310 primary and middle schools, 11 high schools, two colleges, and one technical school in the country. The number of students was about 10,000. After the overthrow of the Rana regime in 1951, efforts were made to increase literacy rates. Primary education was made free and compulsory in 1975. By 1987, the country had 2,532,021 students enrolled in 17,186 schools with about 75,869 teachers. The 2001 census saw 5,500,000 students in 26,000 schools, 415 colleges, five universities and two academies of higher studies. The number of teachers was well over 150,000. Indeed, the educational sector has made terrific strides and nowadays one will find good schools and colleges throughout the country. The augmentation has been mostly due to the proliferation of private schools since 1990. Yet, quantity alone does not translate into quality, and private schools have often been criticized for becoming more like money making machines than wholesome educational institutions. While the criticism is justified to some extent, it must be admitted that there has also been tremendous enhancement of quality in many of these institutions. Perhaps quality does come with a price.

The pioneers
Yet, when one comes to think of it, there have been some schools that have played a pioneering role in uplifting the educational standards here without having to face similar criticism. Prominent among them is St Xavier’s School, Godavari, which started its classes on July 1, 1951 under the leadership of Fr Marshall Moran, an American-born priest regarded as the pioneer of modern education in Nepal. In 1954 the primary section was shifted to Jawalakhel. In due time, St Xavier’s Jawalakhel became a full-fledged high school while St Xavier’s Godavari remained as a primary boarding school. Then, in 1996, it was decided to make St Xavier’s Godavari into a co-educational high school meant primarily for day scholars from neighbouring villages, and in 2001, St Xavier’s Jawalakhel also became co-educational.

St Mary’s School was established in 1955 as an all-girls school by the Sisters of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, later known as the Congregation of Jesus. This was followed much later by St Mary’s School in Pokhara in 1982. In 1986, the school founded the Mary Ward School in Jhamsikhel, meant for primary education of underprivileged children, and in due time the Mary Ward School in Lubhu was established as an extension. In 1991, another St Mary’s School was established in Gorkha District.

Though the Jesuit schools set new standards for Nepal, historically speaking the first modern school in Kathmandu was the Durbar High School at Ranipokhari, established in 1854. Originally meant only for children of Rana families and other selected elites, the school was eventually opened up to the general public in 1886. Initially, most of the teachers hailed from Calcutta and the school was affiliated to the Calcutta University. The old Durbar School building remains today as a vignette of the past, but anyone can see that it cries out for timely restoration in order to uphold its proud history.

Around 1877, Prime Minister Ranodip Singh established the Sanskrit Pradhan Pathshala (a school primarily meant to preserve Sanskrit culture). This was followed by some more Sanskrit schools scattered around the country in such places as Dingla, Janakpur and Dang. The Nepal Sanskrit College affiliated to the Sanskrit University in Banaras, India, was established in 1948 offering Uttara Madhyarna (Intermediate), Shastri (Bachelor), and Acharya (Master) courses. According to Andrea Matles Savada’s Nepal: A Country Study, around the time of World War II (1939-45), some more middle and high schools were opened in Patan, Biratnagar, and other towns, and a girls’ high school was opened in the capital. Returning Gurkha soldiers, many of whom had gained literacy in the British army, also began giving elementary education to children in their villages.

In their Social History of Nepal, T.R. Vaidya, Tri Ratna Manandhar and Shanker Lal Joshi chronicle the early history of education in Nepal. According to them, in 1932, Juddha Shamsher Rana gave permission to open the first all girls’ school in Kathmandu, where students were trained in embroidery, needle work, weaving, etc., besides simple reading, writing and arithmetic. The first girl to pass the School Leaving Certificate (SLC) examinations was Lekha Rajya Laxmi Rana, and she did it in great style with a first division.

The Nepal SLC Examination Board was founded in 1934, and in 1948 the first batch of girls to pass under its authority were Angur Baba Joshi (long time principal of Padma Kanya Campus), Sahana Devi Pradhan (UML party leader and a government minister many times), Bhuvana Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah and Sadhana Devi Pradhan (wife of late Prime Minister Manmohan Adhikari).

Some early schools in Kathmandu included the Shantinikinya Public School, a co-educational institution founded in 1945, and the Biswaniketan and Sitaram Schools, which were established a year later. Padma Kanya School, established in 1947, was the first recognized girls’ high school in Nepal. Another girls’ school, Kanya Mandir, was also founded in that year.

One of the oldest private co-educational schools is Vanasthali Vidyashram, established in 1951 in Balaju and now known as Siddhartha Vanasthali Institute. Today, it has a large number of students, about 3,000, and an outstanding record as far as SLC results are concerned. Anandakuti Vidyapeeth near Swayambhunath was established in January 1952 as a Buddhist boarding high school by the late Bikchhu Amritananda Mahasthavir. In spite of a rich history, it is apparently not doing too well at the moment. The Laboratory School near Tribhuvan University was established in 1956 with support from the US government. The former prince, Paras Shah, received his high school diploma there. It was once renowned for its academic excellence, resulting in its students topping the SLC results time and again. Lately, however, it has reportedly lost much of its distinction and, subsequently, enrollments have gone down. Mahendra Bhawan Girls Higher Secondary School in Gaucharan, Kathmandu, is another large school. It was established in 1957 with assistance from the United Mission to Nepal. It is now a co-educational school known as Mahendra Bhawan School.

The Shri Padma Secondary School was the first to be established in Bhaktapur. Patan’s Madhyamik School in Lalitpur is also one of the earliest in that district. One of the largest higher secondary schools in Nepal with more than 5,000 students is Kathmandu’s Adarsha Vidya Mandir, founded in 1965. The school has unfortunately been in the news recently for the wrong reason   the kidnap and murder in June 2009 of one of its students by a former teacher whose accomplice was also a recently graduated girl student.

Gyanodaya Bal Batika School began as a pre-primary school in 1975 and today is a full-fledged secondary school at Sanepa, Lalitpur. While it is an exclusive day school, its affiliate, the Gyanodaya Residential School, established in 1999, and located at Bungamati, Khokana, is exclusively for boarding students. Another pioneering school is Kathmandu’s Kanti Ishwari Shishu Vidyalaya, established in 1967. Many royal family children completed their pre-primary and primary education there.

In Pokhara, Kaski District, the Gandaki Higher Secondary Boarding School was established in 1966 with help from the United Mission to Nepal and the nearby Shining Hospital. Similarly, there are other schools, though primarily located in Kathmandu, that have played a pioneering role in the educational history of Nepal and it would be difficult to list them all. Nevertheless, one can say that the development has been a steadily progressive one.

The elite schools

St Xavier’s and St Mary’s were, for many years, the first schools of choice, and I daresay, continue to be so to a great extent. Their alumni are among the Who’s Who of Nepal, ranging from royalty to stalwarts of industry and commerce, highly regarded professionals, diplomats, top bureaucrats and administrators. No doubt for the most part, because of their location, Kathmandu dwellers have had the most opportunity to be educated in these elite centers of learning.

Budhanilkantha School is another of the country’s elite schools. It was established in 1972 on the late King Mahendra’s initiative as a joint venture with the UK government. Designated as a ‘National School’, students are enrolled from all over the country and about one third of them study on scholarships provided to the meritorious and needy after a very selective entrance exam. Managed by British headmasters for the first 20 years, the aim of the school is to foster a feeling of equality among the rich and the poor. Admission to this school is much sought after, not least because many of its graduates have also been successful in winning scholarships to attend colleges and universities worldwide.

Some other elite schools in the capital are those that are meant primarily for expatriate students. One such is Lincoln School, which was founded in 1954 with US affiliation. It started small, but today its average enrollment is about 350 students and, according to the school authorities, there are usually students enrolled from some 40 nationalities at any given time. Recent figures show the following ratios: 25% from North America, 28% from Europe, 20% from Nepal, and 22% from other regions. Expectedly, the fee structure is steep with the annual tuition as high as $14,400 (about 1,100,000 rupees) for middle school students. Registration and admission fees cost another 300,000 rupees or so. One may wonder who in Nepal can afford to send their children to Lincoln School, but there must be many, as indicated by the enrollment figures.

The British School, founded in 1967, charges around 700,000 rupees as annual tuition for middle level classes, plus a registration and development fee and deposit that amounts to another 470,000 rupees per child. These are high costs, no doubt, but the American and British schools are meant for the well off expatriates’ children, though a number of Nepalese children are also enrolled in them.

Another school once meant for expatriates’ children is Modern Indian School, inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru Prize winner, the late Tulsi Mehar Shrestha, in 1978 at Chobhar in Kathmandu. Originally meant to impart quality education to children of Indian nationals serving in Nepal, over time a substantial number of local and other children have also become part of its student population.

The new elites
Little Angels School was established in 1981. This school has a primary wing at Jhamsikhel while the main Hattiban campus not only offers education up to high school but also beyond post-secondary levels. The school runs higher secondary classes in science and commerce streams as well as BBA and BBIS courses affiliated to Kathmandu University. Little Angels School is undoubtedly one of the largest and best facilitated schools in the country. It also has an excellent academic record, its students having been placed more than two dozen times on the top-ten list of SLC graduates. The school’s officials credit their success to various factors like the availability of a well balanced and updated curriculum; dedicated teachers; sufficient resource materials and teaching aids; infrastructure conducive to the teaching-learning process; and implementation of well planned and motivating programs.

Brihaspati Vidyasadan was established in 1985 by Maurice Banerjee, ex-principal of St Joseph’s School, Darjeeling. Currently the student strength is 1,260 in classes from nursery to class 12 and A-Level. The school is divided into five wings: Primary, Junior Secondary, Middle, Upper Secondary, Higher Secondary, and A-Level. Kumudini Homes, Pokhara, was founded in 1985 by K. Palikhe. Besides the fact that it is set amongst truly verdant surroundings, the school has gained a reputation of being one of the better institutes of learning in the country. Galaxy Public School, established in 1986 with nine students and two teachers, now has a student population of 3,296 and a faculty staff of 400. It runs classes from nursery to class 12 and, according to the administration, the school gives a lot of emphasis to pre-school, kindergarten and primary education since they believe that children are most impressionable when very young. The progress of Galaxy School has been phenomenal in terms of both curricular and extra-curricular activities. Seventeen of its students have been placed on the SLC merit list so far, and the school has also won many laurels in sporting activities.

The private school sector is really huge now and it appears that they might soon be running out of catchy names. And, as in other sectors, there will be a few who manage to stand out because of one reason or the other (savvy promoters, large investment capacity, outstanding infrastructure, international collaboration, etc.). A few that comes to mind are Shuvatara School in Sanepa; Rato Bangala at Patan Dhoka; Malpi International School in Kavre District; DAV School which has campuses in Kathmandu, Birganj, Sarlahi and Biratnagar; and Ullens School in Khumaltar, Lalitpur. All of these have been established since 1990. In fact there are many more schools that have distinguished themselves, and the only excuse that they are not mentioned here is because of the lack of space.

Very often a school is propelled into the limelight by the fact that one or more of its students have been featured among the top ten in the SLC Board exams. No wonder then that most schools do whatever they need to do make sure that some of their students feature on this privileged list. Some are of the opinion that this necessity has made education extremely exam-oriented in the country at the expense of a more rounded one. Nevertheless, one must appreciate the rapidity with which schools have developed in this country, which has resulted in the net primary enrollment in schools reaching 89% in 2007, according to a World Bank report; and the literacy rate has climbed to a respectable 55.2%.

Higher education      
The first college in the country, Tri-Chandra College, was established in 1918. The Rana Prime Minister, Chandra Shamsher, saw higher education as a threat to his authority and was initially opposed to the idea. Nonetheless, he yielded to growing pressure; but is reported to have remarked at its inauguration: “With the opening of this college, I have hacked my own leg.” For many years, examinations were conducted by the India’s Patna University. Soon, Tri-Chandra College was followed by other colleges like Padma Kanya College, Patan College, Durbar College, Nepal National College (later Shankar Dev Campus) and Amrit Science College, all in Kathmandu. Are also Thakur Ram College in Birgunj, RR College in Janakpur, Mahendra Morang College in Biratnagar, and Tribhuvan College in Palpa. They, too, followed the curriculum of Patna University.

Tribhuvan University (TU) was founded in 1959 and was the only university in the country until 1985. A World Bank report states that there were about 600 campuses in Nepal in 2005-06, with an enrollment figure of about 253,889 students, of which 91% were enrolled at TU. According to latest figures (2008-09) 561 private colleges, spread all over the country, are now affiliated to TU besides its 60 constituent campuses. The total number of students is 290,833 and there are 7,049 faculty members in its constituent campuses and five institutes: Institute of Science and Technology, Institute of Engineering, Institute of Agriculture and Animal Science, Institute of Medicine, Institute of Forestry, and its four faculties: Humanities and Social Sciences, Management, Education, and Law.

Subsequently, the following universities also came into being: Mahendra Sanskrit University at Beljhundi in Dang District (1986), Kathmandu University in Dhulikhel (1991), Purbanchal University in Biratnagar (1994), Pokhara University (1997), Lumbini Bouddha University (2005), Mid-Western University in Birendranagar (2009), Nepal Agriculture and Forestry University in Rampur of Chitwan District, and Siddhartha University at Nala in Kavrepalanchok District, The Institute of Health Sciences in Dharan (1993) and the National Academy of Medical Sciences in Kathmandu (2002).

The nature of colleges
Colleges have been always hot beds of political activity, and college student activism has often been a symptom of and often the impetus for sweeping political changes. One can easily find a long list of political leaders calling the shots in Nepal’s myriad political parties who were once student leaders. It can almost be taken for granted now that the presidents of today’s student bodies will one day become ministers and even prime ministers. Ex-Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is a good example, as is Ram Chandra Poudyal who was once a Deputy Prime Minister, and Bijay Kumar Gachhadar the current Deputy Prime Minister. All three were fiery student leaders, and Gachhadar, in fact, was once shot in the head during student elections in the 1980s at the Morang Multiple Campus in Biratnagar. The present Information Minister, Shankar Pokharel, was once the president of the National Student Union. Another ex-minister, Surendra Choudhary, earned his political credentials as a student leader while studying at Thakur Ram Campus in Birganj, one of the pioneering colleges outside the capital.

Because of its relatively easier path to prominence, it is a fact that there are many who keep on registering as students even when well past their student days, just to keep on being ‘student leaders’. All student union bodies are affiliated with one political party or another, making college campuses into highly politicized environments. Student union elections are considered the harbingers of the next general elections   the union that gains a majority usually indicates which political party will win the next elections.

Nevertheless, higher education, which was once confined to government colleges, thus at the mercy of disturbances due to recurring political activism, is now available in a large number of private institutions where student activism, even if present, is so to a much lesser degree. As mentioned before, however, the clear majority (about 90%) of students seeking college degrees still attend the government colleges because of factors like cost and convenience of admission. In addition, there has been a spurt in private specialized institutions as well, with the result that for medicine alone there are 12 colleges in the country. The Institute of Medicine, established in 1972 in Kathmandu, is the country’s premier medical institution. It has 12 campuses nationwide. This is, of course, a welcome development, one that should go a long way towards fulfilling the much needed requirement of trained manpower in the medical field. At the same time, medical studies are not cheap and the tuition fees alone (disregarding other heavy costs like registration fees, hostel costs, books, etc.) can be somewhere in the range of 3 million rupees for a MBBS degree program in private colleges.

As far as engineering colleges are concerned, there are 20 such institutions throughout the country providing degree programs in architecture, civil engineering, computer engineering, electronics and communication, electrical and electronics, energy engineering, civil and rural engineering, etc. The Institute of Engineering (IOE) was established in 1972 and is the premier engineering institution in the country. It has four campuses, namely, Thapathali Campus, Pulchowk Campus, Eastern Regional Campus and Western Regional Campus. The IOE also has the distinction of being adjudged as one of the best such colleges in South Asia. The Nepal Engineering College (NEC), established in 1994, is Nepal’s first private engineering college. Engineering studies appear to be much more affordable taking NEC’s fees as an example: 3,97,000 rupees for a BE degree (4 years), 441,000 for BE degree-Civil and Rural (4½ years) and 485,000 for B.Arch. degree (5 years).

There are other specialized colleges are well, teaching a host of vocational subjects. Yes, colleges, too, have seen a noteworthy growth and this bodes well for the country. At the same time, these centers of higher learning need to be on their toes to see to it that the now customary ills of government campuses do not infect them as well. But, this wasn’t always the case with government colleges. I remember how proud my father was when I gained admission to Amrit Science College in the 1970s. It was the eminent college of the time and if we were to go through its alumni, we would now see many renowned professionals, administrators and bureaucrats on the list. It was almost a given that almost all the doctors and engineers of the country were products of this college. The case is not the same now, and maybe it is to be expected that the old has to give in to the new. But seeing that there are so many other good colleges now, perhaps we need not worry.

In sum
The Nepalese can be proud of the nation’s development in the educational sector. It has been a successful journey, though at the same time it is essential to keep in mind the guiding philosophy as enunciated by the experts in the National Education Plan: “The goal of primary education is to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, and to instill discipline and hygiene. Lower-secondary education should emphasize character formation, a positive attitude toward manual labor, and perseverance. Higher-secondary education should stress on manpower requirements and preparation for higher education.” How far this philosophy is being adhered to is a question open to all   government officials, educationists, students, parents, and the public. Criticism that education has become big business and totally exam-oriented is something we often hear. Another valid criticism is that the environment in schools and colleges are being sullied by politics.

To maintain and sustain the educational sector’s remarkable progress, then, the concerned people need to look back, reflect and take corrective measures wherever necessary. The mass exodus of students going abroad every year for higher studies is not a good development. It is partly due to the political activism so prevalent in our colleges. All said and done, however, there is much to cheer about in Nepal’s success in education.

Success can only breed more success. Consider this observation: “A remarkable feature of the country’s education has been the speed with which it has developed since 1952. Before the change in government in 1951, there were 200 primary schools, 224 middle and high schools, and 1 college in the country. Now there are over 5,000 primary schools, 450 middle and high schools, and over 30 colleges including one university.” This is what Consultant W. Olszak wrote in 1966 in a United Mission Report entitled Establishment of Engineering Colleges in Nepal. Now consider the Ministry of Education’s Flash Report 2008/2009 which points out that there are 31,156 schools in the country today, over 600 colleges, and more than half a dozen universities! Wonder what W. Olszak would say now?