Budget 2020/21 and COVID-19: A look at the education sector

Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the accompanying nationwide lockdown, the education sector of Nepal has experienced a drastic downturn of events.

In the initial days, when coronavirus cases were gradually spreading worldwide but no cases had yet been reported in Nepal, the schools and colleges as well as all other academic institutions in the country had started to feel a wave of uncertainty. Although an official statement by the Government of Nepal about a lockdown had not yet been circulated, there was an anticipation of the same as many people thought it was imperative. Guardians, as well as organized groups such as Private and Boarding Schools’ Association of Nepal (PABSON) and National Private and Boarding Schools’ Association of Nepal (NPABSON), were of the view that since the transmission of COVID-19 can be rapid, it was better to ensure prevention by shutting schools and colleges until the virus subsided.

Earlier, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MoEST) had rejected the requests of school closures deeming it as unnecessary. But since seven million students in 36,000 schools across the country were yet to give their annual final examinations amidst this extraordinary situation, the MoEST pushed for the final examinations of all grades so that they could be completed timely and without interruptions.

Since the first announcement of lockdown from March 24, what followed were school closures and strict social distancing as all of the citizens were mandated to stay home. As a result, many schools and colleges, especially private institutions who have the resources, started digital learning. However, in response to this, many others have raised the question about the digital divide that exists and will be further created by the implementation of digital learning. The arguments have only surged within the 66days of the lockdown. So much so, that some activists have gone to lengths by associating digital education as an elitist venture that does not deserve state support.

In the current situation, although schools across the nation are looking for options to continue the academic calendar and provide digital learning, there are many issues that have come upfront. The internet penetration in Nepal is 72 percent. Out of this, 55 percent have access to wireless services, 17 percent to wireless internet, and 96 percent of the households have access to smartphones. However, most of these households who have access use it for social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. Moreover, students and teachers also lack technical knowledge of how online platforms work.

Additionally, rural and urban divide has become apparent as the reach of wireless broadband is limited. Online classes require at least 3G broadband accesses but much of rural Nepal lacks this. In an article published in the Nepali Times, it was stated that “currently, 1 Megabyte of internet costs NPR 1, which means that an hour of online visual classes at the lowest video quality would require 300 MB internet costing students NPR 300 every hour”. In a situation like this, when there are such disparities to implement digital learning, the current budget for the FY 2020/21 was expected to properly address this.

Need for a new lens to look at the education system

The overall education budget for the FY 2020/21 has slightly increased from NPR 163.76 billion in the previous FY 2019/20 to reach at NPR 171.71 billion. The budget for education definitely seems lacking, with some decade long plans reiterated, but nonetheless, some new plans in light of the current COVID-19 outbreak have also been introduced.

For the past three years, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) budget has been focusing on providing free education up to a certain level. Along the same lines, this year’s budget also includes the same agenda of incorporating all the students under the education umbrella and prioritizes making education up to secondary level free and compulsory. The budget for FY 2020/21 also entails making the remaining 24 districts of Nepal fully literate and announcing Literate Nepal. While all of these plans for increasing literacy are commendable, the way it is implemented has to be revisited because it has failed in the past. High student-teacher ratio in lower secondary schools, lack of access to education materials, low instructional time allocated to teaching and learning, problems with teachers’ professional development, etc have been cited as some of the reasons behind this failure. To overcome these lingering problems, the local government and school management committees have to be strengthened.

In the government’s policies and programs, endorsed by the federal parliament prior to the release of the budget, promotion of online and technology based education was announced. Contradicting this, the Economic Survey of 2019/20, published on May 2020, revealed that among 29,707 public schools, only 8,366 have computers and even within this, only 12 percent schools offer IT based study with internet connectivity.

This is why, it is most important to use a new approach other than only announcing free education as in the past decades especially now when digital learning needs to surge given millions of students are at home and digital divide has made it impossible to incorporate all the students into the learning field. Within the digital space, there are digitally able groups (who only need to be made aware of the digital content as they have sufficient digital literacy) and radio reachable groups (who are reachable only through television or radio but not digitally).

Considering this need, the budget for the FY 2020/21 has rightfully included that the path of the new academic year will be taken forward through virtual classroom operation, online education and even through television as well as radio.

Creative development activities with positive thinking are also aimed to be conducted to alleviate the mental impact on students due to the current outbreak.

These plans give a much needed boost in the digital learning as it implies that past approaches of traditional education have to be revamped if literacy and inclusion are to be achieved and if the divide is to be narrowed. However, the implementation part is most critical. For this, school management committees, as well as local governments, have to be empowered and strengthened.  Moreover, internet service providers such as Nepal Telecom and Ncell have to be persuaded to provide the necessary service to students at minimal cost and fulfil their corporate social responsibility.

A new lens of looking at the education system is imperative. For this, all three tiers of the government have to be mobilized. For instance, in response to the closure of education facilities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nepal Teachers’ Association implemented the “Every Home a School” campaign. Under the campaign, the NTA structures at all local levels were mandated to coordinate teacher members to immediately contact students and their parents by using available means of communication, as well as to make students comfortable about the lockdown and aware them about associated health and safety issues. This is an instance which shows that local committees have to be mobilized and treated as focal point to coordinate in the implementation of such campaigns as they have better knowledge about the local demand of the schools, parents, teachers and students as well as other stakeholders of their area.

If and when a new way, by mobilizing local government and incorporating all tiers, to implement policies is adopted, then the impact of the budget can be realized. Along with this, private schools also have to be provided with incentives to try out different approaches rather than mandating them to contribute their infrastructure to community schools.

Parting thoughts

The eyes of parents will be upon the state of schools and academic institutions during and post the lockdown period enforced in the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of that, the schools and the government are acutely aware. Barely a day goes by without the mention of the attention that students in different parts of the country need amidst this pandemic. Given this, the budgetary allocation and the plans it entail carry weight.

On reflection, it is obvious that the budget allocated for the education sector, its implementation method and the digital surge in education sector of Nepal currently can altogether unlock economic and transformative potential of students, academicians and ideas, with history-altering results. The significance and importance of these results go far beyond their effect on GDP. The story of the education system over the past decades is one not of insufficient funds but of inefficient implementation. This is why, stressing on the earlier mentioned points of empowering local governments and incentivizing schools have to be practised immediately, otherwise the expected results will yet again only remain as expectations and the further budgets to come will only lose value.