Dr Gyan Basnet
Education is broadly the means by which one generation passes its aims and customs on to the next generation. It achieves this through experiences that have a formative effect on the way that people think, feel, and act. Education is essential for the development of human potential and for the enjoyment of the full range of human rights. The right to education is important for a person’s self-fulfilment and self-realization, and for the development of society as a whole. Education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realising other human rights. It is the primary vehicle by which people can extricate themselves from social problems and progress to participate fully in the life of their community.
Education is the foundational norm for society as a whole; it is the vehicle that drives or leads a society toward betterment and fulfilment. The right to education is a universal entitlement that is recognized as the most fundamental of human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important developmental benefits. Worldwide, millions of children and adults are still deprived of educational opportunities, many as a result of poverty, conflict, discrimination, ineffectual state policies and, most importantly, excessive politicisation such as we have here in Nepal. There is a huge gap between the slogans and the reality, the saying and the doing, the promising and the providing.
According to John Henry Newman, a ‘university is the place where the professor becomes eloquent, and is a missionary and a preacher, displaying his science in its most complete and most winning form, pouring it forth with the zeal of enthusiasm, and lighting up his own love of it in the breasts of his hearers’. He further argues: ‘It is the place for great preachers, great orators, great nobles, and great statesmen. In the nature of things, greatness and unity go together.’ Universities are said to be one of the largest industries for the creation and sharing of knowledge and the production of thinkers, policy makers and even good politicians. This prompts many questions today: why, for instance, in Nepal, do things seem to be just the opposite? Why instead of being places of free, fair and independent thinking are our universities becoming nothing more than the biggest akhada for those karyakarta of the political parties? Why are the student unions merely offshoots of the political parties, and why should they dominate the policies of the universities?
As Boaventura De Sousa Santos rightly noted: ‘the university must be part and parcel of the building of the modern nation-state – by training its elites and bureaucracy, by providing the knowledge and ideology underlying the national project.’ Why then is there so much political interference in our system of education? Why is there so much political bhagbanda in the appointment of its authorities, and in policy making through to enforcement? Why have we failed to create satisfactory long-term educational policies and programmes? Why is our university referred to a place where they produce berojgaar?
Should our system of education (especially the universities) not be above partisan politics? Should it not simply be recognized as a knowledge-creating industry? Where is the quality assurance? Is it not time to rethink what has been going on over the past few decades and seek possible responses to the problems that we face today in our system of education?
Education as Human Rights
The right to education has been included in many constitutions at national and international level and in a number of international treaties. States have agreed that illiteracy must be eliminated and that all citizens must have an opportunity to attend schools and universities of their choice. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 provides for the right of an individual to receive an education, together with a guarantee concerning the exercise of parental rights in matters of education, and a reference to the aims of education. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR) goes further in that it provides the right to education as a universal right, granted to every person, regardless of age, language, social and ethnic origin, or other status. The Covenant enumerates the different steps that ‘states must take to achieve the full realization of the right to education, in particular the specific obligation to make education available and accessible in a non-discriminatory way’.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides for the right of a child to have access to and receive education and training to their fullest potential in preparation for employment and responsible involvement in society. It provides ‘for free, compulsory primary education, accessible secondary and higher education, information about education, and measures to ensure regular attendance at schools’. It also contains a number of provisions relating to the right to education. The Convention provides that education should be directed towards ‘the development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential; the development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations; the development of respect for the child's parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own, and the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin’.
Other, more specific, treaties include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Article 10), and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons (Article 6), which guarantees the right to free and fair education to all in the fullest sense. Other relevant universal instruments include the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention against Discrimination in Education, which aims to promote equality of opportunity and treatment in education.
Regional human rights instruments also guarantee the right to education. Article 2 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees access to public educational institutions without discrimination and requires states to abstain from interference in the free exercise and free choice of education by pupils and parents. The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights provides that ‘every individual shall have the right to education’. Article 41 of the Arab Charter provides for the right to education and requires states to eradicate illiteracy. It contains references to free primary and fundamental education and to the aims of education. Article 13 of the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights deals with the right to education in a very similar manner to Article 13 of the ICESCR.
What of Nepal?
States are under a direct, positive obligation to provide adequate education for all their citizens. States’ duties in the area of education consist of obligations not only to refrain from interference but also, most importantly, proactively to guarantee availability and access. There is a strong positive obligation on the State to ensure that there are sufficient educational establishments with appropriate curricula and a focus on quality at all times. This prompts further questions in our context. Why is there so much political lobbying even to appoint a departmental chief and why does one have to be near and dear to the political parties even to be appointed as a part-time lecturer in our universities? Why is so little respect shown for quality? If quality education is the means of transforming society, what kind of future are we creating for our country?
Realization of the right to education demands an effort on the part of the state to make education available and accessible. It implies a positive state obligation. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education proposes a set of four broad standards for assessing achievement of the right. The standards are: a. availability, i.e. ensuring free and compulsory education for all children and respect for parental choice in their child's education: moreover, functioning educational institutions and programmes have to be available in sufficient number; b. accessibility, i.e. eliminating all discrimination over access to education as mandated by international law; c. acceptability, i.e. focusing on the quality of education and its conformity to minimum human rights standards, and on the relevance of the form and substance of the education, including the curricula and teaching methods; d. adaptability, i.e. ensuring that education is flexible, so that it can adapt to the needs of changing societies and communities and can respond to the needs of students within the specific social and cultural context.
The Interim Constitution 2007 provides that ‘every citizen shall have the right to receive free education from the State up to secondary level as provided for in law. Each community shall have the right to receive basic education in their mother tongue as provided for in law and each community residing in Nepal has the right to preserve and promote its language, script, culture, cultural civilisation and heritage. Article 33 of the Constitution sets out the responsibilities of the State to pursue a policy of establishing the rights of all citizens to education. At this point we need to ask: where is the enforcement mechanism for these provisions? Are there any results to show on the ground? Why do our politicians, governments and concerned authorities not take this seriously? For instance, student admissions in most departments are controlled from the student unions, and most popular courses are oversubscribed owing to pressure from the student unions. As a result students with good grades but little or no connection to the student leaders are denied the places that they deserve. Should the government not prepare a policy on education that is non-partisan and above political intrigue? When I began my university education in the UK I was immediately aware that the student union was not affiliated to any political party. I was aware also that the university was organised as a single academic unit with its various departments, research centres and schools physically within the university boundary. Why can we not in our country organise ourselves in a similar manner? What is wrong with us? It is time for a complete rethink.
Excessive politicisation has ruined the education sector in our country. We need urgently to adopt a higher education policy that ensures quality teaching throughout the country. Academicians must have no part in politics and must be free to declare right is right and wrong is wrong. The practices of nepotism and favouritism must be abolished sooner rather than later. Universities and academicians must be granted sufficient resources, and, since the future prosperity of our nation will depend on its educational attainment, university education must be knowledge based and research oriented.
Universities need to be accountable not only to their students but also to their academic disciplines and to the wider community. The threat of ‘pen-down’ action by professors whenever there is a disagreement together with ‘actions’ by teachers’ unions, often at the behest of the political parties to which they are affiliated, inevitably have a negative impact on academic performance. We need to rid our universities and the educational sector as a whole of dirty politics if we wish to reinvent our nation as the new Nepal.
Reinventing the Universities
I strongly believe that excessive interference in education by politicians is unacceptable in any circumstances, and that education must be kept free of politics. Our educational system must be made secular and stand apart from partisan politics. Its institutions must be developed solely as places of learning and research where academicians and students can discuss all matters freely and the State provides adequate legal, financial and moral support. We must develop the university as a think-tank able to provide solutions to deeper problems that face our society as a whole.
The essence of the right to education is the right to access available educational facilities by every citizen. The State must develop legal and policy tools capable of respecting, providing and fulfilling that right. Social change is going to be possible only if we change our attitude to the system of education. We need a system that can contribute to the avoidance of conflict by promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship. As Professor Fons Coomans noted, education must aim for social good in that it must create opportunities and provide choices for the people. It must be an end in itself but it must also be the means to an end. It must help to achieve economic growth, health, enhanced participation in the decision-making processes, personal development and the foundational norms of democracy.
Professor Dev Raj Dahal, a prominent Nepalese scholar, social scientist and thinker, rightly argues: ‘Higher education’s supreme aim is to provide Nepalese citizens with universal knowledge and values to shape productive and peaceful lives. Their aspiration for a progressive society goes beyond the ‘rights discourse’ to capture the domain of enlightenment whereby citizens are accustomed to thinking for themselves. Higher education, in this sense, enables society … to adapt to the changing nature of life-choices.’ The first solution to the problem of higher education in Nepal is to free it from party political influence especially when establishing for it a vision and goal orientation for the future. Let us then hope that the institution of education remains ‘a great seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation’.
(Basnet, who holds a Ph.D. and an LL.M degree in International Human Rights Law at Lancaster University, U.K, is a Constitutional Lawyer in the Supreme Court. Email: email@example.com)
(Editor’s Note: Nepalis, wherever they live, as well as friends of Nepal around the globe are requested to contribute their views/opinions/recollections etc. on issues concerning present day Nepal to the Guest Column of Nepalnews. Length of the article should not be more than 1,000 words and may be edited for the purpose of clarity and space. Relevant photos as well as photo of the author may also be sent along with the article. Please send your write-ups to firstname.lastname@example.org)