It does not matter how much a promoter is earning as long as s/he provides excellent education while also fulfilling social obligations
The Compulsory and Free Education Bill, recently authenticated by the President provoked a backlash among the private learning institutions that are rejecting the mandatory scholarships quota, one of hallmark provisions of the new law. The private schools are expressing strong reservation and dissatisfaction over the provision of 10 to 15 percent free scholarships, depending on the number of students enrolled, to deserving but vulnerable students.
In the past there were provisions about scholarship quotas, but they haven’t been properly implemented. As a consequence it is high time the government focused on measures to enhance the equity of the national educational system, ensuring that every single child, no matter her family background and social economic condition, can attend quality schooling.
From the point of view of private schools, it might be hard to digest such new provisions that negatively impact their bottom line. After all private schools have been playing a fundamental role in the national education system, without which the nation would be tragically lagging behind.
Issues at stake
The issues at stakes are high, complex and sensitive. Can we step back and reframe the issue by assuming private schools are performing a form of social business? According to Yunus Centre, a leading institution on the subject: “social business is a cause-driven business. In a social business, the investors/owners can gradually recoup the money invested, but cannot take any dividend beyond that point. Purpose of the investment is purely to achieve one or more social objectives through the operation of the company; no personal gain is desired by the investors.”
If we follow Yunus‘s definition, perhaps only few private education institutions in Nepal would qualify as a social business. Yet it would also be probable imagining that a good number of private schools’ promoters started their ventures not just for the sake of making a lot of money, but also to serve the society by offering quality learning.
After all, education is one of the most important elements in the development of a nation, a key “social” enabler that shapes the new generations. There is no better area than education (with health being equally important) that expresses so well the potential of doing good and doing it well, the essential trait of any social business. Therefore, let’s take for granted that, at least, all private schools potentially are social businesses.
Let’s assume that each of them should have embedded a strong ethical conduct in the way they operate, largely driven by a social mission that on the one hand, creates values for the society and on the other hand, it generates income and revenue for the promoters.
Therefore the new provisions should not be taken as too radical or too revolutionary as each private schools, except the recently established ones, should already be in position to provide free scholarships and surely many are doing that. Probably what unsettled the private schools was the rigidity in the new law.
In each developed country, development is still more a vision and ambition rather than a reality on the ground and they have a clear regulatory framework in matters so vital like education.
Should we presume that most of the entrepreneurs behind private schools are just greedy business persons? I personally believe that a vast majority is truly passionate and driven by a strong sense of purpose, but it is equally true that, for a good number of them, the economic dimension, making profits and have dividends, takes priority over the social side of the business.
Then if this is the case, not all private schools should be regarded as legitimate social businesses. Surely such institutions have a very important role, but they function, more or less, as grocery shops selling essential products without which our life would be very hard as it would be a life without education.
Honestly speaking, we must acknowledge that provision of quality education happens within a wide spectrum and it can imply different things at different levels and its costs can vary.
It can mean excellent teachers that deserve to be well paid, acknowledged and gratified or having an excellent library whose books must be imported from overseas or being able to organize amazing extracurricular activities including quality counseling and orientation. At the same time quality education can be much more grounded with dearth of committed teachers, but there are less options of self-development for the students.
Apart from provision of scholarships, there are also other ways private schools can play a bigger role in their communities. For example, they can open up their libraries to the public or they can offer their infrastructures like their basketball courts also to children enrolled in less equipped public schools. Certainly there are many ways private education can step up, engage and be closer to their communities. Let’s not forget that scholarship is only one of several hot issues that must be tackled.
Regulation regarding the fees ceiling is also another important topic that is creating discord between the private schools and the government. Another complex discussion is about turning new private schools into not for profit, but still profit making entities.
All over the world, there are many educational ventures pursuing this path. Why not be open about such possibility for Nepal too?
We need a nationwide debate over the important role of private education. I am referring to a broader dialogue based on a strong resolution and commitment toward social justice and equity from all stakeholders.
Business persons investing huge amount of money in private schools should set a common goal and forge “win-win” options and opportunities together with the government. For example, the power and freedom of setting salaries and incentives commensurate to the quality of education imparted and level of expertise provided should remain free of any regulation.
It does not really matter how much a principal or a promoter is making as long as s/he provides excellent education while also fulfilling certain social obligations. Freedom of paying high salaries, tax deductions and tax exemptions should offer some incentives to nudge the private education sector toward fulfilling social responsibility.
Creating and supporting a more business-friendly environment for serious and real social businesses in the educational sector will lead to better learning outcome based on social inclusion.
The author is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths living with disabilities