Comparative Perspectives from the 2015 Würzburg Winter School
Edited By Regina Egetenmeyer
The status of adult literacy and lifelong learning in Nepal
The concepts of adult education, adult literacy, and lifelong learning—about which several books and journal articles are written—have been interpreted in several ways. Educational policy documents produced by supranational organisations such as the European Union and the World Bank use these terms, especially lifelong learning, to suit their own political and economic interests. Those terms are then used in policy documents produced at national levels because nation states are highly interconnected with those organisations. Nepal makes a special case because of its overreliance on external donors such as the World Bank for financing several developmental programmes, including educational ones. This paper explores how the terms adult literacy and lifelong learning are interpreted in Nepalese educational policy documents. By analysing Nepal’s key educational policy documents, the paper examines how the term adult education is narrowly understood as literacy. In the second section, the paper examines how the notion of lifelong learning is vaguely used in Nepalese educational policy documents as an alternative term for adult literacy.
Nepal is one of the least developed countries, situated between two advanced developing countries, India and China. Its economy largely depends on financial assistance from bilateral and multilateral agencies. With a per capita income of about US$ 730 (2014) and more than half of its 27.8 million people living on less than US$ 2 per day, Nepal faces several challenges. A decade-long armed conflict (1996–2006), protracted political instability, and a massive earthquake that hit central Nepal on 25 April 2015 have made Nepal a vulnerable country. More than 50 bilateral and multilateral donor agencies have been active in Nepal for the last four decades; however, its major problems such as poverty, illiteracy, economic vulnerability, conflict, and political instability have not been solved. About 43 per cent of Nepalese adults (age 15+) lack basic skills to read and write in the Nepali language (UNDP, 2014).
Nepal became a democratic nation in 1950 with a king as a ceremonial head. A quasi-democratic system, called Panchayat, was in practice from 1962 until democracy was restored in 1990. Nepal is divided into five development regions ← 261 | 262 → to carry out administrative activities. These development regions are further divided into 14 administrative zones, and each zone is divided into four to eight local bodies called districts. There are 75 districts in Nepal. Districts are further divided into village development committees and municipalities. About 82 per cent of the population live in rural areas in Nepal (UNDP, 2014). The National Planning Commission is a central body to devise developmental plans every five years. The Ministry of Education and the Department of Education are central governing agencies for Nepal’s educational development. However, as I elaborate below, a critical analysis of Nepal’s educational history reveals that Nepal’s educational development, including adult education, is mostly guided by exogenous forces: mainly the US during the 1950s and the World Bank after the 1980s (Rappleye, 2009).
Historical Trajectory of Adult Literacy
Before the 1950s
In the past, Nepal’s education was dominated by a Hindu education system known as gurukul: This is a religious educational practice based on Hindu educational philosophy. There was a strong emphasis on the relationship between guru (teacher) and shishya (student), where the teacher played the role of a father and the student that of the son. Major components of the gurukul educational system are ritual prayers, the development of priesthood, and readings of religious texts. Often students used to leave their homes and stay at a guru’s residence, which are known as ashrams. The gurukul system is appreciated mainly in Hindu mythological texts such as Mahabharata; however, the flipside of this system, at least in the case of Nepal, is that to be educated in gurukul system, ‘one had to be born into a caste where such an education was appropriate’ (Bista, 1991, p. 117).
Starting from its unification period (during the 1760s) until 2008, Nepal was ruled by Shah kings. But from 1846 to 1951, an upper-caste Hindu family called Ranas controlled the country’s entire governance structure, which is known as the Rana dynasty. In the Rana dynasty, the ‘premiership was passed on by agnate succession’ (Whelpton, 2005, p. 47), going in turn to each male member of the Rana family. During the Rana dynasty (1846–1951), pathsalas—the schooling system where Sanskrit was taken as the medium of instruction and Hindu scriptures were taught as course contents—were established in Nepal. The pathsalas manifest an advanced form of the Hindu gurukul education system, but they were attended only by male students from high-caste families after having certain level of linguistic skills in Sanskrit. Some students from upper-class families who graduated ← 262 | 263 → from pathsalas used to go to Varanasi in India for higher education (Bista, 1991). Gradually, the gurukul education system, which focused on religious rituals, became less relevant for the majority of the people, especially for those who had to work hard for survival.
Jung Bahadur Rana (1817–1877), the first prime minister of the Rana dynasty, who visited France and Britain during the early 1850s, was highly influenced by the achievements of European nations, especially Britain (Whelpton, 2005). He set up an English school, Durbar High School, in the vicinity of his palace in 1853. Only members of the Rana family were allowed to study at Durbar High School. There was almost no provision for adult education during the Rana period. However, for providing higher education opportunities to the graduates of Durbar High School, Tri-Chandra College, the first higher education institution of Nepal, was founded in 1918. Tri-Chandra College followed the curricula developed by the University of Patna, an Indian university established by the British, who ruled India at that time. The curricula and courses adopted at Tri-Chandra College followed the British model of education and hence had almost no connections to the contextual realities of Nepal. Final examinations of the college and certification of its graduates were undertaken by Patna University. Some graduates of Tri-Chandra College were sent abroad not only to India but also to Japan and Europe for further education and training and enjoyed key government positions after their return (Rappleye, 2009).
From the 1950s to the 1960s
During the late 1940s, several basic schools were founded following Mahatma Ghandi’s principles of making individuals ‘self-sufficient’ through a strong emphasis on ‘rural vocational training’ (National Education Planning Commission [NEPC], 1956, p. 26). Students of basic schools used to learn vocational skills such as spinning, weaving, woodworking, and agriculture as their basic skills. Other components of basic school curricula included history and civics, health and physical training, cultural and recreational programmes, and village improvement projects (NEPC, 1956). However, the education based on Gandhian principles did not continue, mainly because Nepal’s new policy, recommended by the National Education Planning Commission (NEPC, 1956), did not prioritise indigenous and vocational skills such as spinning, weaving, and woodworking.
The report of the National Education Planning Commission (NEPC, 1956), Nepal’s first educational policy, appears to have introduced the concept of ‘adult education’ for the first time in Nepal. The NEPC reflects a desire of Nepalese political leaders and their US advisor Dr Hug B. Wood to create a modern Nepal. ← 263 | 264 → The NEPC introduced some new provisions for adult education, including an agricultural extension programme, a school-community library, and adult education programmes through cinema and radio. Teaching adults through pamphlets, bulletins, newspapers, and magazines were some of the techniques that aimed at including agriculture-related contents. The NEPC took adult education as a strategy to strengthen democracy, especially for the development and implementation of a new constitution that replaced the oligarchic Rana regime. However, adult education was understood as mere literacy, limited to teaching people how to read and write: ‘democracy cannot flourish in a country where 98per cent of the people are illiterate’ (NEPC, 1956, p. 151).
The National Education Planning Commission (NEPC) believed that the lack of literacy was an impediment to instilling democratic values. It did not recognise the ability and potential of Nepalese adults’ skills and experiences to make their living in hardships and abject poverty; rather, the commission characterised them as ignorant: ‘All attempts to make a show of democracy will bear no fruit in our society unless the vast majority of adults, now steeped in total ignorance, are made to feel their duties and responsibilities in a democratic nation’ (p. 152). Further, the NEPC report reveals that the commission members did not recognise the intrinsic value of adult education: an understanding that adults should be educated for the betterment of their society and the nation. Rather, the report took adult education as an instrument to complement primary school education: ‘Only literate adults can fully know the value of education for their children … as adults become literate they will want even more education for their children’ (NEPC, 1956, p. 151).
New schools and colleges were set up but the focus was not on preparing students to fulfil the need of rural communities; rather, these institutions were established just to provide formal degrees. According to Bista (1991), during the 1950s, formal qualifications, and especially a graduation certificate, became the significant factor for acquiring jobs, hence promoting the tendency of ‘certificate orientation at the cost of the quality of education’ (p. 122). Once they had earned a certificate, students mainly from upper-class families expected that jobs would be available for them. Few graduates from upper-class families, by virtue of their social capital, got government jobs, but for the majority of the people, mainly from underprivileged class, white-collar jobs did not become the reality. In this sense, though the notion of a knowledge economy (Powell & Snellman, 2004) was transferred to Nepal, it did not match the contextual realities of the country.
This certificate-oriented type of education kept young generations far from continuing their traditional and familial occupations, such as agriculture. As observed by Coombs (1985), there was an educational crisis in the Nepalese ← 264 | 265 → education system, mainly because Nepalese schools operated under imported models, especially from Britain and the US, models that did not support the contextual realities of Nepal. The education model based on human capital principles ‘had helped create elite cadres to run government ministries and to work in the small urban/modern sector of the economy, but they were ill-suited to develop the vast human and other resources of the traditional rural sector’ (Coombs, 1985, p. 7), where about 90 per cent of Nepalese people lived.
From the 1960s to the 1990s
With regard to educational development during the Panchayat period (1962–1990), the Government of Nepal had appointed the All Round National Education Committee in 1961 to provide recommendations for the second five-year plan (1961–1956). The government also set up the National Education Advisory Board in 1968. However, those two policy initiatives are negligent in comparison to the New Education System Plan (NESP) that ‘brought schools and education institutions under much tighter central control’ and in line with the spirit of the Panchayat regime (Rappleye, 2011, p. 28).
As compared to the National Education Planning Commission (1956), which was influenced by Dr Wood and his Nepalese associates, the NESP was formed with the involvement and leadership of more Nepalese educationists. According to Bista, unlike the former policy, the NESP opened avenues to devise educational plans and programmes ‘based on the perceived needs of the common people’ (Bista, 1991, p. 125). The NESP took adult education as ‘a vital factor in promoting all-round development of illiterate adults in the context of national development’ (Belbase, 1981, p. 167). The NESP aimed at launching adult education programmes in two forms: (a) a literacy extension programme and (b) a functional adult education programme (UNESCO, 2006). The objectives of the functional literacy programme were ‘to enable illiterate adults to master simple numerical skills along with reading and writing; to train adults in the vocation they are involved in and thereby increase their efficiency; to teach them about agricultural practises, cleanliness, sanitation, health care, and the political system’ (Belbase, 1981, p. 188).
The NESP also contained a provision to send ‘college students out to teach in rural communities’ as a part of the National Development Service (Rappleye, 2009, p. 283). Spending a year in rural areas working with rural people—mainly participating in development activities including teaching in local schools—was a compulsory course requirement for obtaining a post-graduate degree from Tribhuvan University. However, along with the dwindling support for the Panchayat regime, the NESP collapsed by the end of 1979. ‘What replaced the NESP was ← 265 | 266 → not the product of policy or of any commission’ (Bista, 1991, p. 127) at national level but merely some short-term educational projects. One of the projects that focused on adult education was the Education for Rural Development Project (1981–1985), also called Seti project. It was a part of the United Nation’s initiative towards rural development: a key theme of the UN’s Second Development Decade (1970–1980).
One of the major objectives of Seti project was to develop a system of basic education that would serve to promote rural development by reducing the existing gap between the school and the community. The project focused on making education more relevant to the future life of the student. Education was perceived as ‘a positive force for the development of the area in which the school was located’ (UNESCO-UNDP, 1985, p. 4). A major part of the project was the provision of functional literacy, creating awareness among adults about ‘new ideas, skills, and knowledge that will enable them to take direct action to improve the quality of their lives’ (ibid). The project aimed at producing trained adult educators by providing practical training in ‘agriculture, irrigation, or primary health care’ (UNESCO-UNDP, 1985, p. 6). But the project did not continue after 1985 because of funding problems.
After the 1990s
The political transformation of 1990—from Panchayat to democracy—ended the centralised education system and ‘facilitated a more multicultural and inclusive view of education’ (Bhatta, 2011, p. 16). The Government formed the National Education Commission (NEC, 1992) to ‘lay down the goals of national education and formulate policies to achieve them in a manner consisted with the human rights’ (Bhatta, 2011, p. 16) and to enshrine those goals in the new constitution. The commission aimed to strengthen the nonformal education sector; hence the National Non-Formal Education Centre was established in 1999.
Some of the major non-formal and literacy programmes launched during the 2000s were the Adult Post-Literacy Programme, the Flexible Schooling Programme, the Women's Literacy Programme, the School Outreach Programme, the Income Generating Programme, and the Community Learning Centres. Those programmes were provided by national and international non-governmental organisations. Nepal did not have a national education policy to unite those programmes under a single national policy framework. Therefore, a ‘10-Year Literacy/Non-formal Education Policy Framework’ was prepared in 2006 under the leadership of the UNESCO Office in Kathmandu. It was prepared in consultation with major educational stakeholders such as the Non-Formal Education Centre, the ← 266 | 267 → National Planning Commission, and other governmental and non-governmental organisations (UNESCO, 2006). The vision of the framework was to ‘to create a fully literate learning society whose citizens possess the skills and competences that enable them to contribute continuously towards harmonious national development by raising the quality of life of every citizen’ (p. 17). The ‘Education for All’ global programme (2000–2015) was a major motivational factor behind the creation of this framework. In a sense, this framework was a part of UNESCO’s global Literacy Initiative for Empowerment programme within the framework of the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003–2012) (UNESCO, 2006).
The literacy/non-formal education policy framework (UNESCO, 2006) conceived of literacy in a rather wider sense: ‘simply being able to read, write, and calculate may not always be sufficient for living in the more complex world of today’ (UNESCO, 2006, p. 18). Some of the issues mentioned in the framework include: extending and expanding access to raise the literacy rate basically for meeting Education for All goals (i.e. to reduce illiteracy by 50per cent by 2015); mainstreaming out-of-school children's education programmes; managing and monitoring literacy and non-formal education programmes; and forming linkages between non-formal education and grassroots-based development programmes.
The Non-Formal Education Centre is a major authority to make and implement policies related to adult education and learning in Nepal (CONFINTEA Nepal, 2008). The Centre formulated a Non-Formal Education Policy in 2007 (GON, 2007). There is a list of 16 policies featuring a number of strategies to implement those policies to guide ‘government as well as non-government agencies involved in conducting nonformal education programs’ in Nepal (p. 1). Some of the non-formal education policies (GON, 2007) include: providing non-formal educational opportunities to those who are deprived of formal education; recognising non-formal education as equivalent to formal education; decentralising the governance and management of non-formal education to local bodies; increasing the female literacy rate; synchronising non-formal education curricula with the curricula of formal education at all levels (from primary school to university); developing community learning centres; and strengthening partnerships among government, private sectors, and I/NGOs to strengthen non-formal education provisions.
The non-formal education policy (GON 2007) also talks about implementing ‘programmes related to lifelong and continuous education, skill development and income generation’ (p. 1), but the policy is not explicit about the nature of lifelong learning and its relevance in the context of Nepal. Overall, the policy appears as a ← 267 | 268 → vague and highly ambitious document having little significance to its implementation in Nepal. A number of bullet points mentioned as strategies are not clearly articulated and make almost no connection with existing problems, especially some of the institutional barriers to increasing adults’ participation in learning. Rather, adult education is conceived in a narrow term, basically literacy: ‘the ability to read and write with understanding and to perform simple arithmetic calculations’ (CONFINTEA Nepal, 2008, p. 18).
According to the International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA) country report (2008), a common goal of adult education and learning for Nepal is
to raise the level of adult literacy, particularly amongst women and people belonging to marginalized groups such as dalits and disadvantaged ethnic groups, through the provision of appropriate learning and life skills programmes for all young people and adults, thus contributing to achieving poverty reduction and equitable socioeconomic and human development. (CONFINTEA Nepal, 2008, p. 7)
The institutional framework for non-formal education extends from national to local levels. There is a Non-Formal Education Council headed by the Minister of Education. The Non-Formal Education Centre is a national executive body working under the council. At the local level, there is a provision of having District-Level Non-formal Education Committees in each of the country’s 75 districts and similar committees in each village development committees and municipalities (CONFINTEA Nepal, 2008).
Some major educational projects launched in Nepal after the 1990s include: the Basic and Primary Education Project (1992–2003), the Secondary Education Support Project (1992–2000), the Community School Support Project (2003–2008), and the Education for All Programme (2004–2009). These projects, launched with active involvement of international organisations such as the World Bank, focused mainly on primary and secondary education. The core document (GON, 2009) of the current educational programme, known as the School Sector Reform Programme (SSRP, 2009–2016), mentions lifelong learning a number of times. In Chapter 4 of the document (GON, 2009), the term lifelong learning appears in association with literacy: ‘literacy enables them to engage in lifelong learning and helps develop capabilities to sustain their livelihoods and participate fully in society’ (GON, 2009, p. lviii). The programme aims at linking lifelong learning with income generation as well as with occupational and vocational skills. It also aims at ‘developing partnerships for collaboration with UN agencies and I/NGOs to implement lifelong learning programmes in selected districts’ (GON, 2014, p. 21).
Even though the term lifelong learning is mentioned in some of the major policy documents (GON, 2009, 2014) it does not reflect how lifelong learning has been ← 268 | 269 → conceived as a new educational policy at the international level, including the European Union (European Commission, 2000), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, 1996), and even UNESCO (Delors et al., 1996; Faure et al., 1972). Thus as far as the case of Nepal is concerned, there is no explicit provision for lifelong learning, and there are no policy documents to reflect a nuanced understanding on lifelong learning in the way it has been debated in international policy documents and some scholarly publications (Griffin, 2009; Rubenson, 2011). Rather, lifelong learning is conceived of vaguely as a strategy of ‘improving literacy’ (GON, 2014, p. 21).
Some international organisations, mainly the World Bank, have argued that one of the causes of Nepal’s educational problems is the centralised governance of education, controlled by the Ministry of Education (World Bank, 2001). The World Bank strongly recommended to the Government of Nepal that the Ministry of Education should provide more authority and power to local communities (World Bank, 2001). As a consequence, educational decentralisation—meaning ‘the devolution of power and budgetary control to Nepal’s 75 districts and the communities below them’ (Rappleye, 2009, p. 38)—has become a major policy shift after the late 1990s. Following the recommendations of the World Bank, the Government of Nepal implemented the Local Self-Government Act in 1999 (GON, 1999). The act gave local bodies more authority to plan and organise literacy and adult learning activities. However, the policy could not be fully implemented because of a lack of ‘functional linkage between village education plan, school improvement plan, and the plans of other adult education providers’ (CONFINTEA Nepal, 2008, p. 11).
In this paper, I discussed that: (a) educational practices in Nepal before the 1950s were dominated by Hindu philosophical traditions and beliefs that benefited few male members of the upper-class families; (b) after the advent of democracy in 1950, Nepal’s education was guided by the US, which aimed at institutionalising Western democratic values but neglected indigenous knowledge and skills; (c) during the early 1960s to the early 1980s, Nepal’s education was geared towards strengthening the monarchy and perpetuating the status quo; and (d) after the 1980s, Nepal’s education has been mostly guided by the World Bank as a major international donor. This historical trajectory of Nepalese education shows that adult education has never been a major focus in Nepal’s educational development.
One of the major challenges of launching adult education programmes—or literacy programmes, as Nepalese educational policy documents would have it—is the lack of domestic funding. As noted above, for the last couple of decades ← 269 | 270 → the Government of Nepal has relied almost entirely on external funding, mainly from the World Bank and other donor agencies such as the Asian Development Bank. Very often donors do not prioritise adult education, and sometimes their priority changes even if they initially start funding adult education programmes (CONFINTEA Nepal, 2008). For example, the Education for Rural Development Project (1981–1985) was one of Nepal’s most successful adult education projects (UNESCO-UNDP, 1985). But it was completely replaced by a project funded by the World Bank: the Primary Education Project (1984–1992). As the focus of the project was primary education, the bank did not include adult education as a separate component of the project (World Bank, 1984). In recent educational policy documents, the term lifelong learning is used as an alternative to adult literacy. Lifelong learning appears as a new policy catchphrase borrowed from donors such as the World Bank, but my analysis shows that the use of the term does not reflect the broader scholarly discourse debated at the international level. Hence, it is vaguely interpreted as an alternative word for adult literacy.
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