There is little or no disagreement on the fact that education is a basic human right, which everyone is entitled to. Similarly, providing education to its citizens is also a basic responsibility of a state. Education is not only a human right, it is also a key factor for the socio-economic development of any nation. This is why various human rights groups together with development agencies advocate for universal access to education in all countries of the world. However, there is a huge gap in access to education between developed countries and developing countries.  To tackle this issue, the key players in global socio-economic development, such as, United Nations (UN), World Bank, US Aid, Department for International Development (DFID – UK), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), GIZ (Germany), and more, have funded billions of dollars to improve the education sector in the developing countries, especially, the Least Developed Countries (LDC) like Nepal.

The Nepalese government, with the help from above mentioned agencies, is trying to improve its education sector by seeking to implement universal access to education. The program will give free education to all students in government run schools up to high school (10th grade).  In addition to tuition fee, it also provides textbooks for free.  This idea would seem to solve the problem of low attendance, especially for the poorest in Nepal.  However, this “free education for all” scheme has so far shown mixed results. The government records show that the enrollment rates in all levels of schooling in Nepal (Primary, Lower-secondary, and Secondary) have increased, but this is only one side of the coin. On the other side, a recent UNESCO study* also shows that the teacher-student ratio in Nepal is one of the worst in the world. Even more crucially, the dropout rate of the students has not improved much, especially in the rural areas, and the dropout rate is higher still for girls.

So, what’s the problem with free education for all?

So, why has the government’s “free education for all” scheme not been able to deliver on its promise to provide education to all children of Nepal, especially rural girls? The answer is simply that “ free education” is not really free. There are other costs associated with education besides tuition fee and textbooks, such as, stationary and uniforms.  This may seem like a small cost to pay for education, but for the poorest in Nepal, these are factors that determine whether parents consider sending their kids to school or not.

Furthermore, almost all schools charge additional fees like admission fees — such fees are not permitted by the government, but schools get around this and charge these fees under the name of school repair, extracurricular activities or exam fees.  Some schools will charge even more fees to teach computer classes.  Basically there are many more fees on top of tuition and books for everything you would expect in a quality education. Besides all of these other costs associated with education, there is yet another significant cost that is often overlooked when considering factors in low enrollment and high dropout rates: the opportunity cost.

Opportunity Cost: The huge hidden cost of education in Nepal

The opportunity cost is defined as the cost of any activity measured in terms of the value of the best alternative.  In the context of rural Nepal, children’s involvement in household chores and agro-pastoral activities are the key opportunity costs. When the quality of education is poor, parents do not want to bear these opportunity costs because they have more value in their children working than going to school.  In economic terms, the value of children is low when children attend school because, in the short term, they are not economically active.  If parents can look at the longer term, education might be considered as an investment for better economic opportunities in the future. However, if children are not receiving a quality education that can lead to a higher expected payoff in the future, then the return on investment (ROI) in children’s education is perceived to be too low.  Even if the education itself is free, the generally poor quality of education in the government schools of Nepal motivates the parents to seek immediate returns on their investment in children through house or fieldwork, instead of hoping for future returns through education, thus leading to high dropout rates. Since the girls do more household chores than the boys, their opportunity cost is much higher, which leads to even higher dropout rates among girls. The government schools may have invested in paying for tuition and textbooks, but have not done an adequate job in investing in infrastructure, and more importantly, investing in teachers.  Until those areas are improved on, the quality of education in these “free” schools will continue to be sub-par and not provide enough incentive for parents who are making difficult economic decisions to keep their children in school.

Since the quality of education in public schools of Nepal is generally poor, the relatively well-off parents send their children to private schools, hoping for a better educational opportunity and a higher ROI on their investment. Because of the costs involved with private schools, most parents tend to send only their sons to private school, while daughters are either sent to the “free” government schools or are given no schooling at all. There are also cultural factors behind this discrimination. Since the girls will be “given” to another household after marriage, the ROI on their education is considered low, and most of the parents see no point in providing education for them. On the other hand, boys are expected to live with the parents and be the provider during the parents’ old age. The ROI in their education is much higher in the minds of most Nepali parents. Because of this cycle of discrimination against girls in terms of access to quality education, the future for females in rural Nepal is very gloomy.

Economic burden or a child that deserves the same chance as her male counterpart?

As long as girls are seen as financial burdens by their families, true development in Nepal cannot occur.  There is advocacy work involved in showing parents that investing in their girls’ education is the only way out of poverty. By removing the financial obstacles of a quality education, and providing support services to help them reach their goals, we dream of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty for girls in rural areas of Nepal.  We at the Rukmini Foundation, believe that these girls will lead themselves, their families and their communities out of a cycle of poverty once they are given a fighting chance.

The time to act is now in order to give these underprivileged girls their fundamental right to a quality education. This is why we have started the Rukmini Foundation. The Foundation believes in giving a quality and meaningful education while also providing a supportive environment and encouragement to these girls in order to grow their minds and nurture their spirits. This will ultimately lead to the development of their intellect as well as their self-esteem and ultimately in true empowerment.  By removing the financial obstacles of a quality education, their parents can see the benefits of educating their daughters as well as their sons. The vicious cycle of poverty for these girls is largely due to discrimination against girls in terms of access to quality educational opportunities.  The chronic underdevelopment of Nepal will not be solved until girls in Nepal have the same opportunities as boys to pursue a quality education.

Nabin Aryal
Program Manager
Rukmini Foundation


* GLOBAL EDUCATION DIGEST 2011 – – page 61)

About Nabin Aryal

Dr. Nabin Aryal led the foundation’s work in Nepal from the inception till April 2015. He is now serving as a special adviser from his new home in Myanmar where he works with the US and Nepal Teams to provide strategic guidance for the foundation. He received a PhD in Economics from Hitotsubashi University and has been managing NGO programs in underdeveloped areas in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka and has extensive experience in grassroots development efforts.
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