Why We Should Invest in Secondary Education in Nepal

Girls in secondary school in Nepal.
Girls in secondary school in Nepal.

By Shanti Jagannathan

Human capital development is an important lever to support Nepal’s vision to graduate from the least developed country level by 2022.

The period of the Millennium Development Goals until 2015 focused strongly on universal primary education, whereas the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) until 2030 expand the arena to include secondary education and lifelong learning opportunities. It is clear why this is so – most developing countries have now achieved near universal primary education, and need to ensure that students can complete school education and benefit from the social and economic benefits that arise from it.

In Nepal, a country where 37% of girls are married before the age of 18, support to secondary education will help girls complete the full school cycle and derive the array of socio-economic returns from it, such as delay in marriage, better health, greater economic empowerment, more jobs, higher productivity, and so on. As far back as 2002, a World Bank study suggested that one additional school year can increase a woman's earnings by 10% to 20%.

ADB last week approved a $120 million loan to the Government of Nepal’s School Sector Development Plan. But why is it more compelling for low-income countries like Nepal to invest in the full school education cycle? In a recent report, the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity states that a dollar invested in an additional year of schooling, particularly for girls, generates earnings and health benefits of $10 in low-income countries, compared to nearly $4 in lower middle-income countries. Human capital development is an important lever to support Nepal’s vision to graduate from the least developed country level by 2022.

In addition to completing secondary education, it is equally crucial to ensure that the education gained is relevant for getting better jobs or access to higher education. The report cited in the above paragraph warns that by 2030 in low-income countries, under present trends only 1 out of 10 young people will be on track to gain basic secondary level skills. Increasingly, the need is for students to develop the ability to acquire new skills throughout life, with technical, social, and critical thinking skills. So it is more about learning to learn, rather than static learning. SDG 4 on education mentions lifelong learning. A 2012 UNESCO report stated that 20% of those who complete upper secondary education lack problem-solving skills, which  are the attributes employers of today and tomorrow seek. Keeping this in mind, the program supported by ADB will address ICT-enriched teaching and learning and interactive classrooms, where students will be able to develop the skills they need for tomorrow’s workforce.

Another area that merits increasing emphasis is science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). In Nepal, only 2% of girls and 5% of boys enrolled in secondary education are studying science. The program aims to nearly triple the number of boys and girls enrolling in science subjects by 2022 by providing interactive science and math kits and targeted science scholarships in secondary education. Policy makers even in advanced countries are keen to enhance STEM education, as it is crucial for knowledge based economic growth and for nurturing innovation. According to an outlook by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the growth in jobs and wages in STEM disciplines by 2022 will be higher than the average overall growth in employment and salaries.

My dream is that senior secondary school girls in Nepal will take up science under this program so they become competitive enough for these jobs in the US and elsewhere globally, including in STEM occupations in their own country.