Home-Bound: Is education not ‘the thing’ anymore for Nepal’s middle-class families?
By Neha Basnet
Kathmandu is getting more crowded by the day. Nepal’s most populous city, usually becomes quieter in the month of October, when more than 70% of Kathmandu residents get scattered into other regions to celebrate the Dashain festival, or Bhai Tika, with their families. They come back after spending a month or so.
I returned to Kathmandu after three years. My first impression of the city was how dusty and crowded it had become. Most of the time, I found the people too noisy. Back in the day, holi (the spring festival of colour) and teej (women fasting for husbands’ long life or for getting a good husband) were just festivals, celebrated by family members in their homes. But this year, I discovered that our festivities had transformed into events.
In the beginning of my studies abroad, the cultural practices there were quite difficult for me to take in, and I used to discuss cultural transformations quite strongly. But I hardly thought my own city will shock me even more when I came back.
The word money seems to dominate all conversations in the city. I met a couple of friends since returning. It came down to my career on several occasions and advice poured in on what I should do next. Money and marriage were the primary concerns of all my single friends. I graduated in Development Studies with a specialization in Human Rights. For a while now, I have been engaged in writing articles and features, which, according to my parents, amounts to no more than wasting time and energy. “Being a scholar doesn’t bring either recognition or money anymore,” said my parents. For years, people in Nepal have believed that being a doctor, an engineer or other specialized qualifications would help their children in the job market, allowing them to be proud of their kids and live a luxurious life (unlike those who annually migrate to Qatar or Malaysia for manual jobs).
But when you compare figures, a fresh graduate’s average salary is actually less than that of a migrant manual laborer. According to a 2014 International Labour Organisation survey, students graduating across Nepal earn an average of 16,079 NPR ($186) per month, while the average monthly salary for migrant workers in the same year was approximately 86,450 NPR ($1,000). Last year, my generation was dubbed the “boomerang kids” by a Wall Street Journal article, for the one-in-three new graduates, who will “still come back to their parents for basic financial support.” Unlike Western countries, living with parents with or without a job in Nepal is a cultural thing so this doesn’t really make a difference as we’ve always been and will be boomerang kids.
For my parents, I have disappointed them twice; first by returning to Nepal and second, by engaging in things they can’t fully comprehend. As more and more youngsters migrate from Nepal for higher education, it may be interesting to note that 90% of students are reported not to return to their countries after completing studies.
For migrant workers and recent graduates, arranging the funds to build a new house back home and keeping up with the sky-high prices of basic needs haven’t been all that easy, but still everyone tries to do it. In three years, a few dozen new three-or-four-storey houses have been erected behind our house on a plot of land that was once a rice field.
“As a university graduate from a middle-class family, your childhood friends have succeeded in becoming doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs, and you still can’t make a proper living for yourself. No one cares about your knowledge or what you write,” said my mother.
“You become really discouraged when you have a degree that does not help you to earn a decent living. Dreams shatter; yours and your parents’ too,” says Subeksha, a graduate in Social Sciences from Tribhuvan University.
Daniel K. Sokol, PhD honorary senior lecturer in medical ethics, wrote in The Guardian: “When I enrolled on my PhD, I didn’t care about so distant an issue as future income. Armed with three years of funding, I cared only about my subject and pushing the frontiers of knowledge, however modestly. But then I found, PhD in social sciences, languages and arts do not enhance earnings significantly for either sex.”
Challenges in higher education
The power of and incentive for higher education is decreasing. “…More education doesn’t exactly help; in fact, going to graduate school can make things worse,” writes Chris Bowyer in the article, “Overqualified and Underemployed: The Job market waiting for graduates.” The more education one has, the more difficult job-hunting becomes. University graduates first have a hard time finding a proper job, and once they have one, the salaries tend to be very low. Compared to the growing population of migrant workers – 52,1878 lakhs in 2014 from 10,1147 lakhs in 1980s, the number of young people who used to leave their home to the cities for further studies and job has halved over the past 20 years (ILO Survey Report 2013/2014). This is a result of complex factors, including the high cost of higher education, rents, less jobs and lowered expectations for economic gain.
When I proposed, “It’s not always all about money,” to my high school friends, everyone attacked me. “But it is all about the money, dear – that’s all that matters at the end of the day!” said everyone.
I don’t recall talking so much about money earlier. Recently, I was in a taxi, returning home from somewhere. On the way, we got caught in a massive traffic jam. The driver, young and friendly, started talking about the prevailing political situation. I came to understand that he had just come back from Korea. He went to work in farms in that country but couldn’t stay there for too long as twelve to thirteen hours of work was too taxing for him. “Upon my return, my parents and even my friends scolded me, asking why I came back,” said the driver. “Now I am thinking of going back again.”
With the increasing trend of entrepreneurship, the middle-class has been encouraged to pursue wealth in the cities without wasting too much time pursuing higher education. Perhaps, as the author of the book, Suitable modern: Making middle-class culture in a new consumer society, Mark Liechty writes, economic growth has made middle-class young more competitive.
Like most middle-class children, I left the country with high hopes of a life-changing experience, which, fortunately or unfortunately, did happen. It was a life-changing experience for me and for my mother. And just like hundreds of thousands of other young Nepalese in their 20s, I fear I will barely survive in Nepal.
I guess at least I will make my parents happy for one reason – living abroad.
Neha Basnet is a graduate from the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University, The Netherlands. She writes about development, child rights, and youth.
 From a Blogpost by Monsoon Rose “Notes from Nepal: Diary of a Himalayan Housewife” (http://toolazyforyoga.blogspot.com/2014_09_01_archive.html)
 International Labour Organisations’ 2014 survey report “Labour market transition of young women and men in Nepal”
 “The plight of Nepal’s migrant workers” by Kamal Dev Bhattarai, published in The Diplomat (http://thediplomat.com/2014/08/the-plight-of-nepals-migrant-workers/)
 Daniel K. Sokol, 2012 “Is a PhD the right option for you?” published on The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/careers/phd-right-career-option)
 ILO Migration for Employment Status report for Nepal: 2013/2014 (http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—asia/—ro-bangkok/—ilo-kathmandu/documents/publication/wcms_312137.pdf)
 Data indicator of WorldBank (http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SM.POP.NETM?page=6)
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