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Education in Nepal

This country profile describes current trends in education and student mobility in Nepal and provides an overview of the Nepali education system.  It replaces an earlier version by Nick Clark, published in 2013.   

Nepal is an increasingly important sending country for international students. In the United States, the number of Nepali students increased by more than 20 percent in 2016/17, the highest growth rate among the top 25 sending countries by far. This makes Nepal one of the countries bucking the “Trump effect,” which led to an overall decline in new international student enrollments in 2016/17.

Limited educational and employment opportunities in Nepal are among the factors driving the outflow of Nepali students. Political instability – there have been nine different governments between 2008 and 2016 alone – and devastating earthquakes in 2015 have worsened social conditions in the country. However, the government seeks to improve the education system with reforms, such as the extension of compulsory basic education to eight years of schooling.


Nepal is a small country of 29 million people situated on top of the world. Wedged between the mega-countries of China and India, Nepal is home to eight out of the ten highest mountains in the world, including Mount Everest. The mountainous terrain of the land-locked country presents tremendous challenges for socioeconomic development and makes it difficult and costly to expand Nepal’s infrastructure. In 2015, Nepal remained one of the least developed countries in Asia and ranked 144th out of 188 countries in the UN Human Development Index.  According to the Asian Development Bank, about 25 percent of the population existed on less than USD $1 per day in 2010/11.

Further impeding socioeconomic development is Nepal’s susceptibility to earthquakes. In 2015, the country was struck by two consecutive earthquakes, one of them the strongest quake in more than 80 years. This catastrophic event killed more than 8,600 people and destroyed or severely damaged large parts of the country’s infrastructure, including almost 500,000 houses and more than 9,300 schools.  Hundreds of thousands of families were displaced, and more than 700,000 people pushed into poverty as a result of the catastrophe. The impact on the education system was disastrous, and recovery is progressing slowly. One year after the quake, more than 70 percent of affected people in the hardest hit areas still lived in temporary shelters. Many children had to be instructed in makeshift tents, resulting in a noticeable increase in dropout and grade repetition rates. As of January 2018, only 88,112 private homes and 2,891 schools had been rebuilt.

One reason for the slow progress in recovery is the high degree of political instability and fragmentation in Nepal. Nepali society is still largely agricultural and highly stratified, with upper caste Hindu elites dominating a multicultural society that includes 125 ethnic groups/castes speaking 123 languages (according to the latest 2011 census). Only 44.6 percent of the population speaks Nepali, the national language of Nepal, as their first language.

Although Hindus constitute a majority of 81.3 percent of the population, there are deep caste divisions within the Hindu populace. The marginalization and deprivation of lower castes, most notably the Dalits (“untouchables”) and other groups like Buddhists and Muslims (10 and 4 percent of the population, respectively), has been a source of conflict for decades. Lower castes and other marginalized groups have less access to basic services and education, and fewer opportunities for social advancement. Similarly, Nepal is characterized by strong regional disparities and urban-rural divides between more developed regions like the Kathmandu Valley and less developed rural regions.

In recent years, Nepal has witnessed a violent 10-year insurgency of Maoist rebels (from 1996 to 2006) and the temporary re-establishment of absolute monarchy in a royal coup d’etat in 2001. A 2006 peace agreement paved the way for the eventual  re-democratization of the political system, culminating in the first parliamentary elections in Nepal in 17 years in 2017.

It remains to be seen, however, if parliamentary elections and the adoption of a federal and more inclusive constitution can help stem political instability and turmoil in Nepal. The political process remains characterized by political infighting and corruption. Both the adoption of the new constitution in 2015 and the run-up to parliamentary elections in 2017 were accompanied by violent protests. But while political dysfunction has slowed progress on many fronts thus far, most experts agree that federalism is the optimal form of government for an ethnically and religiously diverse and fractured country like Nepal. The evolution of the political system is also seen as instrumental in pushing education reforms.

It is also noteworthy that the Nepali economy is growing, political turmoil and natural catastrophes notwithstanding. While the 2015 earthquake hampered economic output and was followed by the weakest economic growth in 14 years in 2016, Nepal’s economy rebounded quickly. According to the Asian Development Bank, Nepal’s GDP grew by 6.9 percent in the 2017 fiscal year and is expected to grow by a further 4.7 percent in the current 2018 fiscal year. While large-scale poverty remains a major problem, poverty rates are declining, as reflected by the fact that the country’s middle class grew from 7 percent in 1995 to 22 percent in 2011, per World Bank definitions.


International student mobility in Nepal is predominantly outbound. While there is little public data available on international student enrollments in Nepal, inbound mobility to Nepal is minor by international standards. The lack of top quality universities, scholarships and post-graduate work opportunities in Nepal’s lesser economy limit the attractiveness of the country as a destination for international students. While neighboring countries are often a source of student inflows, this is not the case in Nepal either – neither India nor China send high numbers of students. In 2011, the only year for which the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) provides data, there were 107 international degree students in Nepal. The Institute of International Education (IIE) reports that there were 370 U.S. students studying in Nepal in 2016/17 (Open Doors).

Outbound Mobility

Outbound mobility, on the other hand, is booming: between 2000 and 2016, the number of Nepali students enrolled in degree programs abroad soared by 835 percent and stood at 44,255 students in 2017 (UIS). And while that number is smaller than the number of international students from major Asian sending countries like China, India or Vietnam, it should be noted that the outbound mobility ratio in Nepal – i.e., the number of international students among all students – is much higher in Nepal than in these big sending countries. Nepal’s outbound mobility ratio almost doubled over the past decade and is now more than twelve times as high as in neighboring India. In 2016, Nepal’s mobility ratio was 12.3 percent, compared to 0.9 percent, 1.9 percent and 3 percent in India, China and Vietnam, respectively (UIS).

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