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What I Learned from a Nepalese Student: Inclusion and Equity in Education

Miki Sugimura

Sophia University

“Improving education for a more equitable world.”

In consideration of this theme for CIES 2023, I would like to start by talking about the story of a 19-year-old female student I met during my fieldwork in Nepal in 2015. I encountered her when I visited Bhaktapur, a town in the suburbs of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. This was a fieldwork for our international joint research project entitled ‘People with Disabilities and Education’. Our team visited the student’s house to find out how people with disabilities enjoy opportunities in Nepalese society.

Her house was located in the corner of a stone apartment building, and when we entered, the ground floor was dark with a wooden ladder propped up to the second floor. The student was studying on the second floor, which was also dimly lit, with barely any light coming in from the windowsill. In front of the student sat a teacher, who had been sent from the local community. When asked, she said she was studying Nepali, English and Mathematics with the teacher, who comes to her house several times a week. The female student studied at home because she was too ill to stand and go to school on her own since childhood. In a way, she was not “included” in the society and was an “out-of-school learner” by popular definition. The question I asked her, however, led to her answer that led to a meaningful change in my understanding of inclusion. I asked; ‘What is your favourite thing to study?’, only as a very ordinary question or greeting. Moreover, not being able to speak Nepali, I casually asked her in English. However, she replied in clear English, “I like all subjects”. Not only did she stop there, but also added: ” I am glad that I have studied English until today, because today you came here from Japan, and we could talk in English like this.”

This student’s answer made me reflect deeply on what a stupid question I had asked her. I could see that for her, the question of which subject she liked was completely meaningless, and that she found joy and meaning in the very fact of being able to learn. Indeed, she is not even able to attend school, much less enroll in a regular class. In that sense, she is not included in a society where students around her age would normally belong to. In practice, however, she is steadily continuing her own learning, together with the teacher who visit her. By doing so, she also interacts with others and lives within the social dynamic. And most importantly, she finds meaning in her learning. As she explained how she was glad to have talked to someone from Japan, it seemed to me that her hopes and thoughts for her own future and possibilities were condensed in the expression.

Since my encounter with this female student, I have kept asking the question of what learning has always meant to people in my mind. The Education for All ‘s spirit of ‘educational opportunities for all’ has popularized the concept of equality in education. On the other hand, given the diversity of people with a myriad of cultural backgrounds, different social environments, and limitations due to physical and mental disabilities, does it mean the same thing for everyone? Calls for inclusion with sound consideration for diversity may be a beautiful phrase, but in practice, superficial inclusiveness may result in the loss of diverse needs.

In other words, it is a question of “visible inclusion” and “invisible inclusion.” The female student in Nepal is not “visibly included,” but she is “invisibly included” in that they feel a sense of meaning and connectiveness to society. From this perspective, exclusion can also be considered in terms of “visible exclusion” and “invisible exclusion.” Visible exclusion is separation based on overt discrimination and prejudice. However, “invisible exclusion” can be equally, and sometimes even more seriously problematic. A typical example is the problem of bullying that is currently occurring among children attending school. Bullying these days is more often caused by verbal abuse and slander than by face-to-face fights and is more insidious and complex that it amounts to being a form of “invisible exclusion.” In this situation, students are given equal opportunities to attend school, but their schooling has instead led to “invisible exclusion.”

Considering this situation, it is especially important to note that emphasis has been placed on “equity” as well as “equality” in recent years; as stated in SDG Goal 4: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all and promote lifelong learning opportunities”. In other words, it is not only about equal access to educational opportunities, but also about how meaningful the learning is for the learner, regardless of whether it is linked to equality as an outcome. Furthermore, education results should also not be measured against a uniform fixed standard, but with regards to whether meaningful goals have been achieved for each learner.

The challenge here is about how to identify the criteria. When we talk about the multiplicity of evaluation criteria, we are not referring to the creation of outcome-oriented evaluation criteria, where assessments are only in the benefits of the country, region, administrative organizations, schools, or any entities other than the learners themselves. Rather, it is a process of considering the individual goals of each learner, situated in his or her specific situation.

Comparative education plays a highly effective role in this process. When considering how to set the various criteria for evaluation, there is a need for a unit of comparison that is grounded on careful field-based research. One example of this unit of comparison would be the national framework, which has been the subject of much comparative education in the past. However, units are not necessarily limited to national frameworks. Particularly in the context of the SDGs, where the basic principle is “no one left behind,” based on the concept of ‘human security’, which considers the safe and secure lives of individuals, should be emphasized, and if this is the case, indicators that take the individual level into account are required. The case of the Nepalese students is an example of the need to consider the educational needs of everyone.

This consists of an essential part of what the field of education should consider as part of the CIES 2023 theme of a more equitable world. In seeking to create a social system that is both diverse and inclusive, and which leaves no one behind, what constitutes the factors of “leaving no one behind”? It is not simply a matter of including those who are marginalized in the society. Even if they have the opportunity to learn together in the same place, if they themselves feel excluded or not accepted, they cannot claim that the issue of ‘no one being left behind’ has been resolved. Target 4.7 states that “By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.” In addition to diversity, inclusion and equity, and sustainability are the major foci of this target. This can only be achieved if these individual educational needs and significance are properly secured.

In 2021, the International Commission on the Future of Education published the Report entitled ‘Reimaging Our Futures Together: A new social contract for education’, which discusses the state of education up to 2050. And as its foundational principles say, “any new social contract must build on the broad principles that underpin human rights – inclusion and equity, cooperation, and solidarity, as well as collective responsibility and interconnectedness.” It also points out that “transforming and strengthening education as a public endeavour and a common good, education builds common purposes and enables individuals and communities to flourish together.” Moreover, it highlights that “a new social contract for education must not only ensure public funding for education, but also include a society-wide commitment to include everyone in public discussions about education. This emphasis on participation is what strengthens education as a common good – a form of shared well-being that is chosen and achieved together.” (International Commission on the Future of Education, 2021:2) To this end, what is needed to achieve inclusion and equity for transformative education? We need to look at people’s lives and consider the comparative perspective that can be gained from the field, while confirming the significance of international education as an international public good.

If the Nepalese student mentioned at the beginning of this article read this report, what would her vision for the future be? And what hopes and challenges would she raise to realize them? We need to find directions for our comparative and international research not only in the visions of the national and international community, but also in the words of the voices of our learners.



The International Commission on the Futures of Education (2021). Reimaging Our Futures Together: A new social contract for education. UNESCO. Paris.