Saving the centre of academic excellenceThe current friction at Kathmandu University should not be used as a tool to encourage unionisation.
Kathmandu University, more popularly known as KU, was established two-and-half decades ago and has firmly set a new benchmark for quality university education in the country. The institution not only proved itself to be, by far, the centre par excellence in a number of disciplines like management, medicine, engineering and even liberal arts, it also reopened the real possibility of attaining quality education within the country. This compelled old centres of higher education to reinvent themselves, and for the new entrants in the market to mark a new benchmark for survival. The fruits of hard toil by the team of its founders, academicians and administrators made KU the first choice for students, for potential teachers educated in the best universities abroad and looking for a similar ambience at home, and for academic researchers who wanted to contextualise their results for the Nepali market.
Extensive outreach to the community to solve the problems where they originate and, in turn, make the practice and learning from the same as an indivisible component of operational pedagogy are two signature KU initiatives in Nepal's higher education that many others sought to replicate. The most interesting phenomenon was that the country's elites, including the political elites, instructors and teachers, posited trust on this domestically evolved institution to educate their offspring, who otherwise would have been sent to foreign countries for education.
The dedication of the founding team of visionaries and experts, the unique model of resource mobilisation and management as a privately funded public institution are certainly the forces behind KU's academic success and global reputation.
Most importantly, however, KU so far has kept itself largely away from direct political meddling. Instead of party or ideology-affiliated students, staff and teachers' unions, apolitical students and faculty welfare societies like in any other developed country system do exist in KU. Nepal's political parties and leaders too, so far, seemed willing to spare at least this one university from petty partisan politics and unionisation.
Unfortunately, unprecedented in its history, Kathmandu University recently suffered a two-week-long padlocking of its entire school system and faced disruption of classes by the 'agitating' teachers and staff which perhaps irreparably dented its long nourished reputation of being an 'academic institution free of politics'. This untoward incident occurred despite expressed reservations of the entire student community and an overwhelming majority of the faculty.
Needless to say, the career concerns of employees—teachers and staff alike—must be taken care of by the management on a regular basis, within its capacity. The demand for such redress is also undoubtedly the right of the workers. Equally important is the employees’ understanding that the scope of better benefits, perks or privileges and career safety are directly contingent upon keeping intact the institution's reputation. Thus, enhanced resource mobilisation is beyond doubt a more effective instrument than unionism to better meet the employees' ends.
Risk of unionisation
As KU moves forward to resolve the friction after the unfortunate episode of padlocking and subsequent special meeting of the university senate, the risk of unionisation seeping into this university’s ecosystem looms large. To put things into perspective, Nepal is generally a trade union-infested country. Not only in academic institutions, but unions have also functioned as the extension of political parties in most institutions and sectors. They have wielded their power to intervene in decision-making processes, particularly when an affiliated union’s mother party is in power. These decisions are not often related to the general wellbeing of their fellow members but to serve the party’s interests. Through their affiliated student wings, political parties, impervious to implications of their intrusive acts, see universities as the breeding ground of their cadres. Kathmandu University’s top management is now destined to walk a tightrope to address the genuine concerns and demands of teachers and employees on the one hand while saving it from falling into the trap of the politics of perennial unionisation on the other.
The fear of unionisation discussed here is not due to biasedness or prejudice. The fact is, economic history has proven that trade unionism is against the concept of modern management as well as the very idea of social justice. On the management side, it kills the meritocracy and performance-based career progression of the employees. The might of the union becomes a critical weapon for a few 'leaders' to overtake more qualified peers in the career path who are not members of the unions. Regarding social justice, the unions can only include those fortunate enough to have received employment or admission. And, every move and demand of these unions invariably focus only on advancing the benefits and safety of these—at the cost of those millions who are deprived of any form of gainful employment.
In countries like Nepal where white-collar jobs are extremely limited, whatever available is captured by a handful of shrewd elites; the feudal mindset of organised power rules the roost. Not only in KU but the very idea of trade unions, in general, has proven more to be more of a curse than a blessing in any formal sector of our economy.
In addition, one of the key problems in Nepal regarding unionisation is that the movement has refused to transform itself with the changing times. During the Panchayat rule, when political parties were banned, these parties utilised the still trade unions and similar sister organisations to advance their pro-democratic cause. But the failure of these unions to secede from their political parents even after the opening up of society, particularly after 1990, has become the cause of institutional degeneration in many public sector organisations. Political parties continue to promote and expand trade unions as their affiliates in every field possible. This has provided an incentive for the employees to resort to this outdated socialist legacy to solve their professional or career-based problems.
At this critical juncture, the Kathmandu University management, as the natural guardian and patron of all of its employees, must be magnanimous enough in addressing the demands and concerns thus far raised. At the same time, it should be equally cautious not to open the floodgates at the cost of its hard-earned reputation. The uppermost agenda for the bargaining parties on both sides of the table must be to first save this centre of academic excellence and to prevent it from degenerating into the likes of most other academic institutions in Nepal, which effectively remain nothing more than recruiting hubs of cadres for the political parties.
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