Nepal needs a flagship research universityThe unity of teaching and research is what distinguishes these kinds of institutions from others.
What is a research university?
A research university is, by definition, one that prioritises research over teaching. Its faculty members are engaged in the production of new knowledge. They engage in basic as well as applied research activities and report their findings in peer-reviewed books and journals. They compete for research grants offered by non-profit foundations, businesses, industry and the government.
Most research universities are meritocratic in orientation. They hire and retain highly qualified professors based on well-articulated criteria. These criteria include acquiring advanced academic credentials from top-tier universities, publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals, awarding competitive grants, and a prior academic appointment at other institutions of higher learning. Another aspect of their emphasis on merit relates to the intake of high achieving students. Together, these efforts constitute the qualitative basis of top research universities worldwide.
Research universities are more expensive to run than non-research universities. The high cost is due to higher faculty salaries, faculty research grants, well-furnished research labs, comprehensive research libraries and the procurement of specialised databases and journals. In countries where higher education is government-funded, research universities are allocated a more significant proportion of public funding than non-research universities. Their cost per student is higher than the same figure at non-research universities.
Research universities are distinguished by a unique system of governance, of which autonomy and academic freedom are principal hallmarks. At the top of the governance structure remains a board of trustees responsible for policy oversight. The board appoints the university's topmost officials based on a transparent selection process. Distinguished scholars are often appointed to the position of academic leadership. The state does not intervene in the university's operation beyond providing policy guidance in the shape of either statutory requirements or the determination of national priorities.
In addition to assisting with the production of new knowledge, research universities train students in their chosen professions. The unity of teaching and research is what distinguishes these types of institutions from others. Research universities are multi-disciplined and admit students at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. While the teaching load of faculty members is relatively small, good teaching is expected to be commensurate with the superior quality of the professors.
Reforming Tribhuvan University (TU)
It is not practical to turn all Nepalese universities into research universities, nor is such action advisable on the grounds of optimal resource utilisation or selectivity. It is, therefore, much more prudent to create one or two flagship universities with research as their core mission while designating the rest of the colleges and universities as teaching institutions rather than research-oriented institutions.
The most suitable candidate for a flagship research university in Nepal is the Tribhuvan University's Central Campus at Kirtipur. Nested in the outskirts of Kirtipur city, the campus is home to the university's 41 "central" departments, which impart education to postgraduate level students in a variety of disciplines in the faculties of humanities, social sciences, management, education, law and science and technology. Together, these departments constitute the brain centre of the entire university system.
Tribhuvan University's Kirtipur campus already has the rudimentary contours of a research university. This campus was envisioned as a centre of excellence three decades ago. Although that policy orientation did not have any discernible effects, the policy showed the desire on the part of the university leaders for educational excellence. The university currently has four independent research centres (Center for Economic Development and Administration, Center for Nepal and Asian Studies, Research Center for Applied Science and Technology and
Research Center for Educational Innovation and Development) under its belt. Their principal function is to conduct independent academic research in their respective areas. However, to what extent they have been successful in their mission is not clear in the absence of any objective review of their institutional function.
Despite having such elements of a research university, TU's Kirtipur campus currently lacks other aspects of research culture. As a rule, faculty members are not required to research their core subject areas regularly, so whatever research some of them carry out should be considered voluntary, i.e., motivated by a personal ethos. This ought to be so in the absence of a clear policy of reward and punishment that either rewards or penalises faculty members for their research output or the lack of it. Secondly, institutional support for research in the form of faculty grants and research leave is negligible. What is arguably lacking is a research culture on the part of both the institution and its teachers.
At TU's Kirtipur campus, faculty hiring is less than fully competitive, and it is rarely based on the applicant's research profile. One who secures the highest marks in a selection process based principally on the division of marks obtained in the mark sheets is considered the winner. The hiring of candidates from other superior institutions of learning is not encouraged.
Tenure system is weak, and promotion is based not on the quantity and quality of the candidate's research profile but workplace seniority and extra-academic criteria such as political lobbying and interference from influential administrators. To the extent that the research profile of the candidate figures in the promotional process at all, quantity, and not quality, becomes the yardstick of judgement. This lax system of hiring and promotion should change if the TU's central campus seeks to transform itself into a flagship research university.
Student selectivity in admissions is equally unimpressive. Currently, some central departments have fewer students than the faculty members. Leaving aside the professional degree programs, anyone who applies for admission with minimum eligibility criteria can expect to be taken in. Pedagogy is slanted toward traditional methods of instruction. Instruction on research writing is conventional and inadequate. This situation does not bode well for the higher research prospects of the university.
The current governance structure is bloated with bureaucracy and needs an overhaul. As a first order of business, let us keep the prime minister, education minister, and education ministry officials out of decision-making. Well-meaning as these admirable individuals may be, they should have no role in running the university. The University Senate ought to be given full authority in selecting the chancellor and the vice-chancellor via open competition or a targeted recruitment process. The university's autonomy and academic freedom should remain sacrosanct.
Beyond this basic proposal for university reform, the newly carved out research university should be based on a residential college system. It should provide ample living spaces to support a large number of graduate and undergraduate students. The development of an undergraduate curriculum is a must to support the full range of graduate faculty and programs. Only an integrated university can meet the expectations of a top-tier research institution.