Rethinking higher educationNepali universities should be willing to embrace new technologies and academic concepts.
Pushpa Raj Joshi
A few weeks ago, Tribhuvan University (TU) announced a re-examination of the Research Methodology subject for some of its bachelor’s-level management stream students. The reason for rescheduling after more than a year of the initial examination was unbelievable—the exam sheets had gone missing. There wasn’t much hullabaloo and the students complied with TU’s directive. This might seem normal in Nepal but is unimaginable elsewhere. It is not only a mistake by the responsible authority but also a punishable offence.
A university is considered the alma mater—the nourishing mother—of students because it provides academic prowess and empowers them with valuable behavioural lessons. It chisels a student’s entire life. Unfortunately, this concept has been ignored in Nepal. The example above amply shows that universities take the students’ concerns for granted. This article focuses mainly on TU, but the points raised are equally relevant for other universities.
TU and higher education
The history of higher education in Nepal is not very long. The first university, TU, was established in 1959, and it took 27 more years for the second university, Nepal Sanskrit University (NSU), to be established in 1986. There are 15 universities in Nepal today. The sole torchbearer of higher education, TU had initially contributed immensely in expanding higher education throughout the country. At present, TU and its affiliated colleges have more than 460,000 students, about 8,000 teaching, and 7,500 non-teaching staff. According to the Times Higher Education Ranking, TU ranks among 801-1000 universities in 2023 globally.
The reputation and credibility of TU were different during its heyday, especially after the introduction of a new education policy in 1971. The university was recognised worldwide and received financial support from international agencies. During that time, state-of-the-art research institutes like the Centre for Nepal and Asia Studies (CNAS) and the Research Centre for Applied Science and Technology (RECAST) were established. TU is still reaping the fruits of these institutes, the seed of which was sown almost five decades ago.
The downfall of universities started immediately after the re-establishment of multi-party democracy in 1990. The universities got squeezed between the scuffles of the political parties. Rather than educational shrines, all public universities were gradually converted into political warehouses. With changing times, Nepali universities need to go hand in hand with new technology and new academic concepts. For that, a swift overhaul of the existing concepts is required. The lost glory of the universities could be restored only after that. Following are the steps that need to be implemented to rejuvenate the pioneer higher education institutes of the country.
Reducing political influence
Alienating TU from political influence is the most challenging but, if implemented, the most effective measure to resuscitate the universities. For the last few decades, universities have been converted into political entities. With every government shuffle, the vice-chancellor (VC) and the executive team of the universities are changed. There were many instances when an active political cadre, instead of a career academician, had been appointed the VC. For example, despite grave accusations of plagiarism, an active member of the Nepali Congress was appointed as VC of TU in 2015, which had declined the reliability of TU in the global academic arena. Learning lessons from this incident, a reputed career academician with high moral integrity should be selected to lead the universities.
Staff recruitment and subsequent promotion should be based strictly on merit and not on political inclination. For that, universities should be transformed into self-regulatory bodies, and the provision of the prime minister being the chancellor should be discontinued. A steering committee elected by the stakeholders of the respective universities should be formed. Internationally accepted criteria (teaching experience, regularly updated didactic competence, research aptitude and funding accusation) should be implemented in tenure tracking of teaching staff.
Need for student councils
Normally, universities are free from political influence. However, student politics is still prevalent in some parts of the world, including Nepal. This was the practice that developed mainly during the colonial era. Academic institutes were the ideal platforms for igniting the flame of revolution. Student wings of political parties were established in Indian universities to oppose the atrocities of the British regime.
This concept also inspired Nepali students, who grouped together to protest against the autocratic Rana regime, the Jayatu Sanskritam Movement of 1947 being a prominent example. Later, student wings of various political parties were formed during the Panchayat regime, which played an important role in the reinstatement of multiparty democracy in 1990. In fact, the current batch of the leadership of main political parties is mainly the product of student politics. They had a mission of establishing democracy, which has been accomplished by now. This is the right time that student politics should be detached from the universities. In place of that, student councils, alien from party politics, that would advocate the legitimate demands of the students should be introduced in all universities, colleges and schools.
After the rapid development of information technology, universities should include technical subjects such as telemedicine, e-journalism, contemporary didactic, etc., in their curriculum. A more practical approach should be introduced instead of existing theoretical courses. The present syllabus should also be remodelled according to contemporary technological demands and the teaching method should be upgraded as per modern global trends. This approach will bring our universities into the league of leading global universities.
The new government has been formed, and an education activist has been selected to lead the Ministry of Education. The main responsibility of the education minister should be to reform the existing academic practice, including university-level education, by introducing contemporary teaching concepts. In this endeavour, the above-mentioned points will reference the concerned authorities.
On a personal note, the experience and suggestions of Nepali citizens working in leading universities abroad will also be useful. In my experience, many international universities are interested in cooperating with Nepali counterparts and our universities should utilise such opportunities. In this perspective, a partnership contract was signed between Martin Luther University (MLU), Germany and Kathmandu University (KU) in 2017. A delegation of KU visited MLU in 2019 to identify possible fields of collaboration. However, the process has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Similar collaborations and knowledge-exchange initiatives could also be started with other universities. Hence, the concerned authorities should focus on this direction. The reformation of the education system, modernisation of universities and international collaborations will upgrade the level of our universities, producing a new generation of competent and competitive manpower.