The pretence of higher educationThe government can’t stop kids of sociocultural elites from going to American or European universities.
Some time ago, students graduating from a secondary school in Bhaktapur wrote farewell notes on the back of each other’s shirts. Written in Nepali, the content of such messages was poignant and evocative of desperation.
In a widely circulated photograph, one student had the legend scribbled on the back of his attire, “May your journey to Korea be successful”. Another scribble was somewhat more wishful, “We shall meet in Japan”. Prospective migrants consider Japan and South Korea to be more desirable destinations.
Anguish was apparent in the third scrawl: “We shall meet in the Gulf”. The region being thus referred is the destination for the 4D category of dirty, difficult, dangerous and despicable jobs that the middle class Nepalis have traditionally looked down upon with disdain. The aspiration of most school graduates in Nepal is an armchair job where an attendant serves tea in glass tumblers at frequent intervals.
Apart from showing the hopelessness of students barely out of their teens, the picture also proves that voting with the feet has become the favoured mode of registering their protest. The rebelliousness that defined the youth of yesteryears seems to have been replaced by a desire to exit the system.
The boys in the reported exchange of adieu scrawls perhaps came from a relatively safer socio-economic background. After all, not every youngster in the country gets a chance to complete secondary school. According to the recently released census figures, the literacy level of four out of eight districts in Madhesh Pradesh is just about 60 percent, which is much lower than the national average of 76.3 percent.
School uniforms these days are usually unisex wears and it’s not uncommon among even middle class children to share the shirts of their elder siblings. The boys aspiring to go to Korea, Japan or even GCC sheikhdoms probably had a reliable space to store their memorabilia. That is not a privilege available to those who live in makeshift shelters of their parents.
For the poor, acquiring one of the worst passports ranked between North Korea and Somalia is expensive and full of hassles. Visa, travel and hefty fees of manpower agencies in search of work entail further costs.
In addition to the indication that Nepal is fast losing its demographic dividend, the second most important meaning of the farewell exchanges between the secondary school graduates is that the planners of university education need to rethink their future strategy.
With per capita GDP hovering around $180 up until the 1980s, socioeconomic stagnancy has been endemic to Nepal for centuries. Farmers remained stuck in the subsistence occupation of growing crops that depended upon the vagaries of monsoon. Most traders dealt with daily necessities and had limited surplus to invest in new ventures. The political elite consisted primarily of the royal family and its cronies that directly or indirectly controlled all financial levers. Access to higher education was the only ladder of limited upward mobility for everyone else.
After the 1970s, campuses of Tribhuvan University (TU) in regional towns had begun to attract the best and brightest of the rural landholders. Since an Indian degree put the student at linguistic, cultural and academic disadvantages, many parents suffered enormous hardships to send their children to the faraway capital city for higher education. Bureaucracy remained the preserve of the Bahun-Chhetri-Newar (BCN) cluster as it does more or less even today. But back then, the rapid expansion of schools in the countryside needed a large number of teachers. A university graduate was almost sure to find placement in the public education system.
The situation changed abruptly when Nepal signed on the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in the mid-1980s, ostensibly to “attain macroeconomic balances and raise GDP growth rate on a sustainable basis” through market-oriented reforms. Schools, hospitals and banks were thrown open to the profit sector.
By the early 1990s, a TU degree had become almost superfluous: The public sector had nothing on offer and the profit sector put a premium on skills rather than on formal qualification. Critics who bemoan the state of higher education after the early 1990s often ignore the possibility that politicisation may have been a consequence rather than the cause of deterioration in the academic standards.
The classical view holds that the purpose of higher education is the cultivation of the mind that “strengthen, refine, and enrich the intellectual powers” of a person. Such a person is of little use for the market that puts a premium upon manipulative marketeers and mindless consumers. University enrolment became merely a device to wait and hustle for better opportunities.
Historically, many institutions of higher learning began as training centres for the Buddhist monks, the Christian clergy, the Muslim maulvis and the Hindu pundits who also taught useful skills such as astronomy, agriculture, healthcare, book-keeping and human psychology in addition to the usual scriptures and classics. Other than the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), medicine, and management streams, the utilitarian value of a TU degree had become almost a liability in terms of opportunity cost by the mid 1990s.
The government planners, unfortunately, decided to do more of the same as they went about creating clones of TU all over the country even as the behemoth of Kirtipur retained its control over its far-flung campuses. Though conceptualised as a flower-bed university for the tutees coming out of some of the frightfully expensive “bonsai schools” that served the progenies of the comfortable class, the Kathmandu University too soon turned into an institution of accreditation rather than concentrate upon becoming a centre of excellence in generating, exchanging, disseminating and storing knowledge.
The breast-beating in Nepali media over 44 billion rupees worth of foreign currency flowing out of the country within seven months of the current fiscal year in the name of higher education seems to have missed the forest for the trees. In the evolving knowledge economy, peripheral countries such as Nepal lack the material and human resource to train and retain, let alone attract, university students.
It needs to be accepted that the pursuit of the pleasure of knowledge through education in humanities and search for a global lifestyle shall continue to be the playfield of the sociocultural elite. The government can’t stop their kids from going to American or European universities. The only way of getting them back to Nepal even for short periods will be to legalise dual passports and invite political controversy!
The majority of “students” going to Australia, Japan and even Canada hope to begin with learning, start earning and then remain gainfully employed in the host country. Their remittance appears low because most of it is channelled through informal networks.
Since a degree in a remittance-dependent country is largely an adornment, perhaps the government can hand over all institutions of higher learning, barring the central campus of TU and its research institutions at Kirtipur, to provincial governments. They in turn can retrofit—physically and academically—larger ones among them as independent universities.
Perhaps the proposition of small universities training motivated students to synthesise learning from life, laboratory, library and lectures is an idea whose time has come. It will prepare them for problems that are yet to crystallise with the dawn of the age of Artificial Intelligence. The exodos abroad is unlikely to stop anytime soon.