Behind the higher education crisisNepal has failed to set its national development objectives in the absence of a higher education policy.
Nepal's higher education institutions are in a dire crisis, particularly those offering undergraduate and graduate degree programmes. The reasons cited are varied: The low pass percentage in the Grade 12 examinations that serve as the main supply base of students for universities; the exodus of almost half the Grade 12 graduates to foreign universities; the indiscriminate opening of new universities and degree-awarding institutions without defined objectives and due diligence of their viability, resulting in blatant duplication of courses in generic subjects; inferior quality of educational output; and non-adherence to a strict academic calendar, to name a few.
But these are just peripheral issues, and the causes lie elsewhere. At the core of the problem are some overarching issues in Nepal’s education system that warrant a conclusive resolution.
At the outset, Nepal is operating in the dark without a higher education policy closely linked to its national development objectives. The country’s university system is expected to produce human resources to meet the existing and projected skill gaps in diverse sectors of the economy. However, the government has failed to project the requirement of skilled manpower and thereby direct the higher education sector to produce it. This also explains the vicious cycle of Nepal's suboptimal development outcomes.
Second, the national discourse on whether higher education should be free or highly subsidised remains unsettled. If the philosophy is to provide free universal (higher) education, the same inevitably needs to be reflected in all subsequent allocations in the national budget; but this hasn’t been the case. The average allocation of only 5-7 percent of the national budget for education can only produce literates without the skill sets required by the market. State-funded higher education institutions have no performance pressure, producing graduates without the knowledge and skills that match their degrees. Of course, historically, underinvestment has its perils in the sector.
Third, the political class, not least the legislature that is undoubtedly responsible for the timely enactment and enforcement of laws, seems largely oblivious to the burning issues in the country's higher education. The major political parties have failed to rein in their university student and teacher unions that are proving to be the most insurmountable impediment to the system. On the one hand, the formulation of laws related to higher education has been in limbo for years; and on the other, the announcement of new universities with pure political interests of influential political figures, without any study of their objective, need or sustainability, continues unabated.
As a result, the number of the existing and proposed universities at the federal and provincial levels and health science educational institutions authorised to award degrees like the universities has crossed the two-and-a-half dozen mark. This has sparked a debate on whether there is any justification for having so many universities in a country with a population of 29 million and a million youths of college-going age.
Fourth, and the most worrisome, is the general mindset of the subsequent regimes vis-à-vis academic freedom. Nepal's university education system, with a history of just 65 years, is highly conventional, engendering deep distrust in academics. In establishing the rationale of anonymous and double-blind examination, the system has always squarely put the integrity of the professors and teachers under a question mark. Nepal has failed to learn that the most successful higher education institutions in the world have only thrived because academic autonomy is unequivocally vested in individual professors. Even in Nepal, the success of Kathmandu University is rooted in this principle of academic freedom.
But at the national level, the state apparatus is more determined to seize this freedom by introducing more regulatory whips than required. Let alone that of professors, the freedom of universities and institutions to select and admit students is curtailed by several regulatory commissions and councils, like in the case of medical education, and several new regulators are in the offing, including in engineering. The net outcome is that the country's higher education is on the brink of collapse, and students who have even a marginal potential are leaving the country, perhaps never to return.
The country is now engrossed in a debate about how many universities we actually need. This question may have some relevance only when seen from the perspective of the demand-supply dynamics of a skilled population. If new higher education institutions–or the existing ones, for that matter–specialise in a unique selling proposition instead of competing to duplicate generic disciplines, each one of them may have its niche market. Besides, if a national education policy devised to export high-quality educational services and competent institutional setups are implemented accordingly, the number of institutions would perhaps not be an issue.
For example, the United Kingdom has about 170 universities for a population of 67 million (approximately 400,000 people per university). There are 43 universities and hundreds of degree-awarding institutions in Australia for a population of 25 million (about 600,000 people per university, excluding many other private degree-awarding institutions). The United States has over 6,000 universities and degree-granting institutions for a population of 330 million, accounting for a negligible average per institution. Therefore, the debate on the number of intuitions is relative to the context and the overall national objectives of higher education.
The policymakers in all these countries were very clear while investing to set up educational institutions. In addition to developing the required human resource for the country, they wanted to massively export educational services or attract talent from all over the world who ultimately would become part of their knowledge bank.
In Nepal’s case, even if we consider 30 degree-awarding fully functional higher education institutions, the population per institution would average about a million, which is quite below the global average. Where we are miserably failing is in setting our national objectives in higher education and implementing them as per the objective—whether to develop the human resource needed for national development and/or to export it.
The country's academia and intelligentsia, sadly, have failed to convincingly communicate the challenges and even the low-hanging prospects of Nepal's higher education to the political masters of this country to instil much-needed optimism in the sector. Until the core issues are resolutely tackled, polemics over peripherals are always destined to be spurious.