Merit goes out the windowIt is unfortunate that political sharing in universities persists.
Political sharing in universities is not new. Continuing this trend, the Oli-led administration is set to appoint top officials in various universities on the basis of political sharing despite calls by various sections of society to stop the practice. Universities are a matter of public interest, and it is disheartening to see them being used as pawns in the game of power politics.
In May, a government task force had recommended that officials in universities be appointed on the basis of merit after a proper evaluation of different leadership qualities. It was a welcome move as it would have marked a departure from the long-standing practice of political appointments. But showing utter disregard for the recommendations, the ruling Nepal Communist Party is preparing to appoint a majority of officials in the universities including Tribhuvan University, the oldest and largest university of the country, under its quota. So far, the positions of vice-chancellor, rector and registrar have been divided among the parties, and whichever party is in power gets the majority of portfolios.
How a university functions depends highly on who the vice-chancellor is and who all comprise his team. It is, first and foremost, a place for learning and knowledge production. As long as individuals who lead these institutions do not have the merit and cannot showcase the highest degree of integrity, universities cannot serve their intended purpose. Therefore, the governance and leadership of our institutions of higher education have been troubled for decades. Political sharing of university positions runs the risk of turning the offices of the vice-chancellors and other officeholders into bureaucracies that are more interested in business than in academic advancement—a reality since a long time in our case. When office bearers become political, the entire university gets politicised, allowing students to forget academia and act as party cadres.
What’s more, the government is gearing up to establish more universities in the country. The government in October last year announced Rajarshi Janak University in Dhanusha and Rapti Academy of Health Sciences in Dang. the latest addition is the Madan Bhandari University of Science and Technology. With this, the number of universities will reach 14. But at this stage, a more realistic approach would have been to make the ones that exist functional rather than merely increasing the number of varsities.
Universities established years ago are struggling to find students in required numbers. Lumbini Buddhist University, for example, has 196 students while Nepal Sanskrit University, the country’s second-oldest has 1,471 students in total. Mid-Western University and Far Western University formed eight years ago have 2,211 and 3,035 students currently enrolled in them respectively.
Appointing vice-chancellors and other office-bearers in universities is a good time for the government to prove that it is doing something different, and actually work for the benefit of the larger citizenry. But it is sad to see it forego that opportunity for mere political mileage.