More is not betterRather than building more universities, the goal should be to ensure they offer what today’s students need.
A job well started is a job half done. This is particularly true in the case of research. Good research should be the starting point of any long-term project. Yet ours is not a society that puts much value on research, and so we routinely start big schemes on an ad hoc basis, only to later regret the lamentable outcome. To take just one example, federal and provincial governments seem to be competing to set up new universities. Yes, the country desperately needs more centres of higher education, but only of the right kind. This is why a task force led by National Planning Commission member Pushpa Raman Wagle has recommended that the government first pass a law to set up a mechanism that would offer suggestions on higher education.
The task force also pointed out in a report how the various universities and deemed universities established by the provinces neither have the resources nor the monitoring mechanisms needed to ensure quality education. Regrettably, most of the new universities seem to be carbon copies of Tribhuvan University (TU), the country’s oldest and biggest. They have similar institutional setups and teach the same subjects, often with the same set of teachers. No wonder they have failed to attract students whose needs were not being met by TU.
As a result, even as TU constituent campuses and central departments are short of students, tens of thousands of Nepali students are leaving the country every year in search of quality higher education. At least 112,000 Nepali students obtained “no objection” letters to study abroad in the last fiscal year alone. In the process, billions of rupees is also leaving the country. In fiscal 2020-21 when the country was in the grip of a pandemic, Nepalis spent Rs24 billion on foreign education, a figure which shot up to Rs67.70 billion a year later.
With their exposure to the outside world, an increasing number of Nepali parents have become concerned about the quality of higher education on offer in Nepal. Many of them have, rightly, concluded that the level of education their children will get might not be good enough to meet the demands of the 21st-century job market. In the case of TU, most of its courses impart good theoretical knowledge, but don’t teach students how to put that knowledge into practice. Exam results take up to a year to come out. The university itself has been hollowed out by years of political meddling.
This is why the country most certainly does not need more TU replicas. The emphasis should be on establishing regional centres of excellence in focused areas—like the decentralised AIIMS (medicine) and IITs (engineering) in India—but only after rigorous research on the kind of manpower and resources they need to excel. These bodies should be autonomous and their line of funding clear. But this is not something that can, or should, happen overnight. It’s a long-term process of continuously calibrating the balance between the country’s manpower needs and the aspirations of today’s youth.