Going privateA decade ago, classrooms at the Ratna Rajya Laxmi Campus in Bhrikutimandap were standing room only. Lecture halls with seating for over a hundred students would be filled to capacity with many more standing in the aisles and at the back. The scene was similar at every public college affiliated with Tribhuvan University, be it Patan Multiple Campus, Tri-Chandra College or the Central Campus at Kirtipur.
A decade ago, classrooms at the Ratna Rajya Laxmi Campus in Bhrikutimandap were standing room only. Lecture halls with seating for over a hundred students would be filled to capacity with many more standing in the aisles and at the back. The scene was similar at every public college affiliated with Tribhuvan University, be it Patan Multiple Campus, Tri-Chandra College or the Central Campus at Kirtipur.
Take a look into any of these college classrooms now and all you’ll see are empty seats. Hundred-seater classrooms are half empty. Enrollment, which was once in the thousands, is now down to a dismal few hundred. Admission records show that these public colleges, which were once known as ‘centres for learning’,are emptying out fast. At the same time, admissions at private colleges have risen significantly.
The student share of these public constituent colleges was 61.3 percent in 2007/08, according to the University Grants Commission, the government body that oversees universities. Now, that number has dropped by more than half to 30 percent. Private colleges, meanwhile, account for 35.6 percent of the student share, up from 21 percent,in the same time period. A total of 196,826 students were enrolled with constituent colleges under different public universities in 2009, which fell to 121,772 last year. Enrolment in private colleges increased to 128,410 from 65,097 in the same time.
“This is very worrying,” says Rameshwor Upadhyay, chairman of the Nepal University Teachers’ Association. “Why are constituent colleges losing their students when private college fees are several times higher?” The fees for non-technical courses are at least five times lower in the public colleges than in private ones. Similarly, private colleges charge three times higher for technical courses. It appears that students and parents are willing to pay higher fees if it ensures a quality education.
Overt politicisation of universities, failure to maintain a strict academic calendar, the degrading quality of education and the lack of committed teachersare among the reasons cited by experts for the fall in the number of students. Every public college has multiple student unions affiliated to the various political parties and their political activities often intrude on academics and the classroom. It is not just the students, even teachers and lecturers are affiliated to one party or the other through their teachers’ unions. Many incoming students and their parents balk at this rampant politicisation.
Tribhuvan University, the country’s oldest varsity, accounts for 86 percent of all enrolments in public schools, while the other 12 public universities make up the remaining 15 percent. Any changes to TUaffects the university education of the entire country. Thus, if changes are to made to Nepal’s higher public educational institutions, then it must begin with the TU.
University officials and teachers must act before it is too late, says Upadhyay. Constituent colleges need to diversify the courses they are offering while also bringing new changes to pedagogy. Furthermore, a lack of infrastructure and a failure to introduce modern technology in the teaching-learning process are also pushing students towards private colleges.
“Universities are more concerned with increasing the number of colleges they are affiliated with,” says education expert Binay Kusiyat. Little attention is paid to ensuring that these colleges are up to par. “The sharp decline of students in public institutions means that education is gradually going into the grip of the private sector,” says Kusiyat. “Education and health, unlike any other sector, should never be handled solely by the private sector.”
Kusiyat further points out that although the same teachers teach at both public and private colleges, they tend to devote more energy at the latter because they have become money minded. Many reputable private colleges in the Valley are operated by those who are permanent associate professors or professors at various public colleges.These professors are often absent from public colleges and focus more on their private practice. They suffer no consequences since they hold permanent positions and enjoy political patronage.
Another important factor that is contributing to the decline of public higher education is the lack of an adequate budget. The education sector receives hardly 10 percent of the national budget,whereas international practiceis to allocate at least 20 percent. Out that of that 10 percent, one tenth goes towards university education. “A majority of the budget goes towards paying salaries to teachers and other staff. Only a miniscule amount goes towards infrastructure, ensuring quality and research,” Kusiyatsays.
There are myriad problems with higher education in the country and it is a combination of all these factors that are pushing students towards private schools. Unless concrete steps are taken to address them, enrolment will continue to fall and our public institutions run the risk of becoming ghost schools. However, it is all the more difficult since there is no one solution. “We cannot expect public education to improve without completely overhauling it,” says Kusiyat.