Academics plan a university of excellence but keeping politics at bay is a challengeUnlike existing universities, the board of trustees will have complete authority over appointment of vice-chancellor and it will not grant affiliations, its promoters say.
There are around a dozen universities in the country.
Half of them—Lumbini Buddhist, Far-Western, Mid-western, Agriculture and Forestry, Nepal Open and Rajarshi Janak—came into operation after the country adopted a new political system following the 2006 movement. At the time of their establishment, each of them promised academic excellence as all the country’s existing universities have largely failed in imparting quality education.
However, they too have failed in their stated missions.
Now a group of academicians and leading members of the civil society have conceptualised a multidisciplinary university that can be a centre of excellence.
“We have shouldered an extremely challenging responsibility by our own choice,” said Dr Arjun Karki, former vice chancellor at the Patan Academy of Health Sciences, who leads the team. “The country desperately needs to improve its higher education. The University of Nepal could set an example for others.”
Conceptualised three years ago, it was on June 15 that the Cabinet formed the Infrastructure Development Preparation Board for setting up the University of Nepal. The proposed university will be established in Gaidakot Municipality, Nawalparasi.
It has an 11-member board and also includes Bipin Adhikari, former dean at the Kathmandu University School of Law, writer and engineer Dovan Rai and Surya Raj Acharya, former visiting faculty member at the Institute of Engineering, among others.
The members of the board have claimed that the University of Nepal will be different from existing ones because it will be totally autonomous.
“The University of Nepal will be autonomous,” Adhikari told the Post. “We are aware that setting up a university for top-quality education is not possible without keeping it away from the shadow of politics.”
Indeed, Nepal’s universities are in the news during appointments of the vice chancellors and other top officials which are made on the basis of political affiliations of the candidates.
All of Nepal’s existing universities operate under their own separate Acts with the prime minister as chancellor and the education minister as pro-chancellor. The vice-chancellor is the executive head of the university.
The prime minister, as the ex-officio chancellor, appoints vice-chancellors based on the recommendations made by the education minister-led search committee.
But, according to Karki, the proposed university will operate under a board of trustees and it will have complete authority for the management of the university including the appointment of its vice-chancellor.
“Other than the formulation of the necessary laws for its establishment and supervision, the government will have no role in its operation,” Adhikari said.
Besides appointing the top university officials, including the vice-chancellor registrar and rector, the government also provides the bulk of their budget for the existing 11 universities.
According to the University Grants Commission, the government gave Rs11.30 billion in total to them in the fiscal year 2019-20, the latest year for which figures are available.
Of them, Tribhuvan University received around Rs750 million while other universities received between Rs82 million and Rs700 million.
Mid Western University received Rs140 million in 2019-20 while, Rajarshi Janak University, which has just started operation, got Rs82 million.
More than 70 percent of these amounts are spent on salaries of the faculties and other staff.
But Adhikari says that they will not ask the government for funds for University of Nepal, although they will accept them if it gives voluntarily. He said an estimated Rs250 million will be needed initially for building infrastructure and other costs.
“We will start by offering courses towards a bachelor’s degree and additional construction will be gradual,” said Adhikari.
Gaidakot Municipality has already provided the land.
“We believe the university will be a pride of the nation,” Chhatra Raj Poudel, mayor of the municipality, told the Post. “We are happy that it is finally materialising.”
The public university will begin with a focus on liberal arts—language study, culture, history, music and fine arts—and although technical programmes will be introduced later, liberal arts education will remain at its core, according to Adhikari.
Unlike existing universities it will not grant affiliation to other colleges.
“It won’t grant affiliations,” said Karki. “Granting affiliations has become a source to make money for different universities at present and this is one of the reasons behind the poor performance of the existing universities.”
Universities generate additional funds from tuition fees from students on their premises and constituent colleges, affiliations they give to private colleges, and examination fees from students at the affiliate colleges.
For example, Tribhuvan University has given affiliation to 1,081 colleges, besides running 61 constituent colleges. Far Western University, in contrast, has one affiliate college in addition to its 15 constituent colleges.
According to the University Grants Commission, Tribhuvan University has 335,543 students enrolled studying its degrees at its constituent colleges and affiliate colleges. Pokhara University with 30,542 students is the second largest university in terms of enrollment. Far Western University has 10,113 students while Mid Western University has 7,353 students.
Although promoting innovation and research-based education was the main goal of the universities established after 2006, all are following the lead set by the country’s oldest university.
After Tribhuvan University, barring Mahendra Sanskrit University, Nepal’s oldest is Kathmandu University, established in 1992 following the overt politicisation among students during the Panchayat days when colleges were centres of anti-establishment activities as political parties were banned.
It too was set up at the initiative of academicians like Suresh Raj Sharma and Bhadra Man Tuladhar among others. Although it still remains the best varsity in the country, of late politicisation and the lack of transparency in financial matters and granting of affiliations have been eroding its image.
Politicisation has also led to activities like faculty members and students shutting down the university in recent times.
Karki is well aware of the difference it makes to a university when academics are the brains behind it.
“Excluding Kathmandu University, no other university in the country was developed by academics,” he said. “Therefore they lacked long-term vision.”
It is not just academics based in Nepal but also those working in renowned universities across the globe who will help not only as members of the faculty but in generating funds, according to Adhikari.
“We have received very warm responses from the Nepali diaspora in different countries,” he said. “We believe we can generate necessary resources and find faculties to run a university of international standard.”
Nepal government, Gandaki Province and Gaidakot Municipality have assured to contribute a portion of funds needed for the construction of the university campus. However, the majority of the funds is expected to come from national and international donors.
Karki said they believe that there would be no problem with funding for the good works and all 11 members of the development board will be working voluntarily while also contributing funds based on their capacity.
But potential pitfalls are not lost on observers.
“There is no point adding one more university if it follows the existing ones in its operation,” Tanka Nath Sharma, a professor at Kathmandu University, told the Post. “I have heard good things about the to-be-established university. However, there are huge challenges to turn it into a centre of excellence with political interference being the major potential problem.”
Karki, the former dean of Patan Academy of Health Sciences, envisions University of Nepal to be a long-term project.
“Good universities aren’t built overnight,” said Karki. “If we build a good foundation, the upcoming generation will take it to new heights.”