Maintaining the sanctity of Nepali universitiesInstead of focusing on nurturing academic practices, including research and innovation, the government seems to be interested merely in centralising power and curbing academic freedom.
In the latest round of incidents confirming the desire of Prime Minister Oli to exercise more control over universities, the government has proposed a bill to amend the university acts. The draft bill has a provision that authorises the prime minister to sack key university officials—VCs, rectors and registrars with as long as one-fourth of the members of the senate agreeing. Expressing their strong dissatisfaction over this arrangement, former vice-chancellors of different universities have publicly condemned this act of overt politicisation in our already ailing universities.
Negating the recommendations of various task forces that demanded that the chancellor of the university should be the president or an academic, the endorsement of the bill in the existing form will severely stifle the academic freedom that our universities already lack. Instead of focusing on nurturing academic practices, including research and innovation, the government seems to be interested merely in centralising power and curbing academic freedom. This is regrettable.
Of late, universities in Nepal have been embroiled in various controversies. Ranging from academic plagiarism to sexual harassment meted out against students by renowned university professors, the institutions of higher learning and research have come under a great deal of criticism. Worse, the vandalising of universities by student unions that oftentimes put up unnecessary demands have become commonplace.
What’s more, the ill-intention in the publication of the results of the TU service commission has only added to the already tarnished image of the university. The action came under media scrutiny and rightly invited the attention of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority. However, while the government is yet to take any serious initiatives to curb such wrongdoing, it is hell-bent on exerting authoritarian control—bypassing the regional and international principles of universities as autonomous entities. For instance, the government has turned a deaf ear to a probe-committee report led by a former justice demanding action against 43 individuals including top TU officials over the National Medical College affiliation row.
Needless to say, universities here at home have become the centre for recruiting political cadres, and this practice has continued for a long time now. Teaching and learning have virtually become crippled and the quality of education has been severely compromised. What is ironic is that the oldest university of the country, TU, has been ranked among the top 1000 universities of the world for 2019 by Times Higher Education, a London-based weekly magazine. The ranking was conferred primarily acknowledging the role of TU in the expansion of university education in Nepal. But the score accorded by the magazine in areas of research and academics is pretty low compared to the score on access. Restructuring the university and upgrading its courses have remained long overdue.
Universities have also in a way turned into certificate distribution centres. This is done at the cost of compromising on the culture of research and innovation—the backbone of higher education. Despite our universities being in a sorry state, the concerned authorities are yet to provide them with the attention this warrants. In simple terms, they have no vision regarding what it takes to create functional, autonomous universities. Some pertinent questions that have not been adequately contemplated on are: What sort of graduates do we need to produce that will prove to be instrumental for the national and global workforce? What is the model of university education that is compatible with our ground realities? How can our education be made more entrepreneurial? The questions can go on.
Addressing these issues requires an independent and robust university administration. Unless our universities are free from political control, the contributions of universities in advancing education and research will remain almost negligible. Perhaps a significant move in this direction would be the appointment of a renowned team of academics with national and international repute as university officials who can really take the universities to greater heights. No less significant will be channelising public funds for promoting research and critical inquiry on issues of national priorities. Reviving the existing research centres by deputing a team of vibrant researchers has thus become more important than ever.
Needless to say, it is high time the government of Nepal revisit its policy on bringing the university leadership under the jurisdiction of the PM. With adequate consultation among multiple stakeholders of university education, the government needs to formulate an accommodative bill that reflects the national aspirations of education. Locating the university education policy within the larger structure of the government vision of national prosperity will serve better. Although continuous supervision and monitoring of university activities are vital, this should not come at the cost of constraining the power of the universities to function freely.
The author is a member of the Social Science Faculty at NIMS College.