higher education: Students stare at bleak future due to govt apathy

- Weena Pun, Kathmandu
higher education: Students stare at bleak future due to govt apathy

May 14, 2014-

In the last two weeks of April, Subash Thapa (name changed) sat for his third-year Bachelors in Business Studies exams. He went to a campus affiliated to Tribhuvan University (TU), the name of which he does not want to disclose. Neither does he want to reveal the location of his exam centre, but says that the floors of the centre including the toilets were littered with cheat sheets during exams. He himself crammed his pockets with pages from guide books, and if he failed to take a look at them, he would talk to his desk-mates and copy their answers.

The final paper was on project management, for which he had to submit a long report on an economic project. He followed his college friends to a stationery store near the campus, bought two copies of a project report for Rs 700 each and submitted them to the college administration under his name. He will now have to wait a year for the results.

“There is no faith in the system. Whether we work hard or not, the outcome is unpredictable,” says Thapa, reflecting on the nation-wide phenomenon of cheating on exams. “That’s because no one takes higher education seriously: not us, not the teachers, not the administrators and not the student union leaders. But ultimately it is students who lose the most.” The country does recognise the importance of higher education. It established TU in 1959, formulated a comprehensive National Education System Plan (NESP) in 1971, developed the first Higher Education Project in 1997 and updated it with the second in 2007.

But, as Thapa said, the government has failed to take university education seriously, its apathy reflected in inadequate budget allocation and in lack of a clear policy on higher education. The result is a dismal pass rate at around 35 percent and a bleak future for the students and the country.

The latest data provided by the University Grants Commission show that in the years between 2005 and 2010, enrolment in higher education increased by 2.4 percent, with an annual growth rate of 18.6 percent. In 2005, the number of students enrolled was 173,546. In 2010, it soared to 407,934. Throughout the period, the oldest varsity has the largest share of student population, hovering at 86-88 percent.

In the same period, the government budget for higher education has remained frozen at around 1.4 percent of national budget and at 8.3 of the education budget.

“A poor country like Nepal cannot afford to provide free higher education to all, but the stagnant budget does not complement the rising number of students and institutions in higher education. Financial aid is definitely inadequate,” says Kedar Bhakta Mathema, former vice-chancellor at TU.

Due to a lack of adequate funding to subsidise higher education, experts propose that the government formulate a clearer policy on higher education and ask universities to adopt the cost recovery model. Currently, by receiving more than 80 percent of the government grant annually, TU has become the de facto state university, but it has never been declared thus officially.

“Right now, whatever is left of the government budget goes to a few other universities such as Nepal Sanskrit and Purbanchal, and the rest get nothing. The government should just say that TU is the state university and will get state subsidy, and that the rest will have to either impose fees on students or find other methods of recovering costs,” says Mana Prasad Wagle, professor at Kathmandu University. The government is also unclear on its share of the cost—the percentage of the expenditure it is willing to shoulder. For instance, 90 percent of TU’s budget is spent on meeting its operational costs. Should the government bear all of it, or a part of it? How big should that portion be? Five percent, 20 percent, or 50 percent?

Even if TU is declared the state university and government figures out its share of the expenditure, Mathema thinks that TU has to be “cost-conscious” as well. “If operational costs are very high, it has to trim down its bureaucracy and generate revenues from its assets such as real estate and human resource.”

The underlying cause for poor budget allocation and its management is the government’s position on higher education. From the formulation of NESP to the Second Higher Education Project, the main objective of higher education has been to produce the required high-level manpower. “It has never been for the sake of knowledge or to establish a knowledge-driven economy,” says Wagle.

“We talk of think tanks and visionary future leaders but forget universities are the breeding grounds for both,” adds Mathema.

Although the government is currently working on a policy on higher education, Assistant spokesperson for the Ministry of Education Rojnath Pandey reminds that the nation’s priority still lies in basic education.

“Free basic education is a constitutional right and will always take priority over higher education.”

from the public purse

Published: 15-05-2014 09:43

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