A case of bad apples

  • Continuing high-level corruption at universities threatens to deprive Nepali students of a decent education
A case of bad apples

Nov 17, 2014-

Recently, top officials from various universities have been dragged to court one after another for their alleged involvement in corruption. High-level officials from Purbanchal University, Mid-Western University, and Pokhara University have all been booked on graft accusations this year alone.

University crises

A charge-sheet prepared by the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) shows that Maheshwor Man Shrestha, vice-chancellor (VC) of Purbanchal University, along with other officials, embezzled Rs 42.8 million while providing affiliations to private campuses, constructing buildings, and managing funds allocated for the university. The state of affairs at Mid-Western University is even worse. Established in 2009 in the relatively less literate Mid-Western region, the University has been plunged into a crisis after 16 senior officials, including VC Padma Lal Devkota, were relieved of their responsibilities on charges of embezzling Rs 18.9 million.

In the most recent case, 24 senior officials from Pokhara University, including VC Khagendra Bhattarai, were removed from their respective positions after the CIAA filed a corruption case against them. The anti-graft body has charged them with pocketing Rs 220 million before the expiry of their terms. The funds, according to investigators, were embezzled while constructing buildings, appointing staffers, providing affiliations, and purchasing goods for the university.

Additionally, the VCs, rectors, and registrars of Tribhuvan University (TU) and Mahendra Sanskrit University have also come under the CIAA scanner. Some two trucks of documents were seized from TU, the country’s oldest and largest university, on suspicion of massive irregularities. Hira Bahadur Maharjan, TU VC, is already being investigated by the CIAA for accumulating disproportionate property. The CIAA’s raid on 13 central TU departments is further indicative of massive corruption. Going through the CIAA’s preliminary investigation, chances are high that senior officials from these two universities will be booked too.

The corruption saga does not end here. Over 600 paper projects concerning schools in the Tarai region have been found to be running with the primary intent of pocketing state coffers. At least Rs 1 billion from the state treasury is being misused. Currently, the CIAA is cracking down on fake schools and local politicians; management committees and teachers involved in fraud are being booked daily.

The aforementioned corruption cases raise a serious question about the quality of education in Nepal and its future course. Why have our academic institutions turned into havens for corruption?

Power play

Corruption in higher education institutes primarily seems to be the result of interplay between public authorities, political parties, and the private sector. Political parties, more often than not, distribute major positions in academic institutions among themselves as per their strength. Corruption-accused Purbanchal University VC Shrestha and VC Devkota of Mid-Western University were politically appointed under the nomination quota. Likewise, Bhattarai of Pokhara University was appointed by the Nepali Congress and TU’s VC Maharjan by the CPN-UML.  

Corruption, which was earlier limited to a handful of elites, was seemingly decentralised after the restoration of democracy in 1990. Now, it seems to have been legalised, as political parties have become an integral part of it and frequently excuse those accused of corruption to serve their own petty interests.

Over a dozen regulatory bodies formed to control corruption remain largely helpless as political parties continue to influence them and use the head honchos of various universities to serve vested interests. Since there is no mechanism to monitor the top officials appointed by political parties, they remain faithful to their political masters, instead of serving the nation, the university, and their students.  

Universally, universities are supposed to be institutions of academic rigour that produce academicians and experts. But in Nepal’s case, the opposite seems to be true. Politicians divide plum posts—deans, campus chiefs, senate members—among themselves and appoint people regardless of their merit and contribution to the education sector. Instead of being accountable to their respective academic institutions, these appointees believe they have nothing to fear, even if their wrongdoings are exposed, as they are under political protection.

While it may not be possible to have fully independent officials, their meritocracy should have been examined. VCs are not appointed from among qualified persons, but from among those who offer more benefits to senior political leaders. That’s why even leaders belonging to the same party quarrel among themselves while making such appointments.

A triangular nexus

This hidden nexus among public authorities, political parties, and the private sector is eroding the reputation of academic institutions. Except for Kedar Bhakta Mathema, BC Malla, and to some extent Kamal Krishna Joshi, all TU VCs appointed in recent times have largely failed to deliver, due to their inclination towards political bosses. Brokers who want to benefit by appointing a candidate to such key positions also invest huge amounts while seeking favours. Such monetary deals have further encouraged incompetent candidates to lobby for appointments as wealthy businessmen are ready to invest and politicians easily endorse them once offered a handsome proposal.

The nexus of these three forces is so powerful that they are able to greatly influence the education policy. The strong presence of a great number of education entrepreneurs in the Constituent Assembly illustrates just how powerful this group is. Education entrepreneurs have turned into lawmakers under the nomination and proportional representation quota by offering good money to political parties. The parties need funds to conduct their affairs and brokers have the resources. So they can easily influence politicians and government officials. This has ultimately invited serious trouble in academic institutions, ie, continuous unrest after juniors are appointed to key positions bypassing competent people.

It may be difficult to find truly independent people in highly politicised South Asian countries like Nepal, but things can change if such bad practices are checked. Even after taking action against these graft-accused officials, fresh tensions have surfaced in the universities regarding who should take leadership. An independent mechanism to select suitable candidates and hold them accountable could be one way to end existing malpractices. Otherwise, the image of Nepali academic institutions will further erode, forcing the wealthy to go aboard for better education and depriving the poorer—the much larger segment of the population—from getting a decent education at all.

Sharma is with the political desk at the Post

Published: 18-11-2014 09:47

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