Institutional failure

  • Except for rare exceptions, universities in Nepal have largely failed to become vibrant institutions of higher education
- Pratyoush Onta, DEVENDRA UPRETY

Nov 20, 2014-

It is often repeated that although several universities were opened during the last 25 years, more than 85 percent of students in Nepal’s higher education continue to be enrolled in the country’s oldest university, Tribhuvan University (TU, founded in 1959). Why is this so? A simple answer to this question is this: the other universities, apart from Kathmandu University, have largely failed to grow as independent and vibrant higher education entities. How can we establish this argument?  

Growth through affiliation

One common characteristic of all the new universities is that they have failed to innovate at the modular level and have largely replicated TU’s affiliation model of operation. This is very obvious in the way in which Kathmandu University (KU, 1991), Purbanchal University (PU, 1994), Pokhara University (1997), and Lumbini Buddhist University (2004) have grown since their founding. The data given in the accompanying table, extracted from Education Management Information System: Report on Higher Education 2012/13 (2069/70) Nepal, published by the University Grants Commission (UGC), shows that in the new universities, the size of the affiliated institutions—in terms of the number of affiliated colleges and their enrolled students—is overwhelmingly larger than their own constituent colleges. The worst case is exemplified by PU, which has only three constituent campuses with a mere total of 854 students whereas it has given affiliation to 126 other colleges with about 25,000 students. Even for KU, the number of students enrolled in its 15 affiliated campuses is about twice as high as for its six

constituent campuses.

This data is a damning indictment of the lack of imagination when it comes to the subject of building universities in post-Panchayat Nepal. Let’s put aside for the moment the not-for-profit private initiative behind KU, along with the four health-related academies which have university-like status. If only the six new state-supported and publicly-funded universities established after 1990 are taken into consideration (PU, Pokhara, Lumbini and the three universities founded in 2010, namely, Agriculture and Forestry University, Mid-Western University and Far-Western University), we would have to say that post-Panchayat political formations and their counterparts in civil society have utterly failed in producing new templates (other than the affiliating one) for public universities in Nepal. One would have thought that 25 years is a long enough time to experiment with a few models of public university execution. For example, we could have had small self-contained universities with a student body of 3,000 each that do not provide affiliation to other colleges. Equally, we could have had similar but relatively large self-contained universities with more than 10,000 students each. However, we have not seen such institutional experiments in public-university operation during this period.

Missing investment

Our imagination with respect to the universities has also failed when it comes to the issue of founding investments. What kinds of investments are needed to create new universities and their core infrastructure to realise their teaching and research functions? What are the capital investment needs of universities with, say, a set of basic programs in social and natural sciences? What is the investment sequencing needed to meet milestones that are compatible with the university’s projected growth trajectory? What are the possibilities of founding public universities from the public, not-for-profit private, and community spheres (or fix of them)? We are sure that paper plans highlighting some aspects of such investment ideas do exist but we are not aware of any discussions that look at actual executions (investment successes or failures) in relation to those plans.  

Initial investments in new universities have been grossly inadequate. Take for instance the case of Lumbini Buddhist University, which has received only about Rs 6 crore for infrastructure development since its founding a decade ago. During the fiscal year 2012-13, the Mid-Western University received Rs 6.5 crore from the UGC, out of which four crores was a ‘development’ fund meant mainly for infrastructure construction. At a time when small residential buildings are beginning to cost upwards of Rs 1 crore  per unit, Rs 4-6 crores do not buy you even a single decent building for university teaching, faculty offices, or a library. One official we spoke to said that in the three fiscal years ending with 2013-14, the Mid-Western University had received a total of about Rs 20 crore  from the government. Compare this with a 2008 assessment done in India, which said that to establish a national-level university in that country, at least NRs 1,920 crore would have to be invested during the first five years. In the case of the Mid-Western University, the total allocation in the first five years will not be even two percent of the figure discussed in India.

The lack of investment is also highlighted in the way in which three new universities created in 2010, with promised parts of TU and its affiliated colleges, have hardly become functional until now. The property transfer from TU to these new publicly-funded universities has been mired in inadequate laws, reflecting once again that in the hurry to unbundle TU, proper thought was not given to the initial investments needs of these new universities.

Weak permanent faculties  

Because the number of core constituent colleges of the six new publicly funded universities is relatively small, it follows that the total permanent faculty strength of each of them is small as well. Here again, Purbanchal University’s case is instructive. As a university that is now almost 20 years old and has approved more than 75 different programs of higher education, it has only 61 permanent faculty members of its own. What is even more startling is that the total permanent faculty strength of these six public universities barely surpasses the faculty strength of a large constituent campus of TU such as Tri-Chandra College.

When each of these new universities was being set up, there was hardly any discussion about how their faculty would be recruited and how their various disciplinary programs would be built. If a new university was going to be offering BA and MA programmes in sociology, how many faculty members would be recruited to teach courses in that discipline? At what professorial levels would these faculty members be hired and how would their teaching and research interests be balanced to maintain a sufficient level of intellectual diversity in the department? Would the faculty thus recruited be able to teach courses designed by themselves or be forced to teach according to syllabi made by moonlighting academics from other institutions who were informally sub-contracted to come up with such syllabi? Answers to these questions are vital to the everyday life of the universities, namely, collegiality amongst the faculty, their autonomy with respect to teaching and research, their quality of teaching, and the enabling of a learning environment for students. The nature of the faculty recruitment also has direct implications on the faculty staff’s job security, their career trajectory and the like. Our tragedy is that we have not even asked these questions audibly enough in public during the past 25 years.  

This is a real tragedy with many consequences that will haunt us for a long time.

- Onta and Uprety are researchers at Martin Chautari

Published: 21-11-2014 11:08

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