Option to improve

  • Academic programmes in environmental studies are still reluctant to incorporate elements of humanities
- Amulya Ratna Tuladhar
Option to improve

Aug 4, 2015-

There were two alarming stories in the news recently: enrollment in the country’s largest university declined by nearly 30 percent, while the number of students leaving for studies abroad this year has nearly tripled in five years. Is this evidence of our higher education imploding?

Higher education in Nepal has definitely improved; students today are exposed to more content, better teaching and are more competitive. However, these improvements are too little too late, and the case is especially exemplary in environmental education. Here too, while improvements have been made over the last three decades, the need of the hour—environmental studies that incorporate elements of humanities such as ethics, philosophy, culture, history, and politics—lies unaddressed; environmental education is still stuck in the scientific paradigm.

Current  programmes

One variety of environmental programme on offer in Nepal comprises of general academic courses like the Masters and Bachelors programmes in Environmental Science at Tribhuvan University (TU) and Kathmandu University (KU). The content and approach are science-based; in an attempt to encompass the broad domain of environmental sciences, theoretical coverage has been rendered too thin and superficial. A comparison of Grade IX to XII, S.L.C, CBSE, and A-level environment-related content with content at the Masters level reveals that university programmes are rapidly falling behind, aggravated by easy access to resources online. In addition to institutional lethargy and resource poverty, skill-oriented tools—Geographic Information System and statistical research techniques, for example—are lagging with respect to market needs. Only recently have some of these skills been acknowledged as full-time, full-subject course credits. An additional problem for graduates in the field is the absence of a governmental career track; the institutional way was opened only a year back with the Public Service Commission call for environmental science graduates for environmental officers. Career opportunities are thus diffuse, mostly in NGO, INGOs in non-environmental, entrepreunial sectors.

Then we have applied environmental technology programmes, generally associated with sectoral ministries. These lack theoretical breadth and depth, rather more invested in urgent applied skills—at least in intent—and are high on the national agenda, thereby attracting donor support. For instance, several million dollars in international grants and loans were corralled to the Institute of Forestry, under TU, beginning in the 80s, to boost Nepal’s capacity to produce community forestry-oriented officers and rangers.

There are, however, several systemic problems. First, the theoretical range of depth is limited to one type of environmental problem solving, viz forestry. Any forester will tell you the job is actually 10 percent science and technology and 90 percent social, politics, law and administration. While foresters are steeped in the ecology of soil-plant relations, nursery and forest management, their exposure to social science, economics, political science, development theory, policy and law or environmental ethics is either nil or token. Although foresters are assured at least one government track, forestry cadre opening in the Public Service Commission, the number of graduates joining the government has dwindled from 100 percent before the 1980s to less than 20 percent lately. Those who do get work end up learning about policy, law and administration on the job or from higher studies in forestry abroad.

To fill this gap, interdisciplinary environmental programmes have sprung up in academic homes different from the sciences, such as forestry and agriculture programmes offering agroforestry and engineering schools offering water resources programmes. But these courses are overwhelmingly rooted in the sciences and there is a reluctance to accept social sciences or humanities as co-equals in solving environmental problems: the interdisciplinary broadening is generally superficial.

Some non-science based academic programmes have attempted to address that need. These are little over a decade old, have donor support and introduce new subjects as per market demand. However, they do not have a coherent vision and are often dependent on the efficiency of the dean or programme coordinator, apt to break down with change of leadership, funding support or partnership with potential employers since they are not recognised as minimum professional degrees for government ministries. Graduates are thus destined for the nongovernmental environmental job market where they face stiff competition from excess environmental science and technology graduates as well candidates with overseas training or more experience.

An ideal proposal

The ideal programme should comprise a coherent package of all disciplines relevant to solving environmental problems. As such, it should be housed in a central campus with access to faculty in the sciences, technology, and social sciences and humanities. The programme should have a four-year Bachelor programme and a two-year Masters and three-year PhD programme. The Bachelor programme should offer compulsory courses with 1/3 weightage in sciences, technology and humanities with the option to major in a particular stream in the fourth year. It should introduce students to general concepts, terms, tools, issues necessary, providing for a broad range of choices in an environmental career. The Master’s programme, meanwhile, should be designed to produce specialists. This may be divided into a first year of synthetic courses that require seminar mode of teaching where students do their own research, participate in vertical and lateral learning, make presentations, prepare proposals and formulate conclusions. The second year should have at least one semester of internship and another of thesis study with the option of delving in-depth into select readings on specific topics.

To deliver such a programme, one needs not only a range of human resources in a full-fledged mega campus but also other institutional delivery vehicles. TU administration is too big and unwieldy to deliver fast changing, quality programmes. When I was the Coordinator for the Community Forestry curriculum at the Forestry college, TU took over three years to approve a new course. Contrast this with KU where professors are given the liberty to upgrade courses each semester and have total control over grading. Even the course structure is open to modification every two to three years.

Importantly, the programme needs access to quality teachers and students. If quality teachers are hired with attractive pay and benefits as well as creative freedom, this will enable recruitment of top quality students even with high fees and stiff selections for the training to solve real problems.

Tuladhar is a professor of environmental sciences

Published: 05-08-2015 08:31

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