We are well aware that numerous media pages are filled with gloomy news that Nepali higher education institutions are depleted of students, especially those universities that are running humanities and social science programmes. One might retort that the student number is increasing in totality but it seems to decrease in an individual college because the number of colleges is growing rapidly with at least one college in each (rural) municipality. Another pretext might be that the colleges that provide quality education are attracting many more students than those that are not. But none of these claims are true.
The student number has indeed been proportionately decreasing in many colleges for several decades. This is a bitter reality that many of us realise but cannot alter the situation with any effort. It is thus too late to retrospect why we cannot do what is expected of us. There is no reason to deny that there are primarily three things that have caused the decline in the number of students and the degeneration of the quality of education. Those things are the intervention of partisan politics, deterrence to meritorious graduates, and the absence of employment opportunities in the country.
Many people assume that the low quality of education in Nepali universities is due to politics in the university. We cannot disprove this assumption by any evidence. Nor can we claim that this assumption is invalid. But we need to understand that no higher education can be free of politics in the true sense. What do we say, for instance, about the promotion of federal democratic culture as one of the fundamental goals of university education? The problem is not politics as such, but its malpractice is the chief reason for educational degeneration. Political malpractice means power sharing of different political groups in university affairs.
Almost everybody in the country admits that our universities have been the playground of partisan politics. There is the intervention of partisan politics in such spheres as appointment of top university leaders, general administration, and selection of teachers based on party politics, nepotism, and external influence. The current repeated delay in appointing the Vice Chancellor of Tribhuvan University is self-evident to prove that the Chancellorship of a political leader is inappropriate because a political being cannot do politically neutral practice. With due respect to the Prime Minister in state affairs, we need to explicitly say that this is not the Prime Minister’s business to search for and appoint the Vice-Chancellor.
Our political system must make legal provisions that the University apex leader cannot be any other person than a proven academician. Further, that academician should be developed through academic practices for several years, but not the involvement in political activities or trade unions of any kind. Despite allegations that the university leaders are purely academicians, they are not what they ought to be, ironically though the aspirants of Tribhuvan University Vice-Chancellorship are declaring themselves to be non-partisan in a situation of partisan political practice. Can anyone believe in their words while the whole university structure is infected with partisan politics?
Most surprisingly, many of them have not a track record of non-partisan attitudes and behaviour in the past. It is also quite sure that no one is ready to sacrifice their coveted post for the sake of purely academic practices even as partisan political activities repeatedly intervene the university affairs. The truly honest practice would be they will resign from the position of Vice-Chancellorship if any partisan political intervention occurs in the course of their academic practices.
As part of political malpractice, the non-academic practices of multiple associations of teachers, employees, and students have become hindrances to quality education which is deterring Nepali students from continuing their studies in their home country. It is causing the university structure to decay limb by limb. Consequently, the quality of university education is declining gradually despite denials of politically appointed university leaders. Therefore, unless we establish a purely academic system of appointment of university leaders, the same will be repeated time and again resulting in the utter decay of the academic environment for quality education in higher education institutions.
Deterrence to merit
However, politics is not the chief reason alone for the degeneration of university education. As a byproduct of political malpractice, meritorious graduates are discouraged from entering the university services. The University Service Commission has not been an entirely independent entity that can separate wheat and chaff in the filtering process of appropriate candidates for academic jobs. We have seen in the past that this entity has been dysfunctional either by the non-academic pressure of external forces or by the indolence of the Commission leaders. We have seen that in many cases the genuinely meritorious candidates have failed in the mechanically devised stereotypical examination system whereas the mediocre ones have passed.
Meritorious candidates are thus humiliated by non-professional officials. Paradoxically, meritorious graduates are attracted by foreign universities where they have proven academic excellence in their services. More than anything else, Nepali students are fleeing to foreign countries not merely for quality education but also for job opportunities. Many graduates grumble that they are reluctant to study in Nepali universities because they will not be able to get employment in the job market. This economic reason is probably stronger than the political reason for opting for foreign universities.
In the previous write-up published in this daily, this scribe had advocated for connecting universities with industries, which may have been unnoticed by the responsible officeholders. This is not to claim that those ideas were the only remedies, but what is saddening is that the leaders have no time to bother about what any best academicians say about the university education, let alone an average intellectual like this scribe. It is quite surprising who advises the top political leaders to do what ought not to be done and what inspires them to do something that is not worth doing. Unless we create an environment for employment opportunities within the country, we cannot improve university education.
(The author is the chairman of Molung Foundation. email@example.com)