Saturday, 24 July, 2021

Semester System In Crisis

Kushal Pokharel

The introduction of the semester system in higher education landscape of Nepal was propagated as a panacea for existing maladies in university education. Replacing the yearly system, the proponents of the semester system projected it as a ground breaking achievement towards promoting the quality of education in the country.
Indeed, there are some defining characteristics of this system which separates it from the annual education system. First, semester system involves the concept of credit hour and grading system in teaching. It demands students who attend class regularly and engage in everyday class interaction. There is a mandatory provision of minimum attendance to be eligible for appearing in the final examination. Second, the mode of learning involves individual and group presentations, case studies and other critical reading exercises thereby deemphasising the traditional method of one way lecture. Third, a provision of continuous assessment of students in terms of several assignments and written examination sets it apart. Fourth, the nature of evaluation is different as it involves the grading system- both absolute and relative grading is practiced in the Nepali universities. In sum, the system demands proactive students and envisions the role of teachers as facilitators.
In the context of Nepal, the introduction of the semester system is relatively a new phenomenon. While the Tribhuvan University, the oldest university in Nepal, experimented with this system in the 1970s, it couldn’t continue for long owing to the lack of competent faculties. Other universities like the Kathmandu University, Purbanchal University and Pokhara University have been implementing this system and TU has also eventually reverted back to it amid strong students resistance and stakeholders discontent.
Although the idea was to address the crisis of the annual education system, this new system has miserably failed to transform the educational scenario. Recent news reports suggest that there has been a sharp decline in the number of students in TU Masters programmes which have recently been converted into semester. Student absenteeism still stands as a major problem under this arrangement too. Despite the adoption of technologies in class, students’ interest to take classes remain pretty low. This is evidenced by the inability of most of the students to abide by the minimum requirement of compulsory attendance. The bitter fact is that students have made the educational institutions a hostage, challenging the university system. Students have often mentioned of the lack of ‘newness’ in this system as well and found the course overloaded with more contents and minimum space of creativity. Still, the lecture mode of delivery remains the most prominent method although the semester demands something different.
Faculty autonomy lies at the heart of this system. The inherent principle is that the same faculty designs the course, delivers it and evaluates his students. However, this has not been the case in our context where the faculties are still delivering the course crafted by others though the power internal evaluation from 20 to 40 per cent is vested in faculties. But the misuse of such an authority has also reigned supreme adding to the declining stature of this innovative system.
Haphazard evaluation and unwillingness of faculties to engage students in research based assignments have also been observed. While this is not to undermine the hard work and creative efforts being put by a small group of faculties and students within the same system, the larger scenario paints a gloomy picture.
Another beauty of this system exists in terms of the various avenues it intends to provide students to share their ideas, critique on others opinion and engage in new knowledge production. On a sad note, such practices are hugely missing in our colleges and universities. The hurriedness to complete a course coupled by students’ lack of interest in studies have crippled this system. Consequently, critical reading and writing assignments are barely provided. Hence, the system has been utilised by students and teachers in their own convenience.
Perhaps the most dangerous issue is the predominance of the ‘exam centric mindset’. While this should have never been an issue under the semester system, there is a total focus on preparing students only for exams further shrinking the room for creative and innovative practices in classroom. As students demand suitable notes and reading materials merely to graduate, faculties have also preferred catering these materials, undermining the cardinal principle of the semester system.
No less significant is the role of the university and college administration who have faltered in creating an enabling environment to nurture this system. While exorbitant fees are charged upon students, ample learning spaces, well-equipped classrooms with technological fixes are missing. Moreover, regular monitoring and evaluation to ensure the effectiveness of this system also needs further attention. In some cases, there is also a pertinent need of offering occasional training and orientation to students and faculties regarding the features of the semester system to promote a new learning culture under this arrangement.
Re-designing this system to produce competent and promising graduates has become urgent. Embracing the values of this system calls for some serious reflections among existing faculties, students and the college management.

(The author is a member of the Social Science and Research Faculty at NIMS.)