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Depoliticising education in Nepal

Sep 22, 2009

Recently a group of professionals submitted a petition to Prime Minister of Nepal, drawing his attention towards campus violence and political interference in university administration. Dr Alok K. Bohara, professor at the University of New Mexico, suggests some of the measures to improve standards of education in his country.

During a seminar at the Science Academy in Brazil, Nobel Laureate in Physics, Richard Feynman, told a vast audience straight-up how bad the science education system was in their country.

Stunned by this, and amidst pin-drop silence, a government official mustered some courage to stand up and confessed that the science education system in Brazil was not only sick, but had been suffering from cancer.

Can someone in our political leadership muster similar courage and stand up and confess the cancer in our own education system. A group of about 500 Nepali professionals have submitted a petition to Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal drawing attention to this cancer – increasing campus violence and political interference in university administration.

The petition that was extensively discussed on the Internet [NNSD] and during the several face-to-face meetings in Kathmandu has garnered support form professionals, academics, government officials, CA members, and students.

It draws attention in two areas: a) campus violence and student party politics and b) political interference through appointments of the university officials. The problem is so deep-rooted and widespread that even a reputable university like Kathmandu University (KU) system has begun to fall victim to this disease. Recent turmoil and closure of KU should serve as a warming sign that the cancer is about to engulf everything.

Nepal’s progress in the last decade has been remarkable in the area of private education sector. Currently, there are thousands of boarding schools and hundreds of colleges offering degrees in numerous fields such as business, engineering, medicine, and others.

At a higher level, there are five universities that offer a wide range of academic degrees. Equally impressive is the proliferation of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) currently operating in the country and employing the graduates of the system.

Student environment

But, thousand of our young brains are also heading out to other countries for higher education.

Currently, there are more than 10,000 students studying in the US, and parents are forced to dip into their savings, sell their properties and borrow money in high interest rate to send their children abroad for better educational environment and quality education. Thus removing politics from our campuses is of utmost importance. How do we do this?

On the student front, the political parties have to come to grips and stop using their student wings for their political games. They should all come to a gentleman’s agreement and support a set of legislative proposals:

Campuses to be off-limit for any partisan speeches by political leaders; student unions shall not receive any financial assistance from the political parties; political parties shall remove from their manifestos all references related to their involvement in the student unions’ organisational activities; disrupting acts to interfere with the teaching and research shall be termed illegal and banned from the campuses; and student unions shall not use any party symbols or affiliation to propagate their free speech.

Administrative environment

Low salary and absence of an environment to pursue scholarly work have been the major source of academic slackness in our university system.

Yet, some hard working faculty do their best to produce skilled graduates at least in a few areas.  However, a vast majority ends up engaging in two types of off-campus activities: multiple teaching assignments and consulting for NGOs. Even the most talented scholars fall victim to this trap and quickly abandon their scholarly aspirations.

The oldest and largest public university system, Tribhuvan University, reflects this unpleasant situation in a most glaring fashion by virtue of being the supplier of the much-needed teaching instructors for hundreds of private academic programs around the country.

Numerous faculty from these premier universities and their affiliate colleges routinely undertake multiple teaching assignments. Any attempt to change fee structure, admission process, or institute regulatory reforms and new visions run into problems quickly.

The higher university authority, often protégé of the political patron, cannot do much to bring about any constructive change either. Likewise, politically affiliated student unions create additional complicated situations.

Consequently, acts such as beating of the campus chiefs and faculty, smearing black on vice chancellors and rectors’ faces, gun battles, tender bidding, and the students taking control of the admissions process have become commonplace, threatening the fabric of academic life of our educational institutions.

In response, most faculty and administrators use university status to advance their own personal self-interest rather than the larger mission of the institution.

This vicious cycle has ruined the academic environment of our university system. That is, the political environment on campus does not permit any institutional reforms to correct these ailments, including those outlined on the student front.  On some campuses, these two have become a twin-devil.

The first step to correct this course is to select high university officials such as the Vice Chancellors (VCs) through an open competition based on some pre-specified academic criteria and through a non-political hiring mechanism.

That is, the political apex body of the university system should not be involved in any hiring and/ or selection process. Instead, the whole hiring mechanism should be handled by a 10/12-person committee composed of the permanent faculty members from that particular university system covering a wider spectrum of disciplines and ranks.

One or two administrative representatives could be accommodated in the screening committee. There should be no one from the outside serving on this committee other than one non-political observer from the community appointed by the apex body.

Based on the final three recommendations from the hiring committee, the apex body chooses the Vice Chancellor of that university.

This is the model followed by the American University System, a practice gradually being adopted in India as well. Importantly, this proposal strikes a balance for the apex body with a proper set of role and responsibility and professional oversight over the university authority.

This checks and balance between the apex body and the university’s academic community fosters a sense of academic freedom, accountability, and morale.

We appeal to our political leaders’ sensibility to take these actions that are utterly vital to save our academic environment. Without such measures, our dream to create a prosperous Nepal will not be realised.

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