Three new universities as country becomes a federal republic

The government of Nepal has decided to add three more universities including an open university in an attempt to decentralise higher education as Nepal becomes a federal republic.

The country’s new constitution was passed by parliament last Thursday and will be formally approved by President Ram Baran Yadav on Sunday 20 September, with Nepal becoming a republic on the same day.

The Ministry of Education has drafted a bill to establish two new universities in the southern belt of the country under the new federal system, and an Open University to offer distance learning, with its central office in Kathmandu. The legislature has completed thematic discussion on the higher education bills and has forwarded them to the Education Sub-Committee to finalise before being approved into law.

Once the bill to establish the universities is endorsed by parliament, which is expected within a month, the new Nepalgunj University, Rajarshi Janak University and the Open University will bring the total number of universities in the Himalayan nation to 12.

"We are reviewing the bill. It will be presented for endorsement shortly," said Ganesh Man Gurung coordinator of the parliamentary sub-committee. The Ministry of Education has said the new universities will help to reduce the burden on Tribhuvan University, which was badly damaged in the April earthquake, bringing home the importance of having campuses in other regions. Tribhuvan University, or TU, is one of the world’s largest in terms of student enrolment.

Of the country’s total of 480,891 university students, around 85% or 405,341 are enrolled in TU alone. TU enrolments are expected to decrease by around 20,000 students with the establishment of the new universities.

Presenting the bill in parliament four weeks ago, Education Minister Chitra Lekha Yadav claimed the new universities will specialise in technical and vocational education, medical education and law. Currently, only two universities offer medical and law education in the country.

Two decades of unrest – a Maoist uprising, which led to the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of an interim constitution in 2007, followed by agitation in the south by the Madhesi movement seeking autonomous ethnically based provinces – have ended with a landmark agreement to turn the former kingdom of Nepal into a federal republic.

Seven states

Economic sustainability and ethnic identity have been prioritised in the delineation of the country into seven states under the federal system. Some state boundaries and the number of states are still being disputed by various minority groups, which led to weeks of violent protests in the capital Kathmandu and a number of other areas in the run up to the parliamentary vote on the constitution.

Among the seven new states, one in the southern region is dominated by the Madhesi community where Rajarshi Janak University is being established. Nepalgunj University is being established in a province of the southern Himalayan foothills with a majority of indigenous Tharu peoples, an underprivileged group in a region where there are no universities so far. That province also includes the home town of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala.

According to the bill, the new universities will be developed from the infrastructure of existing constituent colleges of Tribhuvan University (TU).

The buildings of the Nepalgunj-based, western-southern belt Mahendra Multiple Campus and Nursing College under TU will be converted into the Nepalgunj University, while the property of Ramswarup Ramsagar Multiple Campus in Janakpur, in central-southern belt, will be converted into Rajarshi Janak University.

Students from those colleges will automatically shift to the new universities, which are also located in areas unaffected by the recent quake, so the decentralisation will help mitigate the effects of the quake damage on the higher education system, according to officials.

The new universities are expected to increase higher education enrolments from deprived communities, providing new opportunities.

"The top officials, including the vice-chancellor and registrar, will be appointed from the professors at TU, while remaining teaching and administrative staff will be appointed through open competition," said Ministry of Education spokesperson Hari Lamsal.

At the same time, the government is aiming to tighten the admissions process for TU after the Open University is established, to raise standards at the university. Those who do not gain admission to TU under the new system will have the option of studying at the Open University.

The Non-Resident Nepali Association, an umbrella organisation of Nepalis living abroad, including in India, the UK and Hong Kong, will provide the funding for the Open University.