SDGs: A reality or mirage for struggling universities?

Higher education institutions need to take the initiative if they want to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and some are working hard to achieve them. However, most of the higher education institutions in the world are incapable of taking the necessary steps, mainly because they are struggling to sustain themselves.

The higher education institutions in Nepal are a case in point as most are newly established and they are struggling simply to grow, something which seems to be challenging, both in the domestic as well as the international context.

Although Nepalese history contains a long tradition of knowledge guided by highly valuable scriptures like the Vedas, Upanishadas, Puranas and the Gita, when it comes to the formal higher education institutions in Nepal, its history is not long.

Its oldest university, Tribhuvan University, was only established in 1959. And now it is the largest university in terms of the number of programmes and courses it offers and the number of students, teachers and research centres it has.

This university alone has more than 87% of the total enrolment in higher education in Nepal, with 335,126 students on 1,140 campuses (60 constituent institutions with 1,080 affiliated campuses) and 7,592 teachers.

However, the university ranks below the 800th position in world university rankings and it has not focused on the SDGs with the exception of one postgraduate programme focused on sustainable energy.

The university has institutes that focus on technical and specialised courses, for example, science, engineering and medicine, which are again insufficient to tackle the SDGs. Similarly, the other faculties offer courses on liberal education, such as business studies, humanities, education and law, both at graduate and postgraduate levels, which do not have any specific academic programmes focusing on the SDGs.

Besides Tribhuvan University, the other universities in Nepal – Nepal Sanskrit University (1986), Kathmandu University (1991), Purbanchal University (1994), Pokhara University (1997), Lumbini Bouddha University (2005), Far-Western University (2010), Mid-Western University (2010), Agriculture and Forestry University (2010), Nepal Open University (2016) and Rajarshi Janak University (2017) – are simply struggling to sustain themselves.

Among these newly established universities, Kathmandu University (1991) is making significant progress in the provision of quality education; however, its contribution to education at the national level is quite insufficient, let alone its contribution to the SDGs.

The challenges facing Nepal’s universities

Nepal’s University Grants Commission has been facilitating and monitoring the higher education institutions in Nepal. Recently, it has proposed a higher education policy which aims to guide the country’s universities towards the achievement of the SDGs.

However, the challenges facing higher education institutions are so overwhelming that they can be managed only through the combined efforts of different national as well as international bodies working in higher education and developmental fields.

In 2021, the Nepalese government identified the major problems with the country’s higher education institutions as being:

• The fact that increasing demand for higher education in Nepal has not been properly planned or managed.

• Access to higher education for those from lower socio-economic groups or in rural areas is very low and the provision of scholarships for these people is not sufficient.

• The higher education curriculum has not been updated recently. Similarly, the examination and evaluation system, teaching and learning activities, efforts towards the development of a suitable academic environment, the empowerment of professionals and institutional development are not where higher education institutions need them to be.

The higher education institutions have not run academic and professional activities like workshops and seminars, published research papers and other publications or promoted innovative projects and international collaboration at the expected level.

There is a lack of coordination and cooperation between higher education institutions. As a result, the expected level of professional and human resource development has not been achieved.

The lack of a clear mission

Higher education institutions in Nepal are unable to compete with global higher education institutions in terms of knowledge production, open learning and IT development. And due to the lack of an integrated policy for higher education, higher education institutions in Nepal do not have a clear mission. So they are simply working away on their own at their own pace without any unified strategies and sense of mission.

There exists a high degree of unfair competition among the higher education institutions due to the lack of proper planning and coordination between them with regard to investment, professional practices and targets.

I think there are many higher education institutions in the world that are facing such challenges and so are unable to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.

It is, however, essential that all higher education institutions in the world are able to do so in one way or another. For this to happen they need to be guided by the global ‘Roadmap to Higher Education 2030’ as approved by the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference held earlier this year.

Besides, higher education institutions need to collaborate with each other at the national level as well as globally and with the international agencies working on higher education and sustainable development because the SDGs are a grand, global mission. If this cannot happen, the achievement of the SDGs is simply a mirage.

Dr Hari C Kamali is associate professor of english education at Far Western University, Nepal. He has presented, published, reviewed and edited papers at different international forums. He has also been serving as country delegate of Nepal for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning (HETL) Association and as copy editor for the Journal of Comparative and International Higher Education. His research interests include deconstructive pedagogy, interspirituality, higher education and sustainable peace. E-mail: