Hopes for university reforms as younger blood enters parliament

A new Nepali government comes into office at the time when various statistics show the country’s higher education is not heading in a right direction and the number of students studying abroad reached record levels in the fiscal year 2021-22 that concluded in mid-July.

A new parliament was elected in Nepal through the second general elections held after the promulgation of the Constitution in 2015, which institutionalised republicanism, federalism and secularism in a country that had been a centralised Hindu state for decades.

On Monday 26 December 2022, Nepal’s parliament elected the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) chairperson Pushpa Kamal Dahal to succeed Sher Bahadur Deuba (76), who had hoped to secure a sixth term as prime minister. The principal bloc supporting Dahal was led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist).

Dahal became prime minister for the third time in 14 years after negotiations between the two main communist parties that were part of the Nepali Congress-led, five-party ruling alliance of the CPN (Maoist Centre) and CPN (Unified Socialist), among others, which won 136 seats in the 275-strong House of Representatives. The same alliance has been in power since July last year, but with Congress president Deuba as prime minister.

Students abroad

Despite the country’s poor economy, the numbers of Nepalese students studying abroad reached record levels in the fiscal year 2021-22 that concluded in mid-July. As many as 112,528 students acquired No Objection Certificates to study in more than 80 countries in the 12 months of the economic year.

The number is close to one fourth of the total number of university students inside the country, which has a population of 29 million people.

As per data of the University Grants Commission, the government entity that oversees universities, 460,826 students are enrolled in 1,440 campuses at 12 universities and five medical academies.
Nepali students sent US$512.65 million (NPR 67.70 million) to their universities in different countries during the period.

The impact of the huge outflow of university students has become visible in enrolment within the country.

For instance, in the past there was no dearth of students for applied courses such as bachelors’ of hotel management or information management. However, this year constituent and affiliated colleges under Tribhuvan University struggled to find the adequate students to fill their quotas.

Politicisation of education

“Our universities and colleges have failed to appeal to the new generation. We need complete restructuring of our higher education,” Min Bahadur Bista, a retired professor at Tribhuvan University who worked as an education specialist for UNESCO in the Asia Pacific region, told University World News.

He said higher education has not been a focus of the country’s successive governments – of which there have been 13 in 14 years, and as a result there is a serious quality crisis.

Excessive politicisation, a reluctance of the leadership to effect transformation in the curriculum and teaching-learning environment, and the lack of quality teaching faculty have added to the problem.

Over the years, universities in Nepal have been places to accommodate party sympathisers. The prime minister, an ex-officio chancellor and education minister, is known to consistently interfere in the appointments of the vice-chancellors, rectors and registrars who lead universities.

As the coalition culture is part of Nepali politics, the top positions in the universities are shared among the parties. If one party gets vice-chancellor in one university, the rector and registrar are chosen from other parties.

There is political interference even in the appointments of teaching and administrative staff. When in power, the parties involved in the appointments are seldom concerned about making the universities resourceful.

Nepal’s education sector on average receives 10% of the national budget and the share of the higher education is just 10% to 12% of the total education allocation. Investment in research is minimal.

In the current budget, science and technology spending represents 0.45% of gross domestic product and research expenditure remains just 0.3%, according to Dr Raju Adhikari – founding chair of the Nepal Science Foundation and a Nepal science leader currently based in Australia – writing in Nepal Live Today in June 2022.

He argued that at least 0.75% of GDP should be allocated to science and technology in Nepal, and a separate ministry of science and technology should be established to streamline S&T activities.

Lack of vision

“The country needs a blueprint for higher education with a vision to boost quality and link it to the job market,” said Min Bahadur Bista of Tribhuvan University.

“However, I don’t see any prospect of policy changes from the forthcoming government. Having read the election manifestos of the parties, I am least convinced that they actually have a vision for the educational transformation that the country desperately needs.”

In its election manifesto, the Congress mentioned that it would encourage domestic universities to ensure that 10% of their student bodies comprised international students – but failed to explain how. Likewise, the CPN-UML pledged to develop infrastructure to achieve international standards, but also failed to explain how.

Pramod Bhatta, a researcher at Martin Chautari, a non-profit research institute in Nepal, said that the election pledges were ritualistic, without any concrete basis to execute them.

“Why would anybody from abroad come to Nepal [to] study when Nepali students themselves aren’t convinced with what is being offered?” he asked University World News.

“Removing the mammoth administrative structures in universities and allowing them to function independently, making them resourceful, promoting research and innovation, is needed immediately. We need a clear vision for higher education for that. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be happening in the near future.”

Education experts caution that large-scale and increasing brain drain is a matter of grave concern to underdeveloped countries like Nepal, mainly for two reasons. First, talented youths the country needs for progress are leaving and, secondly, huge amounts of money are flying abroad.

Binay Kusiyait, a professor at Tribhuvan University and a researcher in education, said that in today's extremely competitive globalised world, young people are looking for the best education, to the extent they can afford, and are keeping an eye on prospects in the job market once they graduate.

When there is no conducive environment in which they can pursue what they wish, leaving the country becomes their compulsion, he said.

“We cannot stop youths inside the country [leaving] unless they are assured of quality education and employment,” he told University World News.

Youths in parliament

Despite the bleak situation, experts say young activists and workers who pushed for improvements in the country’s education system during the recent elections have generated a ray of hope by securing a few seats in parliament.

Some young people such as Dr Toshima Karki, who had been a supporter of Dr Govinda KC – an orthopaedic surgeon who went on several rounds of a hunger strikes to demand reform in medical education – has been elected to the House of Representatives, defeating Pambha Bhusal, the sitting minister for energy, water resources and irrigation.

Similarly Shishir Khanal, co-founder of Teach for Nepal, an initiative to improve school education, has been elected from the newly-formed Rastriya Swatantra Party, of which Karki is also a member.

“I am expecting youths like Karki and Khanal to raise their voices for improvements through parliament,” said Bista. “That would at least draw the attention of those in power to act.”