Report wants to halt new universities, focus on quality

Successive federal and provincial governments in Nepal have announced the establishment of new universities in recent years. However, a recent higher education report by the Policy Research Institute, a Nepalese government think tank, recommends a focus on improving existing universities rather than adding more.

This comes while a government taskforce has suggested setting up new universities only after a proper needs assessment that includes projections of human resources demand, as well as the promulgation of an umbrella law to guide overall tertiary education in the country and assist higher education planning.

Despite the expansion of the university sector, tens of thousands of Nepali students leave the country every year seeking quality higher education, particularly in Australia, the United States and Japan. At least 112,000 Nepali students obtained ‘no objection’ letters to study abroad in the last fiscal year alone, leaving local universities short of student enrolment targets.

Nepal had just six universities until 2006, when the so-called ‘Second People’s Movement’ set the foundation for the country’s transition from a monarchy to a secular federal republic with seven provinces.

The number of universities increased to nine in 2010 following government moves to diversify and decentralise university education. Along with the addition of two universities in western Nepal, the first specialised university – Agriculture and Forestry University – was added in the same year.

Now the country has 16 universities – 13 under the federal government and three more under different provincial governments. They have the authority to set up provincial universities under Nepal’s 2015 Constitution.

However, a report published last week by the Policy Research Institute, a Nepalese government think tank, said it did not seem practical to establish new universities while existing ones “are not functioning effectively”.

The largest university in the country, Tribhuvan University, has enough students but lags behind in management and delivering quality education. Other universities are seeing shortfalls in enrolment and have not excelled in management or satisfying student expectations, according to the report.

“Our study has shown the universities are in dire need of improvement. The state’s focus and resources should be injected into bettering the ones we already have,” Hari Sharma Neupane, a researcher at the institute, told University World News.

Systemic issues affecting quality

Politicisation of universities due to the political administering of executive appointments coupled with a lack of adequate resources are the major challenges, the institute pointed out, referring to the practice by the parties in power of picking vice-chancellors, rectors and registrars from among those who are close to them.

On the other hand, the country’s tertiary education budget is less than 1% of the national budget. The government has allocated NPR12.1 billion (US$92 million) for 13 universities and six medical schools for the ongoing fiscal years 2022-23.

“How can the government adequately fund new universities while the existing ones are running short of the needed resources?” asked Neupane. Apart from Kathmandu University, all other universities in Nepal are government funded.

A government taskforce, which released its report in late December 2022, also suggested both federal and provincial governments refrain from increasing the numbers of universities.

The taskforce led by Pushpa Raman Wagle, a former member of the National Planning Commission, said new universities should not be added without justifying the reasons for their establishment.

Provincial universities are set up without establishing proper criteria nor monitoring mechanisms, according to the taskforce report, which added: “The new universities are being established randomly without proper study.”

Wagle told University World News that federal and provincial governments were competing to add new universities but without carrying out adequate “groundwork”.

“During our study we found that even the University Grants Commission is kept in the dark while deciding to establish new universities. It is informed only at the last hour for consent,” he said.

UGC restructuring and centralised ‘mapping’ mooted

Permission from the University Grants Commission (UGC), the higher education regulatory body, is necessary before the government can present a bill to parliament to set up centrally funded universities, but UGC permission has become a mere formality, according to Wagle.

As the UGC’s jurisdiction is limited to central universities under the federal government, Wagle suggested that the jurisdiction of the UGC should be extended to the provincial universities, which would need a restructuring of the UGC, or a separate regulatory authority should be set up for provincial universities.

According to the taskforce report, the “provinces are in competition to set up new universities without developing any criteria and monitoring mechanisms”. Among the seven provinces, Madhesh Province has established two universities and Gandaki Province set up one. The other five provinces have already prepared laws to set up at least one university each, and also have plans to set up medical schools offering MBBS and MD programmes.

The Wagle-led taskforce has suggested the governments conduct a proper mapping of universities and ensure planned universities are not just copies of Tribhuvan University, both in terms of management and the courses they offer.

The taskforce said a proper study based on the location of universities and numbers of students in the region should be part of the mapping exercise. Mapping would also avoid duplication. For instance, Pokhara in Gandaki Province already has Pokhara University established by the federal government. However, the provincial government set up Gandaki University there, offering courses similar to Pokhara University.

UGC Chairperson Dev Raj Adhikari said it was necessary for the government to carry out a projection of the types of human resources needed in the near future and in the long run, to provide a basis for whether new universities were needed. “Sadly, we don’t have such a practice,” he told University World News. “Also, in many instances the government informs the UGC only after taking the final decision in establishing a new university.”

UGC officials note that new universities were added largely with the goal of reducing the burden on Tribhuvan University, which enrols three quarters of the country’s students, or 347,269 of the 460,826 university students in Nepal.

UGC officials also suggest diversifying university education as most universities offer the same courses.

The Wagle-led taskforce recommended restructuring the UGC to give it greater supervisory authority. “The University Grants Commission needs to be restructured as the high-level education commission for the overall supervision of university education without curtailing the autonomy of the varsities,” according to the report.