Declining student numbers prompts call for college mergers

Plans are afoot in Nepal to merge institutions of higher learning as domestic universities lose students following a significant rise in the numbers opting to study abroad.

Nepal’s University Grants Commission (UGC), which oversees university education, this month proposed a merger of institutions after a recent report showed that 624 colleges, including constituent colleges, community and private institutions of different universities, have fewer than 100 students.

The report also showed an additional 277 colleges have fewer than 200 students. These colleges are over 60% of the total 1,440 colleges that operate under several universities in Nepal.

“Operating colleges that don’t have adequate students is a waste of resources. They need to be merged. The commission is preparing policy and guidelines for the merger in consultation with the universities and colleges,” said Govinda Nepal, a member of the commission.

Proper study

He said the mergers will be based on a proper study of the locations of colleges and evaluation of whether the merger affects students. “The decision for the merger will be taken by the respective colleges and universities after proper study ensuring students aren’t deprived of the opportunity for study,” he said.

The decline in student enrolment began during the COVID-19 pandemic, but did not bounce back after the pandemic ended. Officials blame a significant rise in the numbers of students opting for higher education abroad to be the major reason for the decline.

Brajesh Mishra, associate director at Kathmandu University’s Directorate of Admissions, said the overall student pool had decreased with a sharp rise in the number of students going abroad.

On average 230,000 students in Nepal qualify for university education after completing high school Grade 12. However, in fiscal year 2022-23, 114,000 students acquired the ‘no objection certificate’ (NOC) required from the Nepal Government to study in 72 countries, and an additional 14,000 went to India where enrollment is possible without a NOC, leaving just over 100,000 to apply to Nepal’s universities.

Some of these school leavers do not wish to study further. “We have a student pool of 80,000-90,000. The country’s population growth is ever declining with [population growth] just 0.95%, according to the 2021 census, [and] the problem will only worsen in the future,” said Mishra.

Declining enrolment

The country currently has 16 universities compared to just six in 2006 when Nepal was transitioning from a monarchy to a secular federal republic and there have been calls to halt the establishment of new universities.

“The decline in student numbers is a matter of concern. We have seen a sharp downfall under the humanities and education stream,” Tribhuvan University (TU) Vice-chancellor Dharma Kanta Baskota, told University World News.

For the first time TU, the oldest and the largest university in the country, had to conduct entrance exams twice to enrol the required number of students for its Bachelor in Business Administration degree which has been one of its most popular programmes.

TU has a 74% share of all university students in Nepal. TU officials said the university has seen a decline in enrolment, mainly in non-technical courses. According to the UGC report, TU had 347,269 students enrolled in 2020-2021, down from 356,654 the previous year.

Kathmandu University (KU), which has a name in Nepal for quality education, saw 30% of its seats remain vacant in the current academic session, according to Bhola Thapa, KU vice-chancellor. The university has the capacity to enrol 6,000 students annually.

Except for the School of Law at KU, all other departments were unable to recruit enough students. Of 307 seats in the School of Arts, for instance, only 152 have been filled so far.

“We don't even have adequate students in several programmes under the School of Medicine which is a very serious issue,” said Thapa.

UGC records show the number of students at the university slipped to 16,046 in the fiscal year 2020-21 from 19,643 in the previous fiscal year. KU is preparing to phase out some of its 200 programmes that are suffering the lowest enrolment rates.

St Xavier College, a reputed institution in Nepal which had been running bachelor degrees in social work with KU affiliation, opted for de-affiliation as student enrolment plunged.

Moves to restrict study abroad

University officials and the UGC say the government’s move to stop issuing NOCs for non-university courses abroad would be a step towards increasing the student pool for domestic colleges and universities.

From the first week of April the Nepal government stopped issuing permission to study diploma, advanced diploma and language courses abroad. UGC chairperson Dr Dev Raj Adhikari said the new rule will definitely increase enrolment in Nepal.

“I don’t think students need to travel abroad for such courses. It is good that the government has stopped that,” Adhikari told University World News.

“At the same time our universities also need to focus on competitive education. We should create an environment to retain our students here. We can stop students from leaving the country if we build trust towards our education.”