If Nepal today faces a severe shortage of qualified and able intellectual leadership—in just about every front from industrial management to university professorships, from civil service to journalism, from political activism to social service, the blame must be placed squarely on the education system of the Panchayat years.
The legacy of that wasted era can be found in the generation that is today in its thirties and forties, whose intellect was never aroused by challenging education, and whose creative potential was therefore laid waste. A new lost generation is presently in making—five years into democratic rule, Nepali higher education has not changed course, and those attending class today have not been nurtured any better than were their fathers and mothers.
Rather than be shocked at the abysmal level of public discourse, the politicians´ unbridled opportunism, the professionals´ lack of commitment, or the irreconcilable greed of the so many non-governmental organisation ´activists´, it is necessary to understand why, when we are confronted with nation-building, Nepal is left with loud-talking non-performers as society leaders. These people were just not taught right, and whatever ability they might have had to emerge as society´s guides, was never promoted. The country lost a generation.
The feudal Rana era ended in 1951 with Nepal boasting all of two colleges with 250 students. The Tribhuvan University was set up in 1959, and within two years it had 33 colleges and 5143 students. Today, Nepal has 209 private and public colleges with an enrolment of over a hundred thousand.
The boom in the numbers was not accompanied with an awareness of the need for quality. Educational egalitarianism had come to stay, summed up in the idea that higher education at state subsidy should be made available and accessible to all secondary school graduates, irrespective of their aptitude or even interest. College education was no longer seen as a selected passage for a gifted few (the defining element of the Rana years), but an open field to which everyone enjoyed virtually unrestricted access.
Nepali higher education up to 1970 at least had the saving grace that it was based on the old rote system of learning— dull but functional. It did not propose to carry out an experiment, on the lives of tens of thousands of Nepal´s young and back it up with so little commitment. That credit goes to the National Education System Plan, launched midstream in the Panchayat years by Crown Prince (and soon therafter king-) Birendra, as his defining contribution. The country is still reeling from the impact of the failed Plan.
As crown prince, King Birendra had attended Eton College, Harvard and Tokyo Universities. Narayan Prasad Shrestha, the most powerful presence in King Birendra´s Palace Secretariat, recalls that the King had been very impressed with the Japanese educational system, “which combined modern education with ancient heritage. Upon his return, His Majesty felt that Nepal needed a similar system of education which emphasised change as well as continuity to meet the challenge of development.”
It did not quite work out that way. With the full backing of the Royal Palace, the educational planners did bring about sweeping (but cosmetic, it turned out) changes. All colleges (henceforth to be called ´campuses´) were nationalised and thrust under the central authority of Tribhuvan. A new system of grading and evaluation was introduced, requiring teachers of quality and confidence, and the academic year was divided into semesters. The National Development Service (NDS) was launched, a programme through which Master´s level students spent a year in social service at assigned villages.
Other than the NDS (which was doing well until scrapped in 1980 by a king worried about the outcome of the plebiscite on the Panchayat System which took place that year), the National Educational System Plan was a wasted, unrealistic effort that only flaunted an attractive, modernistic outer shell. It was a fiasco at all levels—conceptual, practical, financial, bureaucratic and political.
The misperception among Nepal´s educated is that going to college is everyone´s right, and not, as should be the case, the privilege of a gifted few. With royal patronage and the monopoly of the media, the planners had a chance to clarify this societal confusion and to put intellectual elitism into the academy. For all its much vaunted forward-thinking, the Plan failed to do so. It also failed to lure the academic non-performers-—the bulk of the entrants thrown up by an equally unsatisfactory secondary school system—to sign up for vocational courses. The educated middle-class dismissed the Plan as a conspiracy to push their not-so-gifted children off the ´doctor-engineer track´ to that of carpentry, farming and masonry.
The England-, US- and India-trained planners overhauled the educational system of Nepal, but they did not provide the vision, and King Birendra was found lacking in commitment. He did not provide sustained leadership to his brain child, as was evident in the ease with which the NDS was set adrift.
The Plan ended up nothing more than a vivid example of egalitarianism running roughshod over quality. While this might have been good to assuage pseudo-socialist pangs of conscience, it did not help produce the leaders and thinkers in society, which is why in the mid-1990s we look around to find a barren landscape.
Unfortunately, the failure of the Plan did not pave the way to philosophical clarity of higher education. Jumbled egalitarianism continues to be the rule in Tribhuvan University, which remains the principal institution for higher education. Admission is automatic for anyone with the the most minimum academic abilities. “Once they register, most students do not show up until the exams at the end of the year,” says a professor of English. For many, the admissions card becomes merely a ticket to enjoy hostel facilities, discounts at business establishment, to vote in the student union elections, and qualification to work in primary schools as teachers.
Lack of facilities, unmotivated teachers, and automated students—all in all, is unlikely that today´s colleges will deliver an intellectual “creamy layer” on whom Nepal can rely in the decade just ahead. In social welfare, foreign policy, governance, and education, we can expect no better than what we have today.