Dozens of interviews with students, lecturers, and top administrators of Nepal’s government-run Tribhuvan University have revealed that Nepal’s higher education system is in a tailspin. The teachers are underpaid and untrained, the facilities are deplorable, the students unmotivated, and the administration drifts aimlessly like a ship without a rudder.
His Majesty’s Government props up the University, providing 92 percent of its budget. Of this, 80 percent goes into salaries, with administrators outnumbering the teachers. Besides staff and space, most University colleges have nothing else. Academic and cultural societies, clubs, seminars and conferences are virtually non-existent. Laboratories are ill-equipped, libraries are full of mutilated books and sports facilities almost unheard of. Classrooms are overcrowded and students are squeezed into benches and desks that are nothing more than roughly sanded lumber.
Among the students interviewed was Deepak Joshi, 22, an MBA student, who manages to keep up with his course work without attending the overcrowded, unimaginative classes. “I make up for what I miss by consulting the text books,” says Joshi. Sakuntala Parajuli, 21, typical of young women from traditional families, is reluctant to commute to the Kirtipur campus because she is forced to travel in an overcrowded, dilapidated bus, pressed amongst sweating bodies of strangers.
Other students, such as Hemanta Rai, 25, are sent to Kathmandu to study by their well-to-do village families once they finish high school. Rai, a political science major, admits he only attends the University because it gives him something to do and, as an out-of-towner, he values campus social life.
An economics professor, who requested annonymity, says that because the students are not motivated he feels no loyalty towards them. He therefore willingly misses classes, leaving his students to chat happily in the sun outside the central cafeteria.
A campus life that is dominated by carping and confusion was described by Shanti Mishra, TU’s Chief Librarian, in this way: “Those supposed to teach are not teaching and those supposed to study are not studying.” Tribhuvan University was created in 1959 and now has a student body of staggering proportions — 60,000 – up from the 250 who were attending colleges in the early 1950s.
“The system suffers from an explosion in numbers, but the quality is being compromised,” says Professor Govinda Ram Agarwal.
In 1971, TU absorbed all existing colleges and was declared the sole manager of education under the new National Education System Plan. The Plan, now widely acknowledged to have backfired, may in fact have triggered the downward spiralling of standards.
There is no doubt that the Plan changed the University beyond recognition and sparked an “admissions rush”. The jump in enrollment led to indiscriminate recruitment of teachers, 50 per cent of whom are not even fit to teach in high schools, according to Surya Bahadur Shakya, TU’s highly-respected former Vice-Chancellor.
Under the National Education System Plan, the “classical system” of yearly exams was suddenly abandoned and surprised students and unprepared faculty were forced, without any time for adjustment, to cope with the intricacies a “semester system” with “internal assessments”, “comprehensive examinations” and “credit hours”. Colleges were renamed “campuses”, and intermediate and bachelors levels dubbed “certificate” and “diploma” levels. Students fleeing Nepali higher education had enormous difficulty being recognized in Indian universities under the newfangled names, copied mindlessly from the North American system.
The semester system was not inherently bad, but it was implemented too suddenly for teachers and students used to the “classical” system, according to former Vice-Chancellor Shakya.
Professor K.P. Mafia blames the “unceremonious demise” of the plan in 1977 on a complex web of social, economic and political causes. He notes that the enormous demand for higher education, “which provides a leverage to power and position”, the over-dependence of TU on government grants, and strident political posturing of students who converted the campus into an ideological battleground, all weakened the system’s fragile structure.
Malla is also extremely critical of the open admissions policy where 98 per cent of high school graduates are allowed into college, and recommends something more stringent. “We have to choose between quality and equality in higher education,” he says.
One explanation for the poor quality of instruction is the extremely thin pay envelope. A professor at TU earns a mere NRs4000 monthly and it is no wonder that teaching is becoming a profession of the last resort. Since teachers are not required to stay on campus after class, they make the extra rupiya through private tutorials. “Low pay has forced teachers to be constantly on the lookout for other means to make ends meet,” says Badri Dev Pandey, who works in TU’s Centre for Research Innovation and Development.
According to Pandey’s colleagues, another legacy of the National Education System Plan has been a dramatic decline in the quality of science and liberal arts education. The Plan attempted to correct the obvious imbalance in a country with more doctors than nurses and more engineers than overseers. It therefore gave autonomy and large independent budgets to the technical colleges, which had long been neglected. But, as more and more resources were poured into the technical institutes, pure science lagged behind. Today, the science campuses have to struggle for a piece of TU’s budget pie and are not getting their fair share.
On the other hand, liberal arts education (including humanities, social sciences and fine arts) has always been the intellectual backwater of higher education in Nepal. Liberal arts campuses have served as a dumping ground, the place where aimless drifters who have failed everything else come to roost.
Even though it is financially neglected, liberal arts education is experiencing uncontrolled expansion. Most of the 55 new private colleges opened in recent years are social science institutes, which are cheaper to run and require nothing more than a small faculty and teaching space. Students in rural areas, unable to move to the cities which have science and technical institutes, have to fall back on liberal arts whether they like it or not.
“The standard of higher education in Nepal has remained the same, that is, poor,” says Suresh Raj Sharma, former Member-Secretary of Education Planning, “It is the standard of Nepali and English that is slipping. The graduate of today has a weaker language base than the graduate of 20 years ago.”
“Politics” is one aspect of Nepali higher education which generates excitement. Filled with leftists, centrists and rightists, TU is a beehive of crusaders. Many “student leaders” are a determined lot who have been around for years, switching subjects to remain politically active on campus. An assistant- lecturer who just had his first TU-style class disruption and political bickering, has this to say, “Everyone seems against everyone else: students versus teachers, students versus students, teachers versus teachers, teachers versus administration and administration versus students.”
The Government’s decision to go back on its earlier decision and to allow private colleges was an attempt to fulfil the country’s insatiable demand for higher education. Today, out of 140 colleges in Nepal, 62 are privately run. These private campuses receive no financial assistance and follow the University calendar. They are run mostly on an ad hoc basis, on rented premises with part-time teachers. All of them are limited to the undergraduate level, so their graduates all ultimately line up at the TU door in Kirtipur.
Despite the acrimony, poor implementation of oft-changing policy, lack of facilities and inappropriate curriculum, Tribhuvan University continues to rake in SLC students and churn out graduates in ever-increasing numbers. In a survey conducted by HIMAL at Padma Kanya Campus in March, every one of 20 girls at the first year Bachelors level wanted to go in for a Masters in “soft” subjects such as English, Home Science and Economics. Yet few can answer the question, “Why do you want a Masters?” and have only a vague idea about careers and opportunities.
What is clear is that the enormous problems of higher education in Nepal are not of Tribhuvan University’s making alone. They also have to do with a social mindset about education and the seemingly preordained and inevitable progression from Intermediate to Bachelors to Masters, unless interrupted by migration, death, health, employment or (in the case of women) marriage. TU has become the baby-sitter for the nation, providing its charges with “something to do” while awaiting their adult destiny.
A Diluted Experiment
There was a time when the National Development Service of Tribhuvan University was the most colourful feather in its cap. Today’s NDS is a feeble copy of its former self.
Originally, TU required Masters-level students to spend nine months serving rural communities before receiving their degree. Relatively well-to-do students thus had their eyes opened to the pervasive poverty in the countryside and at the same time provided a boost for the development of remote areas
However, a host of factors converged to upset the good intentions. As the number of graduates rose, the costs became more than anticipated, with monthly stipends, travel allowances, supervision and general administration. There were also problems getting support from rural Nepalis, the supposed beneficiaries, and adjustments to the local calendar disrupted the University’sown timetable. Politically polarized campus unions did not help matters and a noble plan became a political hot potato which was rapidly dropped.
The NDS in its present incarnation is regarded by students as a prerequisite evil for procuring a degree. The period of study is three months and NRs750 is provided to cover expenses. The student is supposed to stay in the village for a month, which hardly allows time to interact with the community and is a far cry from the original nine months. Many students merely go through the motions of service and even copy the required “village profiles” from those who have served before in the same village.
~By Binod Bhattarai and Sajag Rana