Nepal’s high achievers vexed by ‘po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence’

But po­lit­i­cal med­dling clouds schol­arly progress at Trib­hu­van Univer­sity, v-c tells Rachael Pells

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CON­TENTS - Rachael.pells@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Nepal’s largest univer­sity may not ap­pear at the top of in­ter­na­tional rank­ings but, with more than 600,000 stu­dents en­rolled across 60 cam­puses at al­ti­tudes of up to 2,500m (8,000ft), it is on top of the world in its own way.

Founded in the years fol­low­ing the Nepalese rev­o­lu­tion of 1951, dur­ing which the Rana dy­nasty was over­thrown, Trib­hu­van Univer­sity (pic­tured be­low) was Nepal’s sole higher education in­sti­tu­tion un­til just 33 years ago. A num­ber of smaller, pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions have since ap­peared, but Trib­hu­van still caters for about 80 per cent of the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion, and has been re­spon­si­ble for ed­u­cat­ing al­most ev­ery politi­cian and pol­i­cy­maker in the coun­try.

It is as var­ied as it is vast: the main cam­pus in the Kath­mandu val­ley is a pop­u­lous hub and one of Nepal’s ma­jor sources of em­ploy­ment, while stu­dents lo­cated at the high­est al­ti­tudes of­ten find them­selves with just a hand­ful of class­mates.

For Tirth Raj Khaniya, Trib­hu­van’s vice-chan­cel­lor, main­tain­ing con­trol of such a sprawl­ing in­sti­tu­tion is a “gi­gan­tic” task, with Nepal’s ex­treme nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment mak­ing some prac­ti­cal man­age­ment dif­fi­cult to over­see – for ex­am­ple, trans­porta­tion of exam pa­pers is of­ten af­fected by the el­e­ments.

Like many univer­si­ties op­er­at­ing in less eco­nom­i­cally de­vel­oped coun­tries, Pro­fes­sor Khaniya also cites an “in­ad­e­quate bud­get, in­ad­e­quate con­tri­bu­tion from the govern­ment, lack of clar­ity from the govern­ment and lack of co­or­di­na­tion be­tween govern­ment and in­dus­try” as bar­ri­ers to Trib­hu­van’s in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion.

How­ever, Pro­fes­sor Khaniya said that a com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor, and the re­sult of Trib­hu­van’s unique role in ed­u­cat­ing Nepal’s po­lit­i­cal elite, is po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism within the stu­dent and aca­demic body.

“Po­lit­i­cal par­ties have made di­rect in­ter­ven­tion within the univer­sity and taken it as their re­hearsal ground,” he told Times Higher Education. “The par­ties have es­tab­lished sis­ter or­gan­i­sa­tions in the name of stu­dent so­ci­eties on cam­pus and there is a strong pres­ence of par­ti­san pol­i­tics and trade union­ism in aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions in Nepal.”

Pro­fes­sor Khaniya ar­gued that the role of pol­i­tics in stu­dent so­ci­ety made it “dif­fi­cult to bring about vis­i­ble changes”. And, the “fight for dom­i­nance” in Nepal’s mul­ti­party po­lit­i­cal sys­tem had a knock-on ef­fect on univer­sity au­ton­omy, he ar­gued. Each of the nine par­ties rep­re­sented in the Nepalese par­lia­ment has its own stu­dent branch, Pro­fes­sor Khaniya ex­plained, which in turn puts pres­sure on and acts as a watch­ful eye over univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tion.

In a bid to rein in “po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence”, Pro­fes­sor Khaniya has is­sued an age limit of 28 for those run­ning for stu­dent union lead­er­ship – a move that he hopes will “lessen the in­flu­ence” of the move­ments, as well as en­cour­age stu­dents to con­cen­trate on their stud­ies, even­tu­ally im­prov­ing the stan­dard of grad­u­ate skills.

Mean­while, although aca­demics have “much free­dom in their teach­ing and re­search”, Pro­fes­sor Khaniya ex­pressed con­cern that “fac­ulty mem­bers [mis­take] aca­demic free­dom [for] po­lit­i­cal au­ton­omy”.

Aca­demics have “no fear of speak­ing against the govern­ment,” he said. “Pro­fes­sors think that they have ev­ery right to go to the street to demon­strate that they crit­i­cise the regime”, said Pro­fes­sor Khaniya, who ex­pressed con­cern that this could harm the univer­sity as it at­tempts to seek bet­ter fi­nan­cial sup­port.

Nev­er­the­less, Pro­fes­sor Khaniya has at­tempted to bring about change dur­ing his two-and-a-half years of lead­er­ship. His next tar­get is to re­vise the cur­ricu­lum “based on mar­ket needs, link­ing re­search with teach­ing”, and “chang­ing the mind­set of teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tive staff” to bet­ter pre­pare stu­dents for the skills needed as Nepal moves to­wards a knowl­edge-based econ­omy.

A key part of this growth will be to se­cure part­ner­ships with Chi­nese univer­si­ties, he said. China’s drive to in­crease re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion has re­sulted in greater op­por­tu­ni­ties for Nepalese schol­ars, who strug­gle to se­cure fund­ing from their own govern­ment, de­spite Trib­hu­van’s po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions.

So far, the univer­sity has signed me­moranda of un­der­stand­ing with 20 Chi­nese in­sti­tu­tions, the most re­cent al­low­ing for the in­tro­duc­tion of Nepal’s first course in aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing, in as­so­ci­a­tion with Nan­jing Univer­sity of Aero­nau­tics and Astro­nau­tics.

There is also grow­ing in­ter­est, par­tic­u­larly among the younger gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents, to learn Chi­nese lan­guages and en­gage in Chi­nese cul­ture, re­sult­ing in “an in­creas­ing flow of peo­ple from both sides”, Pro­fes­sor Khaniya said. He said he hoped that this could dra­mat­i­cally im­prove Nepal’s in­ter­na­tional ed­u­ca­tional stand­ing and one day bring in more in­ter­na­tional stu­dents, of which there are cur­rently very few.

With one-and-a-half years left in his cur­rent role, Pro­fes­sor Khaniya is de­ter­mined to make Trib­hu­van more in­ter­na­tional in its ap­proach. “[A ma­jor step] has been open­ing lat­eral en­try for fac­ulty who have gained in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ences,” he said. “De­spite sev­eral dif­fi­cul­ties we have been able to bring about re­form…[I just hope] this hard work is recog­nised.”

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