Dr Govinda KC’s hunger strike Last week brought to the forefront a burning issue plaguing the country’s education sector—political appointments to top-most positions at Tribhuvan University. Education is a pillar of a civilised society, but political meddling in the country’s only public university has taken a huge toll on the quality of educators, students and research it delivers. As Vice Chancellor of Tribhuvan University in the aftermath of the democratic revolution of 1991, serving for a period of nearly four years, Kedar Bhakta Mathema is remembered for many of the institutional reforms he brought in and a reputation for making unpopular decisions. In conversation with the Post’s Bidushi Dhungel, Mathema spoke of the paralysing effect political interference and the plight of academia including the TU. Excerpts:
As someone who was once the Vice Chancellor of Truibhuvan University appointed by the Nepali Congress, how do you view political appointments in the university?
When democracy came to Nepal in 1991, I was asked by the first elected PM Girija Prasad Koirala to come back to TU, an institution I had resigned from during the Panchayat regime. I left because of a tussle with the state which ultimately demoted me two grades, and unlike some of my contemporaries I chose to leave. When I came back I made it clear that I would not work under political interference, would not carry a party flag with me, and would require support from the government to be able to have a lasting effect on the university. Never did I pick a dean or head of department because of their political association. The problem is that these conditions don’t apply to TU anymore, and as a result, you have the kind of dysfunctional TU that you see today. I firmly believe that TU must be an autonomous university.
How do you see the latest developments surrounding the appointment to the Dean’s office at Teaching Hospital?
When the recent appointment was made for Teaching Hospital’s Dean, since the hospital has been handed over to the UML, the party leaders appoint someone who is most loyal to the party. At the top-most level, since Loktantra came, the Vice Chancellor’s post, the Rector’s post and Registrar’s post have been distributed between the UML, Maoists, and Congress respectively. That’s where the problem stems and the actions taken in recent days at Teaching Hospital were not only good, but necessary.
Do you see Tribhuvan University getting progressively better since your time?
At my time, the status of the university was such that ministers wouldn’t even dare to call to push for political appointments. Nowadays, if you look at what’s happening internally at Teaching Hospital, the tacit understanding is that the Medicine Institute belongs to a party, that Forestry Institute belongs to another, that Engineering Institute belongs to another party. These parties can do whatsoever they choose with them.
What Teaching has done is good. Those in the hospital should not tolerate interference from outsiders. The four institutes in fact, should be totally autonomous. I would go so far as to say that these TU colleges like Tri-Chandra or Padma Kanya should be given full autonomy and gradually developed as their own state universities. Instead, it seems more centralised and controlled by the political class than ever.
How capable are the political appointees?
The problem with the appointments is that political loyalty is carrying far more weight than capability. This has meant that the best minds have been sidelined at TU, such that eventually they have to leave. The truth is that the really capable academic leaders don’t go running after posts. At TU, capable Deans and Heads of Departments and the VC even should be dug out, convinced and appointed—the ones waiting outside your door with their hands together are certainly not worth these posts. This kind of appointing those that suck-up the most has become habitual at even the lower-end of positions in TU, and everywhere else.
What is the impact of mass political appointments at the University?
We are feeling the impact of lack of reforms at TU every day. This is because there is no autonomy to make difficult choices. The education sector is no place for populist politics. If you want change, you have to take unpopular decisions.
What about other problems the University faces?
I carried out a study five years ago on what makes a school effective. For two weeks each, we kept two professors in around 40 schools around the country. The number one result for the factor which makes a school effective came out to be leadership. It’s not that there aren’t great teachers and professors at TU, but slowly because of the disarray, none of the sound minds want to be associated with the university. That is the worst part.
Unionism is high among teachers, bureaucrats and students, and these have developed in such a nasty way that they don’t allow space for meritocracy to function. The first problem is: How do you attract the best minds to work for you? The second problem: How do you retain them when they are being offered better jobs and better pay outside? Third problem: how do you find and keep equally good successors, if not better, when the best minds retire? How will TU replace Saubhagya Shah or Chaitanya Mishra? The political leaders are to blame because we have gone to them and joined our hands to plea for quality over political loyalty. If they can’t stop political appointments, at least they can appoint capable people.
What about the political parties using the students for politics?
In Nepal, in order to organise a mass meet, the university has to be shut for the day because all the students are also the political activists on the streets. Its one thing to practice student unionism, and its necessary too, for the student cause—for issues related to the university and education. But national politics in university grounds is a scary thought. Political interference prevails in appointments; it also prevails through their interference through student unions.
A country moves up on the pillars of its institutions, but when the institutions crumble, there is no chance of moving up and this is what is happening. The political leadership is to blame—we have told them about the effects of this. For example, when the political class looks for experts for a Commission, say the State Restructuring Commission, they should have been able to come to TU for experts, but there are hardly just a few left.
What solutions do you see for the improvement of TU?
Frankly, Truibhuvan University is too big. Nepalis tend to be weak at management, especially when it’s centralised, due to the corruption and nepotism we have instilled in all institutions. So an answer would be to have many universities outside of TU. Turn Trichandra into its own university along with Padma Kanya. Kirtipur should be a research university—a top-ranking research university where the professors and students are only the cream of the lot—a Harvard of Nepal. The rest can be teaching universities that only allow student councils and unions, which are not branches of national level political parties. Accountability and competition will rise automatically and the load will gradually be taken off of TU.
One year, a TU branch in Pokhara can set its own questions, the next year, it can mark them, the year after, it can give its own seal and gradually, it could transform into its own university. We could do the same in Biratnagar and Janakpur. But the leaders are confused, they don’t know if they want to open a new university or an embassy in Brazil—to them it’s the same. TU is redeemable, but where is the vision?
One school of thought says that the best minds don’t work at TU because they are employed by international organisations. Have you observed this?
Money is not everything. When you choose a career, you choose a style of life. There’s something about teaching which doesn’t compare to other things. You could work at a bank and make a million dollars, but it’s not a fun job. If the atmosphere is vibrant and free in the university and research funds are available and productivity is high, I really don’t think the real academics would sacrifice that for money. Also, you can take consultancies and projects from INGOs to respective departments at the universities—that’s what should be done. But right now, the teachers are everywhere except in the classroom.
Ultimately, bad money drives good money out of circulation—the best are out. The only solution is a leadership which is loyal to the institution and not to the political leaders. The kind of assertion shown at Teaching Hospital, hunger strike aside, is the way forward. But then again, desperate times call for desperate measures.