In a recent conversation on world-class universities, an international expert evaluating Nepal’s school reform programme inquired about the ranking of Tribhuvan, Nepal’s largest and premier university. Questions of ranking and performance have become commonplace in a world that increasingly emphasises the knowledge economy, which has, in turn, put added pressures on nation states and resulted in a growing proclivity on their part towards ranking. No university from Nepal was even included in a 2011 study to determine the best 200 universities in Asia. And a forthcoming study by the Asian Development Bank reveals Nepal’s higher education performance is among the lowest even in South Asia.
Nepal has a relatively short history of higher education development. The first university –Tribhuvan University – was established in 1959, and until 1985 was the only university in the country. Since 1990, new higher education institutions have been established according to the ‘multi-university’ concept adopted by the state after the democratic revolution of 1990. However, Tribhuvan University – with 60 constituent and more than 800 affiliated colleges – accounts for more than 90% of the total enrolments in higher education.
The problems that Nepal’s higher education faces are legion. It is still an elite system in terms of access and participation, with a gross enrolment rate of less than 10%. Geographical, socio-economic, gender and caste/ethnic inequalities in participation are quite marked. There are also significant imbalances in terms of expansion of the system: the growth is highly skewed towards general higher education, largely at the cost of technical higher education. According to the data collated by Nepal’s University Grants Commission (UGC), fewer than 8% of students are enrolled in technical subjects; and the majority of them are concentrated in the basic sciences.
Then there is the perceived low quality and relevance of higher education. Generally the best students are enrolled in technical subjects. However, graduation rates are quite low. According to the UGC, the graduation rate in science and technology in 2008 was 56% at bachelor level and 27% at masters level. In engineering, the same rate was 44% at bachelor and 55% at masters level. In education, and the humanities and social sciences – where the majority of the students are enrolled – the pass rates are much lower, with education reporting the lowest pass rate of only around 10%.
A multitude of factors are responsible for this poor performance. The everyday teaching-learning in the majority of universities (barring some institutions in medicine and engineering) is characterised by a highly frontal method, with little emphasis on enhancing research or analytical and writing capacities of the graduates. This is coupled with an assessment system that comprises only an annual examination. In the basic sciences, growth in physical facilities (in terms of lab size and equipment) has been virtually stagnant, and it is a common sight to see students conducting individual experiments in groups for lack of equipment.
On top of all this there is rampant political interference in the everyday affairs of the universities, in spite of their legal status as autonomous institutions. The problem is rife in the nominations for key leadership positions, such as vice-chancellors, rectors and registrars. Moreover, universities are not immune from routine strikes and shutdowns from politically affiliated interest groups of students, teachers and administrative staff. This has had significant effects on the universities’ academic environment and the annual academic calendar, forcing students to spend up to six years to complete a three-year degree.
The mode of expansion of higher education has also stymied innovations in the system. All the universities in Nepal have adopted the ‘affiliation’ mode of expansion, whereby the university ensures a standardised curriculum and testing in all the affiliated colleges against a levy. It has allowed universities to expand quickly. However, it has also reduced the opportunities for regular curriculum reforms, faculty training and ensuring minimum standards. Moreover, most of the affiliated colleges have been set up without adequate infrastructure and focus instead on non-technical subjects that require little investment.
A key characteristic of high-performing higher education systems is the emphasis given to research and development (R&D), and Nepal’s performance in R&D has been dismal. In 2008, Nepal is reported to have produced 223 scientific papers; government records show that only 67 patents had been approved until 2010; and the ‘guesstimate’ for the percentage of scientists and engineers involved in R&D is around 3% of the total nationally. All of these figures compare poorly with other South Asian countries.
A primary reason for this poor performance is the low investment in R&D, with R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP at a dismal 0.3%. At the same time, the privately established higher education institutions are overly concerned with market relevancy and immediate profits, and invest little in R&D. Furthermore, the absence of a productive economy – with a primarily mercantile private sector – and negligible foreign direct investment have not led to the development of university-industry linkages for fostering R&D.
More generally, funding for higher education in Nepal has declined since the 1970s, when it used to receive more than 30% of the government’s total annual budget. Since 1990, higher education has been receiving, on average, only around 15% or less of the annual education budget. And more than 90% of it is used for teacher and staff salaries.
Nepal has been highly dependent on foreign aid to meet its development costs since embracing modernisation and planned economic development in 1951. However, it has been extremely difficult for the government to generate the needed resources through aid, largely because of the preoccupation of aid agencies with primary and basic education in the aftermath of the World Conferences on Education for All in Jomtien in 1990 and Dakar in 2000.
Perhaps the question of global ranking and comparison is still well beyond the contextual reality of higher education in Nepal, especially so in the context of institutions that, by and large, have struggled to perform even their minimum normative requirements. The general history of ‘modern’ institutions (including higher education institutions) in Nepal is one of gradual degradation, rather than improvement over time. This is exemplified by the fate of previously well-functioning policy research institutions of the Tribhuvan University – such as the Centre for Economic Development and the Research Centre for Educational Innovation and Development – which have witnessed gradual erosion in their competence over the years. What we first need are well-functioning higher education institutions; then we can think of making them ‘world-class’.
*Pramod Bhatta is a researcher at Martin Chautari, a not-for-profit research institution in Kathmandu.