An article by Pratyoush Onta published in this newspaper has questioned the validity of the core argument of another article by Bidushi Dhungel published in the same newspaper (“A Question of Quality,” January 27, 2013 and “Ailing Academia,” October 4, 2012). Onta has tried to summarise Dhungel’s argument in line with the declining quality of the journal Contributions to Nepalese Studies, which was depicted as an indication of the current sickness in Nepali academia as a result of political interference in the domain of scholarship in post-1990 Nepal.
For Onta, Nepali academia is not in a declining situation, rather it has been developing in diverse forms, but it has been shifting its location from universities to other social institutions like research-based/academic NGOs and civil societies and become more decentralised. He tried to justify his argument by giving the landscape of journal production of Nepali academia during the last decade. However, for Dhungel, Nepali academia has been decelerating partly due to political interference. To prove her argument, she has given an example of the current state of CNAS and its publication Contributions to Nepalese Studies. Based on both the arguments, I have tried to present my observations on knowledge production in the social sciences which pose some questions that may need a review of Onta’s arguments.
Onta has spent relatively more space in his writing to highlight the growing number of journals as an indication of the progressive state of post-90s Nepali academia. According to him, “the number of new journals published since 2000 almost equals the total number of journals published in the previous 50 years (1950-1999) in the social sciences”. This is true at least in data. But we should meticulously investigate the growth of journals and their longevity. Experience shows that most of the journals in the social sciences were or are being produced as a goal, which I prefer to call an individual will project. A will project is started and run by individuals, many of whom were trained in the social sciences at Tribhuvan University (TU) or other universities in the 1980s and 1990s. But they have failed to institutionalise it.
If we forget a few leading journals in the social sciences such as Contributions to Nepalese Studies and Studies in Nepali History and Society, most of the journals are produced by an individual’s voluntary efforts. That may be the main reason why most of the journals which are referred to in his article have not been regularly published. The fact is that not more than four or five issues have been published within a period of more than a decade even though they claim to be “annual journals”. Another fact regarding these journals is that they are hardly circulated among academics, and more importantly, they are hardly cited as references in academic courses in universities or elsewhere. Therefore, we should scrutinise the progress of journal publication in the social sciences from a broader framework to know the state of Nepali academia, whether it is progressing or not.
First, we should acknowledge that universities and research centres are still the centre of knowledge production. My current state of knowledge does allow me to figure out the exact situation of our social science departments and research centres at TU. But on the basis of informal conversations I have had with several faculty members of TU, I can state that the number students in the social sciences has been decreasing constantly since the last few years. This has never happened before.
According to central department sources of TU, the number of students attending classes regularly is less than the number of faculty members of some departments such as history, psychology, Nepali history, culture and archaeology, political science, linguistics, geography and population studies. Student enrolment in economics and sociology/anthropology seems to be far better than in the above mentioned subjects, however, the trend is decreasing. There may be a number of factors for this decline, but elaborating on them is beyond the motive of this write-up. This situation simply implies that social science studies are ailing at least in TU’s departments and classrooms.
Second, if we talk about TU, its departments and affiliated research centres, the situation is more disappointing academically because of political intervention. These institutions are more like party offices rather than academic centres because the eligibility for promotion and responsibilities of the vice-chancellor, dean, rector, department head and executive director are determined on the basis of political affiliation instead of academic rigor or research strength and seniority. Third, there are a few other universities like Kathmandu, Purbanchal and Pokhara which give priority to medicine and health, engineering and management subjects for affiliation. The social sciences are considered to be weak departments in these universities too. They are hampered by political intervention as much as TU.
Fourth, research-based NGOs and other private research institutes can generate research works, but they suffer more than universities in several ways. Most of them
depend on donors for funding and, to some extent, ideas too. And they can only do short-term project-based research and face frequent funding crises. Moreover, they have weak physical infrastructure and human resources and get little moral support from the public. Furthermore, they are not far from certain socio-cultural diseases of Nepali society such as nepotism, internal conflict, corruption, salary disparity and so on. Again, donor agencies seem to be reluctant to give money to knowledge production, academic research and journal publication.
To sum up, the existing situation has not been able to create a conducive environment for knowledge production in the social sciences in Nepal including quality publication of journals. Could you say something?
Uprety is the event and discussion coordinator at Martin Chautari