Army’s plan for defence university stokes debate over who should pay for it

2019-04-08

The Kathmandu Post


- ANIL GIRI, KATHMANDU, Nepal Army’s long-held plan to establish a defence university has stoked a fresh debate among experts, as they have raised concerns over its modality, logistics, sustainability, financing—and above all, over whether the country really needs it.

Though the concept of National Defence University was floated about four years ago, it started to take shape only after the government incorporated it in the policies and programmes for the ongoing fiscal year. 

“We have held preliminary discussions only so far and are yet to discuss issues on the operational side, including budget, location, academic structures, courses and curricula and faculty among others,” said Brigadier General Bigyan Dev Pandey, spokesperson for the Nepal Army. 

The Army last week organised a consultation meeting where serving generals, former army officials, government officials, academicians and foreign affairs experts were present. The Army says the primary objective of establishing the university is to produce manpower in national security and defence matters. Officials claim that such an academy will enable the national defence force to expand military and civilian diplomacy by attracting foreigners at the university.

Nepal currently provides short-term training slots like High-level Command Course at the Staff College, Shivapuri and Military Academy. Due to the lack of a dedicated university, Nepal has been sending dozens of its military and security officials in neighbouring countries and abroad for courses related to national security, defence, military cooperation and diplomacy as well as other emerging foreign policy and security issues. 

After the Ministry of Defence and the Army floated the plan to set up a defence university, several countries including India, China, the United States and Pakistan have shown interest to extend support.
A decision on foreign assistance—and the nature of that assistance—is yet to be taken, but experts have cautioned that the government should refrain from taking outside help in projects like defence university.

“If there has to be a defence university, it should be a home-grown domestically-funded institution,” Binoj Basnyat, a retired general, told the Post. “If we need to seek foreign support, we can consider assistance for hardware, like building and architecture.”

As of now, the Army has said the university will be a “totally home-grown project” and will be built with Nepal’s own resources. Nepal has been receiving foreign assistance in multiple areas, including the security sector. In 2017, China built the Armed Police Force Academy in Kathmandu. During his visit to China in October last year, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Ishwor Pokhrel requested the Chinese side to support Nepal to set up a defence university. The Chinese side expressed readiness to extend its cooperation to Nepal, according to officials.

Similarly, during his Nepal visit in the last week of February, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, Joe Felter, had also expressed US interest to extend any kind of support needed to set up such a university in Nepal. 

India has already offered support to build Nepal Police Academy.  Some experts say Nepal should be careful while moving ahead with the defence university plan, as it involves a wide range of concerns, especially given the geopolitical scenario.

“If we seek support, then it could invite competition [among powerful countries]. The government and Nepal Army should refrain from taking foreign assistance—neither in hardware nor software,” Geja Sharma Wagle, who writes on security-related matters, told the Post. “Since we have seen so much of geopolitical rivalry among neighbours and powers, we run the risk of having their interest penetrated into our institutions.”

Some of those who participated in a consultation meeting last week told the Post in separate interviews that a defence university is the need of the hour but since such a sensitive project will have huge strategic meaning and implications, the government should refrain from accepting foreign assistance to move forward. 

Officials say once the university is set up, Nepal will have its own facility at home to offer Master, MPhil and PhD for Nepalis as well as foreigners. Those who attended the consultation meeting included Rajan Bhattarai, foreign relations adviser to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli; former defence minister Bal Krishna Khand, former foreign secretary and ambassador Madhu Raman Acharya, Director at Center for South Asian Studies Nischal Nath Pandey; former Nepal Army general Suresh Raj Sharma, all serving generals of Nepal Army and some vice-chancellors of Nepali universities.

“A defence university is a welcome step, but some more homework on legal provisions and resources is required before the project moves ahead,” Bhattarai, the prime minister’s advisor, told the Post. “It has been our need for a long time.” The Army had formed a panel led by retired Nepal Army general Ramindra Chettri to suggest the concept of setting up a defence university. The Chettri-led committee had briefed Oli that the university should be set up within the Valley, that it would not grant affiliation to colleges and that there would be three academic layers. The committee had also suggested certain quota for civilians and Nepal Police and the Armed Police Force officials to pursue studies at the university. 

The Army has proposed the prime minister as chancellor, defence minister as joint chancellor and Army chief as deputy joint-chancellor of the university.
“The only aim of setting up a defence university is to ensure higher studies for our senior officers at home,” Pandey, the spokesperson for the Army told the Post. “As far as foreign assistance to build the university is concerned, we have not thought about it yet.”