Educational reform Taming the bull

Ananda P Srestha:

The teaching-learning situation at Tribhuvan University, or the Centre of Excellence, to put it mildly, is far from excellent. The teacher-student ratio, at least in the Department of English, according to even South Asian standards, is enough to give a culture shock, if not a heart attack to educationists from the West. For the current session this year some 500 plus students have been admitted in the first year alone, and for the sake of “convenience” been divided into four sections. All appeared in the “entrance examination” and every one of them was duly admitted. Though there are four other TU campuses in Kathmandu that run MA level programmes in the teaching of English, a majority of students seem to profess profound love for the already bursting and not so academic TU.

The reason for this stampede stems from the fact that there is no fixed student quota for TU departments and its campuses elsewhere. Therefore, the TU Department of English is obliged to accommodate the flood of students. So, by implication, higher education in the country becomes the “birthright” of every student and entrance examinations for the same become a mere formality, taken on grounds to show that it is not.

The result is that the department head begins to spend sleepless nights in trying to fix the class routine for some seven sections and 40 plus teachers on a permanent, part time and contract basis. Besides, managing classrooms, chairs and other basic facilities becomes another headache. At present there are some 1000 students enrolled in the department of English of whom only about 600 plus attend classes on a regular basis.

The teacher-student ratio and the workload on individual teachers are therefore tremendous, so much so that a staff member even called for a fitness class to be run for teachers in the department. Even with four sections in the first and three sections in the second year, there are more than 100 students on average in each section! Add to this the pathetic, claustrophobic classroom conditions with damaged chairs and smashed windowpanes, or the see through rostrum for the teacher’s use, and the TU teaching-learning situation is complete. For lack of space, it is quite comical to see the poor chalk-powdered teacher while lecturing, pinned almost wriggling to the blackboard. Obviously, such conditions defy all teaching methodologies developed to date, and make a mockery of teacher training programmes. “Lecture and quality be damned” is obviously the only method that can be applied in the present context.

Relatively, the teaching-learning situation in private campuses is far better, though charges are steep compared to the TU’s ancient fee structure that hardly exceeds Rs. 560 annually. As the government budget for the education sector diminishes each year, the competition from private colleges becomes even more challenging. To make up for the same, TU has resorted to a rent-seeking attitude thus explaining why shopping malls and super market complexes are coming up in TU’ commercially viable prime lands in urban pockets. Though it may be politically correct on the part of the government(s) to continue the policy of ancient fee structure and allowing access to higher education through farcical entrance exams, it will, as a result, need all the luck there is in implementing the rather ambitious five-year strategic programme Education for All 2004 – 2009.

If we are really to compete in this global world, the much touted but seldom applied political will, tempered with a change in attitude will be an essential prerequisite. We must be ready to accept the fact that attempts at educational reform in the 21st century will make heavy demands in terms of skills, resources, and work force. This of course will call for a new, effective and dynamic education system, a modernised curriculum, periodic teacher training programmes, effective teaching methodologies and delivery systems and, moreover, a practical if not an ideal teaching learning situation.

It will be wise on the part of policy makers also to keep in mind the country’s chronic problems like social and gender disparity, domination of certain ethnic and caste groups etc. This is imperative, considering that these very issues are likely not only to crop up consistently as possible hindrances but also that they could possibly be made convenient scapegoats should the plan be ill-fated like the New Education System Plan the country adopted in the 1970s. Therefore, any attempts at change or reform will demand a thorough study of the current ground realities and the will to learn from past mistakes. A viable legislative framework in overcoming obstacles in the field can only come through such an exercise.

However, the notorious trend and gross politicisation of the country’s educational institutions has further complicated and taken a heavy toll on quality. The pathetic academic standards set by the government’s TU and its affiliated campuses are cases in point. The country’s education sector has over the years acquired the form of a menacing, sharp-horned, muscle-flexing bull, furiously printing and scraping its proud hooves in the educational arena and bellowing full-throated challenges to any attempts at reform. Though the problem is not beyond repair, the case, however, is a typical one. Typical in that the remedy could well be far more corrosive than the malady.

Srestha is a professor, Dept of English, TU