Higher education Need for a balanced approach to privatisation

Bidur Prasad Upadhyay:

Until the advent of democracy, the government sector had a monopoly on higher education system in Nepal. The political transformation of 1951 brought drastic changes in the field of education. Educational institutions sprouted by leaps and bounds, most of them being a by-product of public initiative. All the colleges before the advent of Tribhuvan University (TU) were academically affiliated to Patna University. Though public initiative and contribution served as the backbone of the private colleges, their regulation was possible only with support from the government.

The stupendous growth of private colleges was not, however, matched by qualitative improvements expected in a centre of higher learning. Despite the paucity of qualified and competent teachers, due to lack of financial resources and absence of proper facilities, private colleges struggled through in catering to the rising aspirations of the swelling number of the students. As the students grew from 256 in 1951 to 31,504 in 1975, the government would have confronted with almost an insurmountable challenge. In defiance of academic consideration some colleges, it is alleged, had come into existence as a handiwork of uneducated unemployed in the urban areas. Only those institutions of higher education funded by the state, with few exceptions, were considered of quality because the state was providing its citizenry with the best higher education possible.

In the meantime, Nepali higher education has been a sector not attractive to investors. Because of this, in 1971, with the assistance of the US, a reform in the education system was initiated which had in effect restructured and revamped the entire education system. As a result, both private and public colleges were brought into the broad framework of TU. The financing of those colleges became the responsibility of the government. Since a single university managed the entire higher education, there was a slow growth of higher education institutions. The number of students increased and the government could not resist the policy of having only the constituent colleges. Then the tightening control of the university on the campuses was unfastened. The National Education Committee framing some policy invited the community again to open colleges to fulfil the social demand. At present the mushroom growth of community campuses has been a remainder of old colleges in worse form. In a poor country like Nepal much cannot be expected from the individual for promoting the cause of higher education. Hence, in keeping with the broad national policy of securing maximum participation and cooperation from the people, it is high time for the government to formulate a well-stated and determined policy and to take corrective measures as regards private academic institutions for the purpose of creating a healthy climate in the area of higher education.

The government’s inability to fully support higher education in recent years made it necessary that private investors and entrepreneurs are encouraged to meet the demand and to offer these services on self-financing basis. It is evident that due to increased competitiveness and reluctance on the part of traditional system to keep pace with the changing needs and market demand, partnership in higher education between the government and private sector is the need of the country. The development in the area of privatisation of higher education has already started to influence local and national levels. In the long run this may affect the structure of university and university governance. However, when profit motive dominates and quality of education is compromised and fees and other charges are levied, such educational ventures are generally termed commercial. These type of institutions when earning profit not necessarily plough back part of the profit for improvement in quality or for improving access to education among deprived groups. In absence of effective regulations, society is not in a position to approve this type of private initiative, as this will contribute to inter-personal, inter-regional and inter-generational disparities.

Hence, a judicious balance has not been maintained in the formulation of privatisation policy of higher education. Besides, the liberalisation and globalisation, coupled with the revolution in the field of information technology, has brought new challenges to higher education. The responsibility of all kinds of institutions of higher education is not only confined to imparting general, professional and technical education but also to forecasting the future needs of the country. The government is faced with resource constraints, and the allocation has not met the requirements. To overcome the pressure, the government is encouraging private sector participation in higher education.

It is also found from various studies that subsidisation of university education means the university education is acting as a conduit for transferring resources from the poor to the rich. It is a country’s primary responsibility to assure that quality higher education is provided, regardless of the public or private status of the providers. The fees and other charges should be levied in relation to the cost of education. In order to improve access of the deprived groups to education, there should be a provision of 30 per cent reserved seats for the poor, women and downtrodden ethnic groups.

Dr Upadhyay is chairman, UGC