The Nepali higher education system is also characterised by weak governance, over politicisation of teaching and non-teaching personnel, ineffective management, confusion about the understanding of higher education as a merit good or public good and low investment

Nepali students have been receiving higher education in three major ways. About 441,819 students are studying at 1,432 higher education institutions of 11 universities and six health science academies that are offering various programmes under different disciplines. In addition, eight academic institutions, under the Infrastructure Development Committees and medical colleges, are in the pipeline and are expected to run their education programme in the future.

A small number of Nepali institutions have also been offering a few courses of foreign higher education institutions through affiliation.

Out of 88 such institutions (colleges and schools), only 45 offer a higher education catering to about 20,000 students a year.

A significant number of students have also been going abroad for higher education.

Since fiscal year 2065/66, a total of 416,364 students have obtained no-objection letters from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

According to data, Japan, Australia, Korea, UK, Canada and the USA are the preferred countries in order for the students. In addition, about 100 Nepali students per year also receive government scholarships to undergo higher education in foreign universities.

The number of students receiving the no-objection letter has been increasing over the years (24,824 in FY 2065/66 and 63,259 in 2075/76 before the COV- ID-19 pandemic). However, there is no data on how many of them reached their destination and returned to Nepal after completing the course due to absence of a unified and integrated tracking system.

And some students may have also gone abroad without taking the no-objection letter.

The attraction of Nepali students towards higher education courses (in-country and abroad) has been growing year after year. In addition, more than 4.4 million youths with permission from the government have joined the foreign labour market, most of whom are engaged in 3D jobs. Keeping a highly productive age group away from Nepali society has negative consequences not only in economic terms but socially as well. No study has been done to assess its impact.

Analysis by the Nepali Living Standard Survey indicates that higher education in Nepal is for the students coming from the middle and higher income families. In the absence of scholarships and an implementable education loan programme, meritorious students from the lower income group cannot afford higher studies either in the country or abroad.

A report published by the University Grants Commission (UGC) shows that the gross enrolment ratio in higher education is 14.42 (2018/19). It also indicates that higher education institutions are located in urban locations, mostly in the Kathmandu Valley and a few other major cities. The proportion of students enrolled in general and technical education is 76.97 and 23.03 per cent respectively. About 46.37 per cent of the students are in the Management stream. Other streams like Education, Humanities, Science and Technology, Medicine and Engineering make up 17.19 per cent, 10.96per cent, 8.38per cent, 6.38per cent and 6.57per cent respectively.

The quality of higher education is an area of big concern. The UGC report (2018/19) also includes information about the graduation rates. The pass rate in Tribhuvan University is about 26.10 per cent on average –Law (29.1%), Humanities (38.81%), Education (16.65%), Management (24.75%), and Science and Technology (36.54%).

Critics argue that many programmes in the Nepali higher education system are of little relevance to the current domestic and international market needs.

Some public institutions are also offering both high and low fee paying programmes with big advertisements, which further magnify the already divided society in terms of educational achievements.

The Nepali higher education system is also characterised by weak governance, over politicisation of teaching and non-teaching personnel, ineffective management, confusion about the understanding of higher education as a merit good or public good, low investment, less sustainable financing, absence of a research-oriented culture and poor academic environment.

The higher education system should, thus, be modernised with a view to serving the national needs and making the students able to compete both in the domestic and international market. For this, quality higher education, research and innovation should be the focus of the institutions by improving the governance structure, increasing investment and focusing on research and innovation.

They should also offer new courses while revising the existing programmes and structures.

Second, competitive courses should be designed in collaboration with high ranking foreign universities to attract students and strengthen the institutional capacity and the faculty.

Third, courses of foreign universities (top raking) should be allowed to run in Nepal only for a certain period.

For this, the existing institutions should work with the Nepali higher education institutions so as to shift their academic programmes to Nepali ones in the long run. A few institutions may still be allowed to run foreign higher education courses in specialised areas.

Fourth, all programmes must have fixed seats with clear standards and conditions.

The academic calendar, mandatory requirements of research and publications, practical sessions and other standards should be publicised and followed. The UGC should be strengthened and made to periodically carry out monitoring and ranking.

Fifth, teachers' training, strengthening of libraries and laboratories, and making research mandatory for the faculty members are some of the other areas of improvement.

At the end, can we stop Nepali students from going abroad? We may not be able to stop them at the present moment. The concern should not be to stop them, but to design and implement schemes that will bring them back to their home country.

A version of this article appears in the print on August 18 2021, of The Himalayan Times.