New universities : The question of ownership

The government plans to establish at least four new universities in the near future, namely mid-western university, far-western university, agriculture university and open university. It is good to know the government is concerned about increasing people’s access to higher education. But the important question is how to make those universities self-reliant and operational on their own resources. The universities in existence are neither independent nor do they enjoy enough operational autonomy. This has prevented the universities from working to their full potential.

After the establishment of new universities, the country will have ten full-fledged universities and two deemed universities. In a small country like Nepal, a dozen universities are more than enough. If these universities are made fully autonomous then there will be no need to establish more universities. It will be wise on the government’s part to replicate the well-functioning universities throughout the country rather than just add extra universities without any concern about how effectively they will function.

The deteriorating quality of higher education has been most visible in the oldest university in Nepal (Tribhuvan University). Despite the best efforts of the government and the university itself, the university’s condition is deteriorating day by day. The government provides 85 per cent of the university’s total cost, but the results are far from satisfactory with the exception of its medical and engineering branches. For the same reason, other universities established after TU are now amending their Acts.

The major reason behind the existing problems is the question over ownership. If one asks who owns the existing universities, there is no definite answer. Is it the government, the community or the local people? Community itself is a vague term, so universities cannot be owned by “community”. The government cannot be the owner simply because the prime minister is the chancellor. The vice-chancellor and other key officials of the university cannot be the owners because they are appointed for fixed terms. In the present context, each university is controlled by a senate. Thus the senate seems to be the owner. But in most universities, the senate meets only twice on average every year. Moreover most of the senate members are appointed for fixed terms.

So it is highly essential for the government to resolve the issue of ownership before hastening to open more universities. Unless the ownership issue is clarified, the economic viability of higher education will remain a suspect. Once the ownership issue is resolved, the government can ask each university to generate its own resources. Otherwise the government will continuously be asked, as owner of the universities, to fund their programmes.

Let us analyse the rationale for the four proposed universities and calculate the costs. The Minister of Education is talking about developing western and far-western universities as regional universities. In the past, the same reason was given for establishment of Purbanchal and Pokhara universities. The parliament directed the government to integrate all TU-affiliated colleges of the east and the west in these universities. However the government failed to do so. Would it not be a better option to establish universities that offer different areas of specialisation rather than establishing universities offering the same courses throughout the country?

Moreover, Nepali universities hardly focus on research and education without research cannot be considered quality education. Although TU has provisions for four research centres, none has been functioning well because of resource crunch. These problems will recur in the new universities if the government fails to determine the right owner.

In many countries, universities are owned by a ‘board of trustees’. The major responsibility of the board include, among others, to formulate policies, look after finances, monitor and evaluate, see to teachers’ management, appoint key officials, raise funds, ensure sustainability, handle legal issues, and enrich the quality of education. The board is fully autonomous in that it is free from political encroachment. In many cases the board of trustees, with elected, nominated and life members included, plays the role of the senate. This system is indispensable in Nepal for two reasons. One, there has been unnecessary political meddling in higher education, and the second reason is that the universities have not been able to exercise their autonomy in any real sense. These are the main reasons Nepali higher education system has been crippled. It is thus high time to make the board of trustees owner of each university in order to minimise its financial reliance on the government. Moreover, the government should strictly follow the principle of cost recovery in higher education. It cannot keep financing the universities and add to its already burgeoning costs.

Dr. Wagley is an educationist