University Act : Government meddling should be stopped

There are as many Acts as there are universities in Nepal, most of them based on the Act of Tribhuvan University, the oldest university in Nepal. Now there are six full-fledged universities and two deemed-level universities and many are in the pipeline; the government has already decided to establish four more universities in the coming fiscal year. Applications to establish more universities (both full-fledged and deemed) are pouring in at the Education Policy Committee, the apex policymaking body of the Ministry of Education and Sports. It seems that all these universities will be established based on separate Acts as the government does not have a common policy to cover them all and is itself unclear about the nature of universities the country should have.

Tribhuvan University and Nepal Sanskrit University have been functioning as government universities although no such provision has been mentioned anywhere. Kathmandu University has been termed non-government university whereas Purvanchal and Pokhara universities originally were supposed to become community-led regional universities. Lumbini Boudha University has a vice-chancellor but neither academic programme nor students; however this is also a government university. The monitoring and supervision of these universities is non-existent. What is common to all is that they have the PM as Chancellor and the Education Minister as Pro-chancellor. In most universities, secretary of the Ministry of Education is also a member of the Senate. Besides, MPs are also included in the Senate.

In course of time, university authorities have felt the need to change some provisions of the Act unsuitable to them. But changing the university Act as per the requirements of each institution depends not so much on the consensus of its Senate members but on government-appointed nominees. There are instances when the MoES has initiated changes in the Act without consulting the concerned university. As members of the senate, they have also failed to inform the senate about the proposed revisions. Is this not double standard on the part of the Minister and the Secretary, both members of the Senate? Recently, a proposal to change some university Acts was forwarded by the MoES to the Ministry of Law. Based on the consent of MoL, the revision proposal has now been tabled in the cabinet of ministers. Other universities are also trying to revise their Acts based on Senate decision. The question is: How can the MoES intervene in Senate affairs? How can it change Acts without the knowledge of the universities? The Senate is chaired by the PM, with Minister and Secretary for Education and other crème de la crème in education sector as members. So the Senate should have the final say, not the MoES. Otherwise the Senate serves no good purpose and acts only as rubberstamp to the decisions of the PM and the minister. Chancellor, pro-chancellor and any member of the Senate, they all are part of the university. In this context it is their responsibility to promote and facilitate university activities. Not letting the university know about the changes in their Acts, thus, is a betrayal of the country’s higher education system.

Moreover, the Cabinet of Ministers should consult the concerned universities before making important decisions. Otherwise, the possibility of contradiction between MoES proposal and that of the University Senate remains high. Since the Cabinet is chaired by the Prime Minister himself with the Education Minister as a member, let us hope there will be no unwanted intervention in universities. There have been instances when the Minister of Education proposed changes in the Act based solely on some application. The MoES should make it clear when, how and who can revise the Acts.

In this situation, the government should come up with a clear policy on higher education. The roles and responsibilities of the Senate should be prioritised rather than bureaucratic government institutions deciding their fate. At a time when universities are operating with maximum autonomy around the world, government control of university affairs, except in its establishment and supervision, is uncalled for. Although the government policies clearly indicate the autonomous status of the universities, Nepali universities are still struggling to assert their autonomy.

Regarding the establishment of new universities, the government should first be clear about their sustainability since the government itself cannot finance them all. Most importantly, the universities should be allowed to run on their own, the academia should be trusted to come up with policies befitting education establishments and the varsities should be helped to show good results. Besides, the government should stop unnecessary political intervention in universities and affiliated colleges. A consolidated plan to remove interventions in higher education is the order of the day.

Dr Wagley is an educationist