Unleashing opportunity: Reforms in higher education must

Unlike in developed countries where  higher education is based on research instruments, universities in Nepal have failed to lay emphasis on research-based curricula

Nepal’s higher education is still in infancy. Although the country has seen some growth in the higher education sector, much needs to be done to improve it. Nepal actually can learn a lot from two giant neighbours China and India, which have their education system first and third largest respectively in the world. The government of Nepal needs to come up with strong agenda to overcome the issues that have atrophied higher education system.

Curricula in our universities do not encourage critical thinking among students. Rather, students are given a sense of deluding success when they score good grades based on rote learning. The syllabus hasn’t been matched with that of a similar course of good universities of other countries. Tribhuvan University (TU), Nepal’s leading university, is often criticised for its old-fashioned pedagogy and for not being up-to-date. Limited efforts have been made through the course to develop hard and soft skills and prepare students for jobs.

The faculty size is relatively small to accommodate all the students. For instance, TU has just over 7,000 faculties with teacher-student ratio of 1:80-90. In some classes, lecturers even deliver course materials to a few hundred students. Additionally, the faculties are mediocre as appointments are mostly political. Most faculties are just Master’s degree holders, while in most other countries, the minimum requirement to become a professor is PhD.

There is no emphasis on Research Instruments (RI) in our universities. Curricula are theory based. Research-based curricula are yet to be developed. Only a few universities such as Agriculture and Forestry University (AFU) have been involved in some good research projects. But this is also not adequate.

Conversely, higher education in developed countries is entirely based on RI, where meritorious students are highly recognised and provided with teaching or research assistantships to support their research. The support provided by Nepal’s University Grants Commission to aspiring researchers is not enough. Also, universities are not well-equipped to conduct even basic research studies.

Affiliation of students and faculties to political unions has become the norm in public universities of Nepal. As a result, students are divided and are seen fighting with each other over various issues, negatively impacting their educational growth. The government, administrative bodies, academic staff and students are equally to blame for the slow growth of higher education system in Nepal

According to the Ministry of Education, 39,307 students received no objection certificates during the first nine months of the last fiscal year. No objection certificates are mandatory for the students going abroad for studies. This figure is particularly alarming, as it surpassed previous year’s number by more than 10,000.

The rate of students, going or willing to go abroad, is ever increasing, resulting in brain drain. We have to stop this brain drain, and for this we must be able to provide quality education at home — either by opening new high-tech universities or by reinforcing current universities. It is high time policies related to higher education either changed or modified. The critical areas include establishing new universities, strengthening student and faculty size, ensuring provision of research and extension and changing the academic curricula.

Currently, there are hardly any opportunities for students to improve their skills while working with external organisation relevant to their studies.

Although there are many problems facing Nepal’s higher education system, it’s not impossible to revivify it. The government should come up with a concrete plan for improving country’s higher education. Rather than just following the age-old pedagogy, a dynamic and flexible educational system should be embraced, which trains students to meet the need of the country in the changed context.

The government should consider establishing new and high-tech universities. Similarly need-based decentralisation of departments to different places also can help. The private sector can play a crucial role. Balanced privatisation can be one of the best options, encouraging the private sector to invest in new universities. But, strict regulations will be necessary to harmonise private universities with the public ones.

Universities have to be equipped with modern laboratories to support advanced research. Libraries need to be improved to provide students with recent literature in different fields. The courses should be flexible with an opportunity of both part-time and full-time options. Experts in different areas should be encouraged to develop new programmes. Focus can be placed on bringing recent technology in education keeping in mind the possibility of online and distant education in future. For this, university staff have to be trained accordingly.

Also, to utilise the invaluable knowledge and experiences of students gone abroad for higher studies, efforts should be made to bring them back. If people occupying the government chairs become proactive to adopting new strategies in higher education, the success is actually not very far. By improving higher education system, the country can also serve as an educational hub in the region.

Pokharel is PhD candidate at University of Guelph, Canada