Continuing confusion in Nepal


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AS a society controlled by autocratic rulers and mired in casteist orthodoxy, formal learning in Nepal continued to be accepted as an exclusive domain of Brahmins till the end of the 19th century. Even among the Brahmins, transfer of knowledge was through the informal channel of (master apprentice) guru-shishya parampara rather than by going to formal centres of learning. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that a significant number of boys from well-off sections of the priestly classes started journeying to Banaras to become Sanskrit pundits. On their return, some of them established Sanskrit schools to replicate their kind in the kingdom.

The first post-school centre of western education was established as late as 1918 in the capital, Kathmandu. The Tri-Chandra College was jointly named after the reigning monarch, King Tribhuvan, who was a titular sovereign, and hereditary Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher, who ruled the kingdom with an iron hand. It is reported that Maharaja Chandra Shamsher, after ceremonially opening the college, confessed to his clansmen that he had initiated the cause of their ultimate downfall. Evidently, absolute rulers are in absolute fear of higher education.

The Rana oligarchy was thrown out in the winter of 1950-51 after years of struggle by a highly motivated group of people educated in India and inspired by its independence struggle. The spread of education was one of their most cherished ideals. Schools mushroomed all over Nepal; colleges were established in the valley. The need for a university was acutely felt, even though the number of students pursuing higher education was insufficient to justify one. It may have been so because, ‘Like flags, anthems, armies, airlines, and atomic energy commissions, universities are part of the paraphernalia of sovereignty.’1

The first university in the Himalayan Kingdom was established in 1959 after the Nepal Congress won the first ever parliamentary elections with a two-thirds majority, and its charismatic leader B.P. Koirala became the popularly elected prime minister. Prior to its establishment, colleges in the country were merely teaching centres with their examinations conducted by Patna University to which they were affiliated. Continuing with the same model, the newly established Tribhuvan University became more of an affiliating body than a centre for generation and transfer of knowledge.



Colleges had started to come up under the leadership of committed educationists supported by private endowments. These colleges, such as Mahendra Morang at Biratanagar, Thakur Ram at Birgunj and Ram Swaroop Ramsagar at Janakapur, in addition to premier institutions like Amrit Science in Kathmandu, were established at the initiative of private individuals and supported by the local community. They had their own autonomous governing bodies to manage them. The role of Tribhuvan University was limited to setting the curriculum, conducting examinations and awarding degrees.

In April 1960, King Mahendra visited the US and returned home to dissolve Parliament, suspend the Constitution and imprison most leading politicians of the day, including Prime Minister B.P. Koirala. In a retrograde step that Jawaharlal Nehru termed as ‘putting the clock back’, the King assumed absolute power. Under the ‘Land and Climate Theory’2 of the Panchayat Constitution promulgated by the King in 1962, ideas of freedom were decreed to be ‘foreign’ and the purpose of education became the indoctrination in the new ideology of basic or ‘grassroot democracy’ being championed by the military dictators of Indonesia and Pakistan. Intellectual servility came to be expected of university teachers; simultaneously introduced was the tradition of rewarding conformists with lucrative government assignments while sternly penalizing dissenters.



The academic environment started deteriorating even faster once King Mahendra heeded the advice of the Education Advisory Council to revise and update policies to better address Nepal’s educational and development needs in accordance with the political ideology of the day. In an apparent shift of policy, the 1956 Education Plan of the National Education Planning Commission was scrapped and a new National Education System Plan (NESP) was introduced in its place in 1971. An early move was the nationalization of community owned or privately managed colleges and turning them into integrated campuses of Tribhuvan University.

The ousting of ‘motivated’ community managements of colleges by integrating them with the university, and placing the system under the administrative control of a National Education Committee appointed by the King, had disastrous consequences. This killed private initiative in education and burdened the treasury with all the obligations in the field. Teachers became government servants and campuses turned into breeding grounds of mediocrity and blatant factionalism.

The teachers’ agitation (in 1976, an agitation led to the arbitrary dismissal of several university teachers), the students’ agitation (in 1980, it was one such students agitation that led to the announcement of a referendum calling upon the electorate to choose between multiparty democracy and an ‘improved’ panchayat), and employees’ agitation even at far flung university campuses became routine. The government took a confrontationist attitude towards the university when it felt that the main function of student unions and teachers’ associations alike was to oppose the panchayat system. This drove away the fearful middle class to colleges and universities in India. The elite deserted the educational institutions of the country and sent their wards abroad for higher education.



In a display of mixed-up priorities, the government set up the Mahendra Sanskrit University in 1986 and placed all the Sanskrit colleges under it. It continues to be a white elephant set up for false prestige – for a student strength of 1237, it has 352 teachers, 367 employees and spent more than NRs3 50,000 per student of public money last year.4

The people’s revolution of 1990 led to the overthrow of the ‘guided democracy’ of the panchayats and re-established plural politics. Since university teachers had played an important role in the struggles preceding the cancellation of the panchayat constitution, the interim government rewarded them by liberally granting tenured status. Overnight, the salary bill bloated without any visible impact on either the quantity or quality of teaching. Even the lower middle classes of the valley now preferred to ‘buy’ certificates from across the border in India than have their offspring endure the ritual of ‘learning’ at the local campuses of the university.



Meanwhile, private schools had started to come up in various urban centres. These ‘boarding schools’ catered to children of the middle classes unable to make it to Indian hill stations, and were poor parodies of Indian private schools where the upper-crust of Nepali society traditionally sent their children to learn correct English pronunciation and master the proper dining etiquette. Graduates from these schools looked at the Tribhuvan University campuses with scorn and preferred to go abroad for further studies.5

Under pressure from enterprising educationists, donor agencies promoting privatization, and influential parents anticipating easier entry into technical education run by profit-seeking businessmen, the government opened up higher education to private sector investment. It may have been a coincidence, but many capitation fee based engineering and medical colleges in the states of Maharashtra and Karnataka in neighbouring India were looking for an opportunity to extend their business empires and Nepal represented a lucrative market. The Patils and the Pais discovered the land of Pashupatinath, and set up signboard engineering and medical colleges without much groundwork. Affiliation to Tribhuvan University was a cumbersome process which already had well-functioning engineering and medicine faculties by then.

It was in such an environment of flux that Kathmandu University was set up in 1992, promoted by some senior teachers of Tribhuvan University who didn’t see much of a future for themselves at the old institution under the new dispensation. Though ostensibly a private institution, Kathmandu University is supported by 11 national and international bodies, apart from the government and the University Grants Commission (UGC). Last year, the UGC grant to Kathmandu University was more than NRs 7000 per student which, though much below what Mahendra Sanskrit University receives, is way above the paltry NRs 276 per student that affiliated private colleges of Tribhuvan University were given in the same year.6



Courses available at the Kathmandu University appear to have a pronounced bias against the humanities and social sciences; it does not offer a single programme. Though its School of Arts does offer a Bachelor of Arts in Music, most of its 982 students are in schools of science, management, education and particularly engineering, with much-in-demand courses in computers, electronics and environment. More glaringly, it grants affiliation to capitation-fee based private medical colleges, even though it does not have its own faculty in that discipline. The number of students in its affiliated colleges (1425) far exceeds the number currently enrolled at its own schools. However, their total at around 2000 is no match for the 100,000 students attending Tribhuvan University.

Kathmandu University is a high profile institution mainly because it has emerged as an attractive option for those well-off families which earlier sent their progenies to India for higher education. They can now despatch their children to an exclusive institution without fearing the ‘polluting’ influence of local politics. Fee barriers erected by Kathmandu University provide a strong deterrent for those from modest backgrounds. It is definitely not an institution meant for the hoi polloi.



Kathmandu University has rekind-led an old debate – that of accessibility versus excellence. An influential segment of academics, even at Tribhuvan University, is of the opinion that higher education cannot be provided to all. They advocate a barrier to screen out students with more enthusiasm than ability. In their opinion, overloading limited higher education facilities with students who have neither the aptitude nor the dedication leads to quality loss. To that criterion, Kathmandu University has added one more; in addition to being brilliant, a student must also be well-off to engage in intellectual pursuits.7

Given such conditions, it is not surprising that most students of Kathmandu University aspire to go abroad. It is too early to see a visible impact, but conversation with Kathmandu University students are revealing. ‘This country has no future,’ is the most commonly heard refrain on the campus. Coming from the students of a university boasting academic ties with premier institutions like IIT Chennai and Pennsylvania State University, such comments are indicative of where they are headed after completing their courses.

Meanwhile, Tribhuvan University continues to groan under the pressure of nearly 100,000 students, geographically spread out in campuses across the country. It was to streamline these facilities and turn them into manageable units that the National Education Commission had recommended setting up regional universities in 1993. In accordance with the intent of that recommendation, the Parliament passed the Poorvanchal University Act in 1994 and the Pokhara University Act in 1997, raising the number of universities in the country to five.

Tribhuvan University, along with its affiliated colleges, continues to bear the burden of close to 100,000 students in different disciplines, nearly 17,000 of them in technical streams. In comparison, Mahendra Sanskrit University has a little over 1000 students, Kathmandu University slightly over 2000, Poorvanchal has all of 71 and Pokhara the same – in the latter two, all at affiliated technical colleges charging market fees. Apparently, the intention behind regional universities has not worked.



At the root of this problem lies the unwillingness of Tribhuvan University teachers and employees to go to the newly set up universities. Thus, while Pokhara is the base of Pokhara University, set up to serve as a western regional university, its lone affiliated engineering college8 is based in Kathmandu. All other colleges in Pokhara – engineering, humanities and forestry – are with Tribhuvan University. The story is the same with the Biratanagar based Poorvanchal University. It too has been unable to attract the eastern region’s most reputed college in the same town – Mahendra Morang. The state, and the central university, continues to shoulder the responsibility of higher education in the country.



Recently, even state-funded institutions have been bitten by the privatization bug, no doubt under the ‘persuasion’ of bilateral donors and multilateral ‘loaners’.9 Till 1997, Tribhuvan University continued to attract the best and the brightest of the school leaving students for it offered quality technical education at affordable prices. Subsequently, the university was impressed upon to raise more internal resources which it did by getting into the mode of what is called the ‘full-fee paying scheme’.

The average yearly per capita cost of educating a student at Tribhuvan University’s Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk, was estimated to be NRs 31017 in 1998.10 Students pay only about NRs 1,100 per semester. From 1998, the institute has introduced a full-fee paying scheme where students who score merely the bare minimum at the entrance examination are given admission if they can afford to pay NRs 26,865 per semester. This has led to an increase in recovery rate11 from 4% to 29%, further expected to rise up to 50% within a few years.12 A similar scheme is being implemented at the Institute of Medicine, though less in demand courses under the Institute of Agriculture or Institute of Forestry continue to be fully funded by the government.

The privatization of engineering and medical education in the country is turning these professions into even more of a preserve of the rich. Meanwhile, the drive for privatization has failed to make any impact on the quantity or quality of education in humanities being offered by the various campuses of Tribhuvan University, the largest institution of higher education in the country.

Simultaneously, institutions offering courses in business management, travel and tourism, information technology and foreign languages have started to come up in Kathmandu. They boast of affiliations with foreign institutions13 and charge a fortune.



The impact of privatization of technical education can be clearly seen on three fronts. First, technical campuses are fast becoming the preserve of the elite and the ambitions of students are changing from ‘serving the nation’ to ‘going abroad’ and ‘earning lots of money’. Second, since teachers have more lucrative opportunities in private sector colleges, training institutes, consulting organizations and NGOs, they work ‘full time outside and part time at the Institute,’14 despite being regular employees of the latter. This tendency has diminished the knowledge generating activities of university teachers who are instead busy in knowledge transfer and skill-using activities. Third, course priorities have changed. Instead of producing more electrical engineers that the country needs, the institute prefers to offer in-demand courses on computers, communications and electronics.



Privatization seems to be having a most interesting effect on higher education in humanities. Under the lure of a ‘consultancy culture’ spread by donor-funded NGOs, social sciences teachers have suddenly realized that they are flooded with more students than they can possibly handle, given their laid-back attitude. In addition, better students who would otherwise have gone to technical schools when the fees were affordable, now opt for courses in social sciences. Unfortunately, teaching facilities and libraries leave a lot to be desired.

This gap in what is expected and what is available has led to a lot of churning. The Department of Sociology at the central campus of Tribhuvan University was locked out by its teachers when more students demanded admission than the management could accommodate. This incident sparked off the debate over accessibility versus excellence, perhaps based on the premise that both cannot coexist. The government seems reluctant to allocate more resources for higher education, concerned as it is with the more pressing issue of increasing the rate of literacy which languishes at around 40%.

An increasing reliance on cost recovery and private funding for higher education is a distinct possibility, and with it, a further risk of excluding the have-nots looms large on the horizon. The country is going back to where it started – education as the preserve of the advantaged. Earlier, caste was the deciding factor; now it is the class of the person that matters.



Often, there is talk of reviving the tradition of setting up endowment institutions. But, the successful image of elitist Kathmandu University has become overpowering. Every entrepreneur wants to ape it, rather than set up institutions on the old pattern that treated education as the best form of charity (vidya-daan). There are at least two universities in the pipeline. Rajrishi Janak University is being promoted by the local government units of Janakapur region while the idea of Brij Lal Kedia Hindu University is doing the rounds in the border town of Birgunj dominated by rich Marwari businessmen. The ideal both seem to hold is that of Kathmandu University not Tribhuvan University, which is uncharitably ridiculed as being a hotbed of factional politics and mediocre education.

The debate continues to rage in Nepal whether higher education is a right of all the school graduates or a privilege for the chosen few. Advocates of universal availability reason that access for all to higher education is necessary to ensure equal opportunity. Votaries of exclusivity, on the other hand, opine that the very purpose of education is defeated when educational facilities are flooded with more students than what they can cater to; hence some screening is essential to ensure academic excellence. In either case greater investment is needed in the field of higher education than is presently being made.

There are three possible scenarios. One, the government can decide to invest more in higher education and continue to provide affordable education of indifferent quality. This seems unlikely, given the pressure of donors to make higher allocation for the extension and upgrading of primary education. Second, it can leave the field to private initiative, in which case technical education will flourish while courses in humanities will be given a go by. Standards may improve, but education will become the preserve of the elite and the best brains will go away to greener pastures. This is the present trend.



Third, the old tradition of endowment institutions run by charitable trusts can be revived. They can be given the freedom to run some technical courses on a cost recovery basis, and granted government assistance to conduct courses in humanities and social sciences. Such an option may ensure greater autonomy for the institution than the government run universities, as also greater social accountability than private initiatives. This is only being talked about, with neither politicians nor the business community showing any enthusiasm.

For politicians, option three implies losing control over the influential student-teacher community which is useful for settling political scores and drumming up support at election time. For entrepreneurs, it involves giving without getting anything in return – a true charity. That is out of fashion in the global village where no matter what one has, its never enough.

Liberalization has transformed planning into a dirty word and it is the market that is expected to have the final say. Continued confusion in higher education in Nepal is the only certainty at the moment.



1. Edward Shills, Modernization and Higher Education (a VOA Forum Lecture), in Myron Weiner (ed), Modernization: Dynamics of Growth, Washington D.C., 1966.

2. Dubbed so by Prakash Chandra Lohani in the seventies, because ‘uniquely suited to Nepali soil and climate’ was King Mahendra’s explanation for introducing a barely concealed absolutism. In one of those ironies of political history, Lohani became one of the most ardent apologists of the panchayat system in his later years.

3. The exchange rate with the Indian rupee is fixed at IRs 100 = NRs 160. Usually, banks add a small service fee on the officially fixed exchange rate.

4. Annual Report (p. 5 and 15), University Grants Commission, Kathmandu, 1999.

5. ‘Dad, if I study in a local college, I will become a khate (rag-picker),’ was a typical comment of one such private school graduate to his engineer father. It was, and still is to a large extent, a representation of the contempt yuppie kids of the country have for local institutions of higher learning.

6. Annual Report, UGC, ibid.

7. An identical trend was noticed in India by editorial writers: ‘Instead of rationing by marks, we could see rationing by rupees.’ The Times of India, 16 February 2000.

8. Interestingly, this Kathmandu based engineering college was affiliated to the Tribhuvan University in the beginning. After Pokhara University came into being, it chose to align itself with it for reasons unknown, but not difficult to guess. This year Pokhara University granted affiliation to a new private sector engineering college which is actually based in Pokhara.

9. In the terminology of The World Bank, higher ‘user charges’ is a necessary condition of their loans for higher education.

10. From Pushkar Bajracharya’s analysis in an unpublished report submitted to Institute of Engineering, Kathmandu, 1999.

11. Percentage of amount raised by the institute in comparison to its annual expenditure.

12. These estimates were presented by Prem Raj Pant and Binod Kumar Shrestha at the International Consultative Meeting on Strategy Plan of the Institute of Engineering: 2000-2020, 10-12 December 1999, Kathmandu, Nepal.

13. For example, both the Aptech and NIIT(India) have local centres that charge higher per semester fees than even the full fee paying schemes of Institute of Engineering.

14. Quoted by Uttam Narayan Shrestha in an unpublished report on ‘staff development’ submitted to the Institute of Engineering, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, 1999. Shrestha is an ex-Dean of the Institute of Engineering, Tribhuvan University. A similar ‘cry in the wilderness’ comes from Anil Wilson, the Principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, about the situation in India: ‘Education is systematically being reduced to a part time occupation. Is there any wonder, therefore, that many college teachers function as part-time instructors and spend most of their time in other pursuits.’ The Times of India, Delhi.