Plural histories of higher education

- Pratyoush Onta | 2023-08-03

While the number of student departures is staggering, the fact of their leaving itself is nothing new.

Our knowledge of the histories of higher education in Nepal is rather limited. This history usually starts by noting that Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana started Tri-Chandra College (known simply as TC) in 1918. Then it jumps to note that Tribhuvan University (TU) was established in Kathmandu in 1959 as the country’s first university and it remained the only university in Nepal until 1986 when Nepal (then Mahendra) Sanskrit University was founded. This narrative then notes that in the early 1990s, Nepal became a multi-university country by establishing several new universities. This history—please excuse my skeletal rendition—deserves a serious re-visit and plural histories of higher education need to be written. For doing so, at least two perspectives are of importance.

The first of them can be called, borrowing a term now popular with professional historians, “connected history”. What do I mean? Our newspapers these days are full of news about young Nepali students leaving the country in droves to go and study in higher education institutions in other countries. While the number of students going out of the country is now staggering, the fact of their leaving itself is nothing new. Before TC was established in Kathmandu 105 years ago, Nepali students seeking higher education—of either the traditional Sanskrit-based system or the so-called “modern” college one—usually went to India. Their destinations were usually various higher education institutions in North India with those located in Banaras as favourites for many. By the time TC was established, Calcutta had already emerged as a favourite destination for a small set of elite Nepali students who wanted to enrol in modern colleges in that city.

Colombo Plan
This “beyond-national” history (this is one way to define connected history) of Nepali higher education of course became far more complex after the end of the Rana regime in 1951. Most Nepali students continued to go to India under their own means or on scholarships provided by the government of India and other schemes such as the Colombo Plan. In addition, as part of the soft diplomacy dynamics of the original Cold War, higher education opportunities opened up for Nepali students in the United States and the former Soviet Union. The United Kingdom and China also emerged as further destinations. By the late 1980s, Nepali students were studying not only in these four countries but also in many countries in Europe, South, Southeast and East Asia and elsewhere. Even until the early 1980s, many Nepali faculty members at TU were sent to various countries to obtain higher academic degrees as part of capacity-building programmes. In addition, given the paucity of Nepali faculty members with higher degrees in many disciplines, many non-Nepalis also came to teach at TU in its early years under the Colombo Plan and the Fulbright exchange programme.

Good histories of these earlier Nepali student-migrants need to be written by focusing on the countries, cities and the institutions where they studied and the enabling social and cultural “infrastructure” that made these passages possible for them. The subsequent life trajectories of such graduates, many of whom returned to Nepal to pursue various professions including university-based teaching, must also be studied. Similarly, good histories of non-Nepali teachers who came to teach at TU need to be written. These phenomena and others I have not listed here are all parts of the connected histories of Nepali higher education and hence need to be documented.

History from below
The second perspective can be called, again borrowing from professional historians, a “history from below” approach. As in most subjects studied thus far by historians of Nepal, there is a dominance of the state-centric (or “top-down historical view from Kathmandu”) approach in the existing writings on higher education. Now don’t get me wrong. Even if we want to restrict ourselves to the period before 1990, the particular characteristics of the various political regimes–the Rana regime, multi-party experiments of the 1950s, the Panchayat system between 1960 and 1990–and their policies for higher education are important to history writings of higher education in the country. Without a good understanding of these regimes and their policies, we cannot really have good plural histories no matter what the focus of our writing is. However, the larger regime contexts/policies of higher education until 1990 are now relatively well known. Some additional research along the top-down approach would still be useful for marginal gains but I propose that a “history from below approach” would offer us substantially more documentation and insights.

“Below” in this proposal is an approach that takes the relational aspects of multiple social hierarchies seriously. Also built into the approach is a view which says that there is no reason to assume that rulers in Kathmandu and their educational ideas diffused to other parts of the country. Instead, we can assume that local actors were variously inspired by their own educational experiences and ideas (some of which they had acquired outside of Nepal) and actions of other committed individuals in other parts of the country.

Take, for example, two colleges established in the immediate years following the end of the Rana regime in February 1951. Thakur Ram College in Birgunj and Patan College in Lalitpur had both been established by September 1954. At the time of their founding, a general demand for the establishment of a university in the country was doing the public rounds, but official work toward the establishment of TU had not begun yet. The focus of the “history from below” inspired histories of these two colleges could describe and analyse the agency of common people who marshalled their ideas, energy and collective resources to start and run these colleges in two different social milieus.

The early 1950s were exciting years for the common people who wanted to establish institutions under their own initiatives, but they were also very challenging years given the political flux of the times and the severe financial limitations of Nepali society at large. What were the local demands both sets of founders were responding to, and how did their two different power relations with Kathmandu matter in the founding and running of these colleges in their early years? Were the college founders in Patan inspired by the earlier work of the founders in Birgunj? Such comparative histories from below will also be very instructive to our general understanding of mid-20th century Nepal.

Similar questions can be asked in relation to individuals who established private colleges in the 1960s which were later absorbed under TU after the Panchayat regime applied the New Education System Plan in 1971. In addition, we can also ask how the founders of these institutions negotiated the restricting loyalty requirements of the Panchayat regime and convince students to attend their colleges? How was college education made possible for those Nepalis from social groups that had hitherto little access to education? What did the students and the teachers think of their joint enterprise as far as their individual and collective aspirations were concerned? How were regime opposing ideas cultivated in those colleges in the late 1960s and the 1970s?

Answers to these and similar questions will generate solid plural histories of higher education in our country. 

Published at : August 3, 2023


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