The Proposed Higher Education Policy: It Will Not Do!

- Devendra Uprety, Pramod Bhatta, Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

In April 2014, the University Grants Commission (UGC) submitted a draft of the proposed Higher Education Policy (HEP) to the Ministry of Education (MOE) for further action. This policy was formulated after a long exercise coordinated by the UGC to further develop, manage and regulate existing and future institutions related to higher education (HE) in Nepal. In the Annual Policy and Programs of the Government of Nepal (GoN) for the fiscal year 2014-15 presented on 29 June 2014, it was also mentioned that the HEP would be formulated and executed to manage HE in Nepal.

That Nepal needs a HEP that can address the current challenges of HE in the country is a foregone conclusion. Hence the initiative taken by the UGC is commendable. In 2012, the UGC formed a 22-person committee headed by its then chair Dr Ganesh Man Gurung to prepare the draft of the HEP. Five thematic task groups were formed, each with six members on themes such as (1) ‘redirecting thrust for development and innovation in higher education’; (2) ‘establishing and strengthening universities/higher education institutions’; (3) ‘regulating and monitoring foreign affiliated institutions in Nepal’; (4) ‘quality assurance in higher education’; and (5) ‘financing in higher education.’

The first collective meeting of these groups took place on 19 August 2012. Each of these groups then reviewed documents and consulted with relevant experts and other individuals before preparing thematic policy drafts. During the first half of 2013, the UGC organized several consultative seminars in all five development regions of the country. Each task group prepared a thematic policy draft. Those drafts became the basis for a synthesized Higher Education Policy draft prepared by an eight-person core committee that consisted of the then UGC chair, then UGC member-secretary, the five coordinators of the task groups and one administrative officer of the UGC. This HEP draft was presented in a national seminar organized in Kathmandu on August 14, 2013. A revised complete draft of the HEP in Nepali and English, with the title ‘Higher Education Policy Framework’ was available by early October 2013. It was submitted to the Ministry of Education in April 2014.

After some minor revisions, the Ministry submitted the HEP draft to its Education Policy Committee (EPC) in late September 2014. The EPC meeting was held on 29 September 2014 and it seems to have recommended some minor revisions before approving it. The draft's revised version was presented to all the members of the National Planning Commission on December 2, 2014. Thereafter, the draft was submitted to the cabinet in late March 2015. The cabinet meeting held just a few days before the April 25 quake, chaired by the then acting Prime Minister Bamdev Gautam, discussed it. Since Gautam decided that he needed more time to go through the document carefully before approving it, the cabinet postponed the decision on that occasion. The devastating earthquake that hit mid-Nepal just a few days later meant that the cabinet has had to pay attention to the issues related to the post-quake relief, recovery and reconstruction (not to mention the constitution drafting) since then. The cabinet decision on the HEP, it seems, has been put on hold.

It is unfortunate that there has not been much of a public discussion about the proposed HEP in Nepal’s traditional and new media platforms. HE is a major public concern and any substantial changes in its policy domain should be deliberated publicly and extensively.

Martin Chautari researchers have read the draft HEP and the slightly revised draft that the Ministry of Education forwarded to its EPC. We have not seen the further revised draft submitted for approval by the cabinet, but have been told that it is not much different from the draft prepared by the MOE and sent to its EPC. In this commentary, we have focused on only some of the weak and unclear aspects of the proposed HEP draft as prepared by the UGC.

Technical OrientationThe proposed HEP has prioritized market-based and professional fields of HE such as medicine, engineering, information technology, forestry, etc. and has said that the state will invest in these subjects. However the fact remains that about 85 percent of the total student enrolment in HE in Nepal is in the fields of what is called ‘general education’ (humanities, social sciences, management, and education faculties). The proposed HEP is not clear on how it plans to reduce student enrolment figure in general education and increase in technical education.

It is generally acknowledged that there are more problems in the fields of general education in Nepal than in fields related to science and technology. The proposed HEP is silent on what needs to be done to tackle the problems besetting the fields of general higher education. Hence even if the proposed HEP is executed, it is certain that the problems faced by disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, management and education will not be alleviated. Disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences are not, broadly speaking, market-based subjects and hence the private sector is unlikely to invest in these subjects. If these disciplines are important for the training of a critical public, then it is obvious that the state needs to invest in them through a mechanism that it supports.

Equitable ParticipationAmong the market-based technical and professional higher education fields prioritized in the proposed HEP, the private sector has invested heavily in medicine, engineering and management higher education. Colleges which offer these professional subjects often charge huge fees to their students, making these fields financially out of bound to students who come from low or lower middle class family backgrounds.

The proposed HEP does discuss the need for equitable participation in HE for members of those communities that have been traditionally underrepresented in this sector. These include women, janajatis (ethnic minorities), dalits, and students from financially and regionally challenged regions of Nepal. The HEP mentions that scholarship, concessionary loans and self-savings can be used to widen the participation of students from traditionally underrepresented communities.

However, since the details have not been mentioned in the HEP, just how these schemes might be implemented is left unclear. Past experiences have shown that various types of challenges exist in launching and sustaining such programs. The HEP draft says that ‘special measures’ will be taken to ensure the equitable participation of all in institutions of HE (including universities, research centers, etc.) but it does not provide the specifics.

Ambitious Institutional StructureThe proposed HEP is ambitious in the realm of establishing new institutions and re-structuring some existing ones. First, it has proposed to upgrade the existing UGC into a Higher Education Commission “to take up expanded responsibilities of higher education development, coordination and monitoring.” The enhanced UGC will encompass several institutional set-ups including:

"A national board of higher education for comprehensive planning, implementation monitoring, higher education development and also regulating affiliation of highereducation institutions. Higher education funding board will be developed for comprehensive financial policy decision and management, regulating government funding support as well as to regulating private and community funding in higher education sector. Strengthening of student financial assistance fund development board to expand the provision and to sustain the system. Strengthening of University coordination committee to promote culture of self and mutual regulation and monitoring. National board for course equivalence, mutual recognition of degrees and credit transfer.”

Second, it proposes to establish a separate ‘high level unit’ in the MOE “to promote innovation and development of higher education to make it more effective and focused to national issues and priorities.” Third, it proposes to establish a Quality Assurance and Accreditation Board as an autonomous and independent body separate from the universities and the UGC. Fourth, the HEP proposes to establish a Higher Education Research Council “to promote research and innovation activities” and to “link national research needs with the institutions of higher education on competitive basis.” Fifth, it proposes to form a National Commission of Higher Education Services “to facilitate objective and competitive faculty recruitment”.

Why the UGC needs to be enhanced into a Higher Education Commission (HEC) is not specified in the proposed HEP. If this has been influenced by similar moves in other countries in South Asia, it has to be noted that the enhancement of the UGC in India proposed in 2011 was retracted in September 2014. Such an enhancement carried out in Pakistan in 2002 has met with many criticisms since and the new body has not been able to adequately address the problems of higher education in that country.

Since the HEP does not provide details, it is not clear what the mutual roles of the proposed HEC will be vis-à-vis the proposed ‘high level unit’ in the MOE. Given the tendency towards dominance exercised by Nepal’s bureaucrats in the past and given their hold on the allocation of public resources to bodies such as the proposed HEC or the existing UGC, it is likely that the unit established in the MOE will overwhelmingly control HEC and strangle the independence of universities and other institutions related to HE in Nepal. The creation of all the other national boards and institutions mentioned above would contribute toward centralized control of HE in the country and not promote the notion and associated practices of horizontal accountability that is very necessary to promote the quality of HE in Nepal. For good governance in Nepal’s universities, internal-to-university mechanisms should be emphasized and top-down extra-university controlling mechanisms should be reduced.

In addition, the HEP proposes that “study centers/institutions of international standards will be developed focused to country’s unique potentials, opportunities and needs emphasizing on national dialogues and competitive development concepts.” It also identifies some six centers devoted to studies in mountaineering and tourism, biodiversity and sustainable use, water resources, ecological balance and natural environment, natural disasters and their management, and on national heritage, indigenous knowledge and skills. It is not clear if these new research centers are to be opened as independent entities or as entities embedded in the related ministries of the GoN or within the various existing universities.

In any case, what their relationship will be to the GoN is not discussed. Nor is the case made why these particular themes have been chosen as opposed to other equally important ones. Given the penchant of the HEP to open new institutions, it is not surprising that such new centers for research have been proposed without asking the question if the existing research centers within the universities (e.g., CEDA, CNAS, RECAST and CERID in Tribhuvan University) or within the realms of the various ministries of the GoN could be re-structured to carry out such theme-specific research (forget about considering the network of capable academic Nepali NGOs). For the best use of the public money, it would make sense to reduce the overall number of research institutions supported by the state but fund and staff them adequately so that they can carry out their remits for research effectively.

With respect to the proposed Higher Education Research Council, it is again not clear what its role will be with respect to already existing bodies such as the Nepal Health Research Council and the Nepal Agriculture Research Council. The HEP does not state how this Council will be different from the much discussed and proposed Social Science Research Council (SSRC) for which the GoN formed a Strategic Plan Development Team in 2012. Following the submission of the latter’s final report in May 2014, a group of bureaucrats has been supposedly working to ‘finalize’ the GoN’s view on the proposed SSRC for almost a year now. The HEP proposes to form a National Commission of Higher Education Services (modeled after the national Civil Service Commission). Such a centralized Commission for the recruitment of faculty members who will serve in Nepal’s various universities is an extremely bad idea. It goes against the notions of academic freedom, quality and independence of the universities in the country.

Necessary InvestmentThe proposed HEP has stated that the proportion of the total annual education budget of Nepal that goes to the HE sector should be increased from the current 8 percent to 10 over the course of four years. According to the HEP, this increase needs to be made “to build infrastructure, develop educational technology and improve human resources in the higher education institutions in Nepal including universities, their institutions, departments and campuses.” Given the technical orientation of the HEP, what this increase will amount to in terms of results that will be realized after four years is left unstated. In fact the percentage increase advocated (from 8 to 10 percent of the total annual education budget) seems completely arbitrary and only based on the realization that any significant increase in public investments in HE in Nepal is unlikely at this moment (It is to be noted that the draft of the policy revised at the Ministry of Education has left out these figures completely).

The HEP does recognize the hybrid nature of the growth of HE in Nepal whereby public universities supported by the state provide affiliations to privately operated private or community colleges. Here it states: “In order to promote public-private partnership, the government should support private institutions, for which it will prepare a framework of criteria required for such support including transparency, continuity, financial resource mobilization and quality management, and provision of student scholarships.”

The exact manner in which this support will be extended to private institutions is left unstated. Will it come in the form of annual block grants to the private institutions or it will come in the form of grants to be distributed to students from communities traditionally underrepresented in the HE sector in Nepal? It is anybody’s guess.

This piece has only focused on commentary upon only a few unclear aspects of the proposed HEP draft. The HEP text prepared by the UGC can hardly be called a policy document that comes out of a deep analysis of the HE sector in Nepal. Instead, it is a bunch of statements with good intentions but one that does not lay out the various competing possibilities to really inform policy choices that those who rule Nepal and those who are important players in the HE field can benefit from.

Hopefully, other analysts interested in the HE sector will comment on the proposed HEP by focusing on its various other equally weak aspects. Such exercises will contribute toward an informed public debate about the proposed HEP and the future of higher education in Nepal.

(Uprety, Bhatta and Onta are researchers based at Martin Chautari)


About the Author

Pramod Bhatta

Researcher, Martin Chautari

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