The Kathmandu Post 6 July 2007
A recent subject of discourse among Nepali intelligentsia has been the issue of the politicization of universities. This issue gained notoriety when the eight-party alliance delayed the appointment of the office bearers of the four main universities, and then ended up sharing the offices of the VCs from a bargaining table. The notoriety continues even now as the offices of Registrars and Rectors continue to wait for their potential ‘bearers’ to be released from the same bargaining table. And the wait has been too long to evoke any optimism that the universities will begin desired pace soon.
The discourse has a long history, and is a part of a popular belief that the education section deserves relief from party politics. The belief therefore is an established conclusion that the present plight of Tribhuvan University (TU), the oldest and largest of our universities, bears much from histories of politicization within its mechanism ever since the Panchayat era. TU is always believed to be a training ground for country’s potential political leaders, let alone the fact that a big majority of surviving intelligentsia are its graduates. Also, each leading political party of post-1990 democratic era is held responsible for gradual decline in the functioning of this parent institution.
The plight of TU is taken as a lesson to our private institutions. It is at the same time a common plea for checking ‘politics,’ which has become a taboo for the downfall in the spirit of quality education and research. However, it is a question of reflection whether politics is really negative. There is a general perception that politics always comes from outside the institution. But, it also germinates and gets internalized from within. It stems from people’s awareness of everyday changes and knowledge about their rights, responsibilities, needs and limitations. So, it is on the part of the institution to recognize such needs, and work towards guaranteeing them. This greatly helps inculcate in the work force a true sense of belonging to the institution. But indifference to the personal and professional needs of the work force and antagonism to their genuine demands for minimum sustenance are the major propellers of internal politics, and equally, are the harbingers of external influence. In this sense, depoliticization is not possible before addressing such genuine demands and helping to quell antagonism and instability. One remedy for ending instability is that the institutions should make timely adjustments with the general changes in the way works and work-related rights are perceived both in local and global contexts. Modification and readjustment of rules, rather than their old-fashioned imposition upon the work force resists the encroachment of politics.
To take the case of our universities, there are challenges beyond the internal conflicts and politicization. The immediate challenge is to relieve them from the culture of political bargaining. It is to erase the common disbelieving psyche, which takes after the political creed itself: “Let’s see how that old fellow of so and so party is going to look after the years-old mess of the so and so university.” Such mentality is not the problem of the present transitional period only. This period will end one day, but we will still require some genuine initiations and changes, and it will take collective rationality and trustworthy vision. Apart from guaranteeing minimum sustenance for the work force, institutions should be able to provide professional independence to work, initiate plans and search for opportunities. What the working people need today is encouragement through the culture of dynamism which results from the need to face challenges. The institutions should create ways for new challenges along with the prospects of promotion and career growth. To be more specific, the work force should be given proper environment with adequate rights, resources, responsibilities and remunerations.
Today, each discipline, be it from science, social science or any other field of studies, is being enriched with cross- and interdisciplinary assimilations. There are more chances of researches as disciplines have come together. In this scenario, institutions should work towards introducing new courses and changing teaching approaches. Change will eliminate stagnation — the root of frustration, and a path towards a search for political relief. A teacher with regular projects and assignments can only manage to update herself, but has to avoid external participations within the working time. A staff within a dynamic institution feels the need of acquiring greater competence to cope with changes. Internal dynamism as a whole continues to propel the institution even at the time of wider political impasses, and allows the flow of external ideas and assistances.
We live in an age of greater mobility, connectivity and competition. Neither institutions nor teachers and students can afford to be isolated from global changes. Nepal still suffers the inadequacy of opportunity in the higher level education, which has resulted into the compulsion for thousands of young people to look for foreign universities. So, our main challenge is to update into the ‘foreign’ standard that we so much venerate today. If not, we should at least try to erase the general attitude of resignation that “nothing will happen in Nepal.” Even better, we should encourage the substantial number of our graduates from foreign universities to return and work for the country. Is it a relief for our universities from the burden of upgrading higher education, research and opportunities that the foreigners are doing our jobs?
If it is not possible to make drastic changes, the leading parties should at least immediately spare educational institutions and their work force and students from the compulsion of meddling with transitional politics. We have already had enough from the bargaining culture. May lawmakers, educationists, and political players within and around the institutions understand the piety of creating and sustaining a genuine working culture for upgrading the country’s higher education.