Paradoxes in higher education

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A recent statistic reveals that in the first three months of this year, about 40,000 students graduated no objection certificates of the Ministry of National Education for university studies abroad. Students need the certificate to obtain foreign currency to pay for their tuition, travel, and accommodation. Even if only counted in official figures, around $300 million has flown away with them at a time when Nepal is reeling under the strain of a decrease in foreign exchange reserves. At this rate, the number of students flying out of the country is expected to top 100,000 this year alone.

Credible and comprehensive data on the exact number of students leaving the country for higher education and the amount that bleeds from the public treasury is extremely scarce. Conservative estimates suppose that some 60,000 to 75,000 students leave the country every year, mostly to developed countries, and that at least $1.5 billion flies away with them. It is suspected that an almost equal amount flows informally. That of the ministry statistics show that up to the last fiscal year, about 400,000 students went to study abroad in the last decade. This trend has only grown over the years, and after the lifting of Covid-19 related restrictions by major destination countries such as Australia, UK, Japan, USA and others, the growth was geometric.

The paradoxes

The paradox of supply and demand in higher education in Nepal is precariously manifested in such a relentless outflow of students and foreign currency, while higher education institutions at all levels are even unable to fill seats approved for admission. Students travel to foreign countries not only for highly technical and scientific courses like artificial intelligence, astronomy, biochemical engineering or nuclear sciences, but also for regular courses in humanities and social sciences.

The reason for such an exodus is generally presented as the “unacceptable” quality of the school results of Nepalese institutions. Essentially, this phenomenon has put both the very future of higher education in Nepal and billions of dollars of private investment in the sector at risk. Nepal’s higher education institutions, including 12 universities and hundreds of their affiliates, educators and policymakers, seem helpless to defend this persistent and disturbing allegation. This implicitly implies that our national higher education system has indeed failed to meet national expectations.

Apart from students leaving the country in droves, Nepalese educational institutions are also feeling the heat of increased market competition on several fronts. Private colleges operate here with the affiliation of international universities and many reputable international institutions themselves compete to open campuses in Nepal. Furthermore, there are clear indications that after India’s adoption of its National Education Policy 2020 with one of the main priorities as the “internationalization” of Indian education, several Indian educational institutions are planning to have a physical presence in the Nepalese market, further exacerbating the competition.

Needless to say, in terms of poor results compared to huge public investments, publicly funded universities have largely let the nation down. Self-funded public universities like Kathmandu University, despite its undisputed best performance over the years, are deprived of adequate resources from public funds to maintain quality and expand their programs. All other things aside, such a state policy would have prevented at least a few thousand students from going abroad each year. Colleges are unable to admit the given quota of students due to extremely conservative policy approaches, such as medical education admission. For example, the Nepal Medical Societymmission last year even failed to get enough students to pass the entrance test for medical schools to fill their approved places. Higher education has attracted significant private investment. But their quality was unlikely to be expected to exceed the average of their respective parent university. This is an obvious pitfall of Nepal’s inability to emerge from the infamous “licensing regime” in education, where ineffective “licensing” authorities still dominate.

While looking at things from an ecosystem perspective, quality does not seem to be the only reason students want to leave the country. It is perhaps more due to the lack of credible mechanisms to obtain financial support, including easy loans, to access higher education coupled with the lack of guaranteed employment after education. The problem is therefore also correlated with the structure of the national labor market.

Bottlenecks

Three binding bottlenecks are particularly evident in the reform of Nepal’s higher education system. First, policy reform is very late. Political leaders, both political and administrative, have consistently failed to understand the rapidly changing paradigms of education as well as the dynamics of the future labor market. Ongoing curriculum and pedagogical reform often takes a back seat. Course delivery, even pre-designed, remained pervasively sub-optimal. The idea of ​​linking academic output to the potential demand for skills in the labor market is hardly integrated into the policy-making process.

Second, the availability of highly qualified faculty remains another major challenge. Teaching in Nepal is a relatively low paid and under revered profession. It does not attract the best graduates. Most of the teachers hired are therefore mediocre and come from more attractive jobs outside academia. An insufficient supply of faculty training and development opportunities has telling negative effects on quality.

Third, Nepal’s education system has always suffered from chronic underinvestment. The government’s budget for the current financial year has allocated 180 billion rupees to the sector, which accounts for only about 4.2% of GDP. This is quite low, even compared to the practices of developing countries. Moreover, the good use of the funds allocated vis-à-vis the educational results is also pathetic to say the least.

It was expected that things would improve considerably after the promulgation of the federal constitution which categorically separated responsibilities for school education at the local level and higher education at the federal and provincial levels. But successive governments over the past seven years have failed to put in place the legislation needed to regulate university education. The long-awaited “umbrella bill on higher education” is still hanging in limbo. Obviously, there seems to be an absence of political will to improve the higher education of the country without which the descent is impossible to avoid.

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