Reforming TU from below

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

Pratyoush Onta

Dec 28, 2017-In 2004, the now famous political scientist Dr Krishna Hachhethu invited me to a workshop entitled ‘State Restructuring in Nepal’, a theme which was very popular at that time. After I had heard several papers, I got up and asked, “Is it easier to restructure the Nepali state or Tribhuvan University (TU)?” Some of the participants thought I was joking since many of the speakers at that workshop were affiliated with TU. Senior political scientist Krishna Khanal (who was then a professor at TU) said, “First, the Nepali state will be restructured; then its public institutions will be restructured. So after the Nepali state has been restructured, TU will be restructured.”

Logical progressionI had major doubts about that approach then. In the intervening years, the fallacy inherent in that approach has been exposed. The restructuring of the Nepali state is turning out to be, to put it mildly, a project that is going to take many more years than what optimists had told us in the early years of this century. We have managed to write a new constitution for the country and hold the first set of elections under it, but there are so many uncertainties regarding the workings of our federal republic that at least the next 25 years or more will be needed to put the newly envisaged federal state structures in place and get a sense of how they work. If this is a fair portrayal of our future, the proposition that the state will be restructured first and then its public institutions including TU will be restructured next is both hopeless logic and bad politics.

Several hundred thousand students are enrolled in TU’s 60 constituent and about 1,200 affiliated colleges all over the country. In 2015, the then TU vice-chancellor told a team of Martin Chautari researchers, “TU is the ninth largest university in the world, and we should be proud of it.” However, all serious studies of the higher education landscape in Nepal done in the past 35 years have pointed at this large size as a nightmare for its good management and called for downsizing it. Those at the helm of affairs have never honestly acknowledged this point. Many TU insiders consider it beyond redemption, but I disagree with that diagnosis.

Many people have written about the size-management-reform complex related to TU many times. However, not much has resulted from this approach. Hence, we need to perhaps think about this issue differently. How about reform from below? Here is what I mean. First, those who want to promote a research culture at TU should get together and start a regular departmental seminar. This should be possible not only in the central departments at Kirtipur but also in its big constituent campuses. If single departmental seminars are not possible, inter-departmental ones should definitely be possible. A seminar culture where faculty members and students listen to each other patiently would not only contribute to collegiality in the departments but would also help all academics to come up with better answers to the questions inherent in their research.

Second, theme-specific readers can be prepared by TU faculty quite easily. Such compendiums are being used in Master of Arts (MA) programmes already, and they are certainly in demand. Such books make visible the current landscape of research on a particular theme, and open up exciting possibilities for new students and researchers.

Third, TU faculty could run academic writing workshops for students who want to write better MA, MPhil or PhD thesis. The students have to win a place in these workshops by producing serious writing samples as part of their applications. Writing-experienced faculty members could run these workshops. They could also invite an academic writing specialist to facilitate writing seminars under the US Fulbright Specialist Programme whose main purpose is to make available American academic experts to institutions in countries like ours.

Fourth, many of the TU departments already publish journals. This activity can also be enhanced by sharing the editorial responsibility with junior faculty and non-TU academics. For example, a journal published by the Central Department of Sociology of TU could invite diaspora-based Nepali sociologists and videshi sociologists to be on the editorial board.

Finally, those who care about good scholarship can think of putting together a book imprint called Tribhuvan University Press. This would be similar in its operation to university presses such as the University of Chicago Press or Cambridge University Press. Books by TU faculty and theme-based readers could be published under this imprint after proper peer reviews. Such reviews, if done with integrity, will help to mitigate the deleterious academic effects that appointments under bhagbanda have caused in TU.

Bottom-up policyAll these suggestions are doable if we want to reform TU from below. Some of them, like publishing, will certainly need more money than others, like seminars. But that kind of money exists in Nepal and can be channelled through the University Grants Commission or similar other entities to the relevant formations within TU. When the above-mentioned activities get going, initial sceptics will have to either join them or be sidelined. Hence, the ball is in the court of those who work in TU and who are not only competent in their disciplines but also brave enough to not bow down to the diktats of party-based apparatchiks appointed to higher offices.

Two generations of sociology students at TU have learned about the interplay between structure and agency in their readings. Let this TU reform exercise from below be the biggest example of Nepali agencies at play of our times. Let it be so successful that ethnographies of it will be read, along with the theoretical texts of a Giddens, an Ortner and a Mishra, by the next generation of Nepali students. We owe it to them.

Onta is a researcher at Martin Chautari, an academic non-profit organisation based in Kathmandu


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