In 1992, the National Education Commission described Tribhuvan University (TU)’s ills at length and identified the centralisation of authority whereby all of its colleges had to rely on its Kathmandu officers for academic direction and financial assistance as the main reason for its ill-management. The Commission suggested that TU’s campuses be reorganised under a system of at least four regional universities located in the eastern, central, western and mid-western development regions as a way to unbundle TU’s mammoth size and burden. This recommendation was adopted by the state in its periodic plan but was not implemented during the 1990s. Instead during that decade, Nepal’s parliament passed separate acts to establish three separate universities—Kathmandu, Purbanchal and Pokhara Universities. The latter two were born amidst competing local interests immersed in total national confusion regarding what it meant to start a new university.
Take the example of Purbanchal University (PU). The PU Act was passed by the then parliament in September 1993, received the Royal Seal in early January 1994, and came into effect from mid-July 1994. In the PU Act, the possibility of the transfer of TU’s constituent and affiliated campuses to the new university was recognised in Article 17, but no specific campuses were designated for transfer. Hence a new separate university was born without any reference to the regionalisation plan of TU as designed in the Higher Education Project (HEP, 1994-2001) which the Nepali state, in the meantime, had signed with the World Bank.
Source of confusion
The preamble in the PU Act highlighted the need to operate universities from what it called the ‘people’s sector’ (‘janastarbata’) but the term was not defined in the Act itself. The PU Act specified that its central office had to be located in Biratnagar in Morang district. The country’s Prime Minister and the Education Minister were declared ex officio Chancellor and Pro-Chancellor of PU, respectively. The Vice-Chancellor, who was the effective CEO, would be nominated by the Chancellor upon the recommendation of a selection committee headed by the Pro-Chancellor with two members of the university’s senate, the highest collective policy-making body of PU.
The composition of the senate (Article 9) gives us some clues as to what the lawmakers might have had in their mind when they said ‘janastarbata’. Apart from the usual ex officio types starting from the Chancellor, the senate would consist of three parliament members from the Eastern Development Region (EDR), four mayors of municipalities in the EDR including that of Biratnagar, four chairpersons of District Development Committees (DDCs) in the EDR including that of Morang, six representatives from amongst industrialists, businesspeople and agriculturalists and three among donors who had contributed to the University.
More clues can be found in the composition of the Means-Resources Council (Sadhan-Shrot Parisad) where, in addition to various university officials, eight industrialists, businesspeople and agriculturalists, four mayors of municipalities in the EDR including that of Biratnagar, four chairpersons of DDCs in the EDR including that of Morang, and three public personalities were to be members.
In the PU Act then, ‘janastarbata’ was operationalised through both the inclusion of national parliament-level politicians representing constituencies in the EDR and locally elected politicians at the city and district levels in the university’s senate. In terms of anticipated sources of funding for PU, apart from the usual support from the Nepal Government,
private donors, and international agencies, the Act foresaw resources flowing into the University from local-bodies in the EDR.
But by leaving unstated the specific financial liabilities of the Nepali state and its lower level entities, the Act created a university whose financial future was guaranteed by no one.
Who are the people?
The confusion regarding PU’s birth is also captured in a report of a seminar organised by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in Kathmandu in late June 1995, almost a year after the PU Act came into effect. Much of the confusion revolved around what it meant to be ‘janastarbata’. On that occasion, Soorya Lal Amatya, then a professor of geography at TU and a member of the UGC, presented a paper titled ‘Purbanchal and Paschimanchal Universities in the Context of Establishing Multiple Universities’. In it he argued that since the preamble justified the founding of PU from the ‘janastarbata’, it was clear to him that PU was indeed a ‘private university’. Furthermore, he added, to find resources to run this ‘private university’, a Means-Resources Council had been proposed in the Act itself. He emphasised that the responsibility of the Nepali state was not clear in the Act and that PU’s founding was contrary to the provisions written in the HEP.
According to a report about the seminar published by the UGC, Ramesh Chandra Paudel, the then campus chief of the Post Graduate Campus of Biratnagar, stated emphatically that the mention of ‘janastarbata’ in the preamble of the PU Act did not mean it was a private sector initiative but one in which the university would be opened through the “mobilisation of people’s participation”. He added that the Nepali state should bear the responsibility for PU in a manner similar to its assumption of responsibility for TU.
Narayandutta Nepal, then campus chief of TU’s Prithvi Narayan Campus, Pokhara, added that since “public concern towards TU was diminishing, the inclusion of the term ‘janastar’ in the PU Act must have been made to ensure that public participation could be realised to an extent in the management of the new university.” He added that it was not possible and realistic for the management of higher education institutions to be done fully by ‘janastarbata’ and hence contributions from the Nepali state and the public at large would be needed to run PU. In his concluding remarks, the then chair of UGC, Ram Sharan Mahat, the liberalisation guru, emphasised the need for the university to first secure resources through the mobilisation of ‘janasahabhagita’ but he was not specific about what he meant: should these resources be collected from various ‘jana’ folks including jamindars, businessmen, wealthy donors and social workers in eastern Nepal (some of whom had advocated for the establishment of PU) or collected from students in the name of cost-recovery?
At its moment of birth, PU was a university with no business plan and no guarantee of state underwriting its initial infrastructural needs. Various sources of funding tied to potential ‘jana’ were anticipated but nothing was guaranteed. When the Act was passed, those who had advocated for PU’s establishment in Biratnagar had accomplished their local mission but the university itself was left rudderless. National level politicians, UGC office holders and TU’s managers disagreed among themselves regarding why PU had been created, how it was supposed to be funded and what its role should be vis-à-vis TU and its reform plans. Lack of clarity regarding who would be financially responsible for its operation and what would constitute its founding physical and academic infrastructure was fundamental to why PU had an absolutely jhur start. This state of ambiguity became the primary source of all ills in the subsequent years of the university. Eventually the Nepali state has come around to covering PU’s expenses and thus giving it a public university status with the affiliation mode as the primary pathway of its growth. Since affiliation has been its main chakkar, PU has failed miserably to build an institutional character of its own in terms of teaching and research.
PU is a lesson on how not to start a new university in Nepal. But is anyone listening?
Onta, Uprety and Parajuli are researchers at Martin Chautari. A longer version of this article was presented in the recently concluded The Fourth Annual Kathmandu Conference on Nepal and the Himalaya organised by Social Science Baha