Recent comments by education minister, Mangal Siddhi Manandhar, regarding the delay in appointments to the “various vacant posts” at the universities in Nepal, blaming on “political parties' bickering for a share of the pie in the current political set-up” had me thinking about the difficulties our education system faces, mainly because of an unnecessary politicisation of the institution that need not be politicised at all. There is definitely more to lose from the politicisation of the educational institutions than to gain from it, which, I am sure, should be the view of most of the university students in Nepal. And, I find it laughable to read about the “confusion” (that’s what it seems to me) regarding who should be the chancellor of the universities in Nepal.
Let me start by naming some of the chancellors that I know of from the universities here in the UK. You might be surprised to hear that Imran Khan, the famous Pakistani cricketer (and now a politician) is the chancellor of the University of Bradford; Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Star-Trek Enterprise, some of you may know him from the X-Men movies) is the chancellor of the University of Huddersfield; Chris Patten (Hong-Kong’s Governor from 1992 – 1997) is the chancellor of the University of Oxford; Greg Dyke (former Director-General of the BBC) is the chancellor of the University of York, where I am a student. None of these chancellors are Kings or the Prime Ministers or Ministers holding office, which seems to be the impression that I get from Nepal on who the chancellors should be. The fact is that the chancellors need not be a King or a Prime Minister. It should be somebody who can act as an ambassador for the institution, spread its name far and wide and attract interests and investments to the university through their name and position. So, if the King or the Prime Minister can do all that by being the chancellor, there is no harm having them as such; however, if they are just there to take up the position, which is what they do essentially at the universities in Nepal, then what is the point in having them as chancellors? Why not have personalities like Kul Chandra Gautam or Madhav Prasad Ghimire as chancellors in our universities?
The very first thing that struck me when I started my university education in the UK was the absence of political-party-affiliated student unions and the organisation of the universities as one academic unit (mostly within a fixed boundary) with different departments, research centres and schools within university’s physical boundaries. So, there are not many university-affiliated colleges here, unlike in Nepal where we see hundreds of university-affiliated colleges most of which the university has no control over in terms of teaching or research qualities or the recruitment of the students. Moreover, it was a relief to see student unions working for the students and not to promote the agenda of any political party. Instead, students with interests in politics and support for certain political parties have student “clubs” or “societies” to bring together their student-supporters – such as the “Labour Club” or the “Tory (Conservative) Club” or the “Lib-Dem Society” – just like the “Afro-Caribbean Society” or the “Vegetarian Society”, with an intention of bringing together like-minded students at the university. So, there is no party-affiliated student politics, which is such a relief. There is simply no need to politicise the universities and the student unions, which are there to help in academic development and other well-being of the students, and not to promote any political ideologies.
I went to a TU-college in Nepal for only about three months; however, those three months were more than enough for me to realise how bad the situation was in terms of the politicisation in the education sector. Student admissions in most of the departments were controlled by the student unions, one way or the other. Most of the popular courses were oversubscribed at the pressure of the student unions; whereas, students with good grades but not much “connection” with the student leaders were not getting the seat they deserved. Students with money to pay baksish to these student leaders were getting admitted; whereas students who couldn’t afford to pay were being neglected despite their better academic performance in earlier levels. Any movement by the political parties transformed into similar movements in the colleges through their aligned student unions, such as the general strikes, which, without a doubt, negatively affected the academic performance of the students. Of the three months that I attended the college, we probably had a month off due to holidays and general strikes! To tell the truth, most TU-colleges were (and probably still are) more of a political than an academic arena. I have only talked about parties-affiliated student unions here but I acknowledge that they are not the only culprits – parties-affiliated teachers’ unions are also to blame to a certain extent in politicising our universities and colleges. The ever-present threat of “pen-down” OR “chalk-down” actions by the teachers at every disagreement, and such occasional “actions” by the teachers unions, often at the instruction of the political parties they are affiliated with, negatively affected the academic performance of the students.
Although I hold the view that politics affects every aspects of life, including our education, I do not think that the educational institutions need to be politicised as they are in Nepal. Students should be aware of the country’s political situation, and be prepared to “fight” for democratic values if needed, but that doesn’t mean the students unions should be politicised as they are in Nepal. Students unions should be there to work for the welfare of the students and not to promote political ideologies of any political party. If students hold a certain political ideology and support a certain political party, they can get together with like-minded individuals through student societies or clubs, but they should not be forcing their political ideologies by abusing their position in the student unions. Academic support and general welfare of the students should be the central focus of student unions; what it should not be is the forum for the political parties and a few political-parties-affiliated students to promote their own agenda. And we need chancellors at our universities who can act as ambassadors for the universities and help in overall development of the universities in our country.