The post-Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) framework is currently being negotiated among governments and civil society participants around the world. Unlike the previous goals, which emphasized universal primary education as a key aim, it is essential that any successor targets ensure a concomitant focus on tertiary education. The youth bulge is growing: young people between the ages of ten and twenty-four now constitute 25 percent of the global population, with most in the global south, and these youth must have the skills to manage governments, businesses, and civil society bodies. If they do not, political and economic transitions will be unsustainable.
Encouragingly, a university, college, or vocational education is also increasingly seen by young people to be one of the most important opportunities available to them. It is a means to generate higher income, a way to better make sense of the world, and a step up on the ladder of social mobility. More and more young people are enrolled in tertiary education than ever before. The total is expected to rise to 262 million by 2025, according to Australian researchers, with nearly all of this growth in the developing world.
The Himalayan country of Nepal is no exception. Over 55 percent of the population is under the age of 25 according to a recent census, and in the current academic year a massive 370,000 students enrolled at various levels of study at Tribhuvan University, the main public institution of higher education in the country. This should be a positive development; there is an infectious desire for learning among young Nepalis, and students have played a positive role in many of the key political changes that have defined Nepal’s historical progress. These have included the movement that led to democracy in 1990 and the People’s Movement in 2006 through which the monarchy was replaced with a republic.
A closer look at current trends in higher education in Nepal is deeply worrying, however, and holds important lessons for the region, where similar dynamics are apparent in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Universities are woefully under-equipped to handle the size and the needs of the student body. At Tribhuvan University, there are often power cuts of up to twelve hours a day. There is no drinking water, clean bathrooms, or internet access on the main campus. There are not nearly enough classrooms to accommodate the huge number of students; libraries are sparse and completely outdated; and buildings are regularly burned down by disaffected groups. The bloated roster of professors means many are unpaid and unmotivated, and students are deeply unhappy.
These problems are the result of the politics that has come to dominate the university system, with all hiring made on a political basis. As a result, many administrators act with impunity, refusing to deal with the most basic of problems, showing up to work late or not at all, and favoring certain students over others in everything from the awarding of scholarships to the allocation of housing. Politics can become deeply unaccountable and coercive, with university positions providing opportunities for patronage and corruption by political parties. These parties use students for their own ends, including frequent bandhs (strikes), which at times can shut down entire cities and lead to the frequent cancellation of classes, often indefinitely. Student elections were recently cancelled due to widely reported incidents of vote-buying, illegal admissions, and intimidation. Violence is also common, with hardline positions encouraged by larger political parties that reinforce stereotypes among frustrated Nepali students.
In an environment of this sort, dialogue has been replaced with non-negotiable demands and common concerns are no longer amenable to collective action. The government has commissioned various reports about universities’ problems without much follow-up. Donors like the World Bank have some discrete projects, but conversations on campus indicate that these are seen as supply-driven and ownership by the universities is low. Other donors have largely stayed away, preferring to focus on high school education. This situation is a disservice to current students, who should be the next generation of Nepali leaders. Many are now deciding that the time and money needed to attend public colleges are not worth the low level of knowledge attained as a result.
Through the Accountability Lab we have conducted hundreds of formal and informal meetings over the past year with student leaders, professors, administrators, and political parties at Tribhuvan University. It is clear that an initial four-step process is needed to address the problems that currently exist. First, the political parties must summon the courage to allow the university to become a de-politicized space for students to learn. Second, they must work with the university administration, student bodies, and professors to form a dialogue center through which issues can be discussed peacefully and constructively. Third, a durable code of conduct must be developed to govern behaviors on campus, with strong enforcement mechanisms. And fourth, a process must be put in place to streamline the university staff, ensure that hiring and promotion decisions are made on a transparent and fair basis, and provide authorities with the mandate and funds to carry out the university’s educational mission.
These are not easy changes to make, of course, but it is essential that the focus of universities and colleges—in Nepal and elsewhere—is not politics or patronage but constructive learning. The MDGs got the focus on primary education right, but educated youngsters soon grow up to demand clear and fair opportunities for further study, which benefits both themselves and their societies. In the post-2015 era, we ignore them at our peril.
This blog post was first published on the Council on Foreign Relations' blogging platform. It is republished here with the permission of the author.