Dev Raj Dahal
Head, FES Nepal
The prosperity of a nation mainly depends on its educational attainment. Challenges of education are, therefore, matters of national concern. The changing Spirit of the Age defined by democracy, human rights, justice, knowledge and information requires the renewal and reform of education in every generation to solve new problems. The living institutions of the nation—schools, colleges, universities and think tanks-- generate essential knowledge to demolish ignorance, formulate suitable policies, solve the problems of society, enable the nation’s competitiveness in this interconnected world and legislate social transformation to keep the health of society sound for creative “labor, work and action” to borrow the concepts from Hannah Arendt. Without constant intergenerational transformation of knowledge, the capacity of Nepalese citizens to innovate and adapt remains inert.
Higher education’s supreme aim is to provide Nepalese citizens universal knowledge and values to shape productive and peaceful lives. Their aspiration for a progressive society goes beyond ‘rights discourse’ to capture the domain of enlightenment whereby citizens are accustomed to thinking for themselves. Higher education, in this sense, enables society and working life to adapt to changing nature of life-choices. The modern educational values have falsified the neo-liberal separation of the public and the private sphere. Accordingly, the state has entered into family to address the denial of rights, domestic violence, child abuse and even suicide. A responsible state also seeks to prevent the commercialization of nature, life, education, health and culture. The faculty of ‘humanity’ is precisely set up in the university to foster humanitarian values. The emergence of knowledge society has also removed the tradeoff between education and technology as their synthesis has become critical to effective participation in the political economy. Social science and scientific faculties are established to address policy problems arising out of new social stratification followed by ideological and technological change and the need for a coordination of desire and knowledge. Both demand professional development of higher education. Learning to grow with a scientific mindset in an age of multiple transitions requires Nepalese citizens an updated knowledge, skills and leadership to cope with these trends underway.
Nepal’s educational system has statistically improved the number of educated people but there is a shortage of wise persons capable of transforming this post-conflict nation into stable peace. A semblance of positive transformation has come from the effects of global awakening and education of under-classes of society including women as gender equality involved a cycle of change from personhood, family, society, public institutions to intra-state and post-national public spheres. The vision, determination and leadership of alternative leaders have made vital impact on the welfare, political agency and lives of both men and women. Higher education, income and engagement are the keys to the social equalization within and across the social strata and nations. They are also the passports to economic security, identity, voice and representation.
New education theories situate citizens within the social, economic and political context of life-world and deem them critical masses of social transformation within the political system. Teaching and learning centers, research institutes, academy, research councils, management and teachers’ and students’ unions of Nepal should, therefore, espouse theoretical and emancipatory visions, not only to strengthen strategic interests to upscale one’s own mobility to elite politics and serve the interest of ruling regimes but to uplift society’s higher standards and awaken ordinary citizens by creating what Gautam Buddha calls ‘mindful society.’ This alternative vision of learning for equal and dignified citizenship for women and men rests on critical awareness about ‘existential condition’ and progress towards cognition, disposition, values and attitudes necessary for communicative competence in society and rational construction of public order, justice and peace. Here public financing of education becomes crucial to break poverty-education trap.
The faculties of higher education hold hopes for meeting international educational comparison, a hope that remains partially fulfilled owing to structural and cultural barriers arising out of social, economic, political, legal and institutional conditions. These are also the barriers to the institutionalization of Nepal’s educational institutions of higher learning and making them innovative, competitive and adaptive. Building the solidarity of the state, private sector and international community with institutions of higher education can equip them with necessary energy to influence educational policies of governments, build confidence of the faculty members and create a coalition with civil society for making the responsible working of political and economic power. A civilized Nepal can be within the reach of ordinary citizens if the nation’s constitutional vision of ‘right to education’ fits with the ‘right to work’ enabling all stakeholders to undertake ‘civic responsibilities.’ Wider participation of the institutions of higher learning in the plan cycle would be necessary to endure inter-generational justice and overcome the under-achievement of the promises of national plans and international obligations. There are other problems also: political instability, patronage, brain drain, massive capital flight, corruption and weak implementation of laws and policies. They are major distortions for educational development. Capital flight can be partially compensated by the remittance of the migrant workers. There are, however, no mechanisms for compensating the loss of skilled persons and their lack of accountability to the society of their birth. This accountability is essential to overcome a battle between market efficiency and social justice.
Leaders with transformative aspirations should look for ways where the nation has comparative and competitive advantages and uplift the backward sectors. In Nepal, social pressure for the equality of opportunity and equality of results is increasing in all sectors including higher education. In this context, the typical forms of ‘learning curriculum only’ and ‘rote education’ devoid of contextual sensitivity of the nation cannot guide the reshaping of core public policies. The macroeconomic policies adopted by the successive Nepalese governments since 1950s until now bear witness to the fact that there is neither social learning nor national reflection not even accountability of the intellectual failures. The marked disconnection of Nepalese colleges and universities to national needs has generated ‘multiple’ chronic conditions in educational sectors. Any viable solution of higher education of Nepal, therefore, requires ‘holistic thinking’ to move forward.
First solution to the problem of higher education in Nepal is the autonomization of the functions of higher education from party politics especially in setting vision, policy, governing mechanism and goal orientation. Problem-solving education needs to shift from the currently dominant discourse to a discourse on reflection and care to life-world and make room for an effective national and cosmopolitan citizenship with the ability to make the national society competitive.
Second solution is the democratization of higher education by making it accessible at all levels of society. It means only public financing of education can provide opportunities for talented persons coming from lower strata and backward region. Private sector can complement it as it helps to overcome democratic shortfall created by neo-liberal temptation to turn education into ‘economic model’ producing two kinds of citizenship defined by wealth and power and, consequently, creating an emotional gap between them with the potential to spark conflict in the future. A knowledge society demands open communication flows and innovative and adaptive critical masses.
Third solution is the professionalization of roles and responsibilities of administration, teaching and research faculties. Making education for life skills and choices in Nepal is more important than exclusively degree-based and status bound for the maintenance of elite culture produced by the country so far. It has created a vertical hierarchy in institutional and leadership structure depriving the under-classes from social justice. The distributional reach of higher education among geographic regions, social and economic classes and gender to build positive impact of people’s ideas, institutions and leadership is no less salient.
Fourth solution lies in the contextualization of its products both to support internal needs of the nation and facilitate its safe adaptation in this interconnected world. A balance must be struck between indigenization and universalization of curriculum. Collaborative research with the institutions of higher learning abroad can help Nepalese scholars to know the new body of knowledge and international scholars to understand Nepal’s context and link higher education to develop the capacity of the most talented Nepalese as well as connect them to ethically informed ‘common citizenship’ required to make Nepalese democracy functional.
It is difficult to achieve these solutions unless Nepali state is consolidated by building its capacity to implement constitutional and human rights commitments and prevent the free-ride of many ‘fraud’ educational institutions engaged as salesman or those working to conform only external standards than national needs and responsibility. Effective campaign, advocacy and lobbying are needed for linking Nepal’s higher educational policies to actionable strategies and attaining MDGs and 6 goals of Education For All (EFA). The transformative leaders emerging from educational institutions have to continuously infuse the lived experience of earlier generation of authorities and their struggle into the public sphere enlisting them a part of national priorities for action.
(Speech made by the author at a discussion program organized by the Tribhuwan University’s International Relations Centre in Lalitpur on Monday, December 12, 2011.)