Political influence in universities ‘threat’ to Nepal’s democracy

The prime minister’s role in appointing university leaders under question as Cabinet attempts to change status quo

April 18, 2024
People at rally with Nepalese flags in Kathmandu
Source: iStock/Idealnabaraj

A delay in appointing senior leadership at Nepal’s largest university has reignited concerns about political influence over recruitment at the country’s institutions.

It comes as the education minister has vowed to amend current laws governing the appointment of vice-chancellors and university leaders.

The prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, appointed a new rector and registrar at Tribhuvan University, a Kathmandu-based public university, on 12 April after a two-week delay, following recommendations from the university’s vice-chancellor, who was himself appointed by the prime minister in February.

Mr Dahal, who is ex officio chancellor of Nepal’s 11 universities, originally asked Keshar Jung Baral, Tribhuvan’s vice-chancellor, to reconsider his recommendations, meaning that the positions remained unfilled for longer than expected. Professor Baral reportedly refused to reconsider, threatening to resign if his selected candidates were not approved.

Four of the university’s former vice-chancellors spoke out about the “unusual” delay, saying pressure from the prime minister was affecting the functioning of the university, The Kathmandu Post reported. They argued that vice-chancellors should “have the authority to build their team”.

“If the university is to be functional, the newly appointed vice-chancellor should be given the opportunity to appoint his own leadership team,” agreed Krishna Bista, professor of higher education at Morgan State University.

“The appointment process for university leaders in Nepal remains highly political,” he said, adding that this was a “direct threat” to democracy.

When recruiting Tribhuvan’s vice-chancellor at the beginning of the year, the prime minister said the appointment to the role would be based on “merit” after concerns that the position would go to one of his political allies. The government subsequently announced an “open competition” for the post that saw 43 candidates apply.

However, the process came in for criticism after the role was ultimately granted to Professor Baral, a candidate perceived as being aligned with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), the prime minister’s party.

“The orchestration of these appointments has become a political spectacle, reflecting the significant influence of political parties,” said Professor Bista. “This politicisation risks undermining the university’s credibility, leading to potential enrolment declines, financial instability and ongoing conflicts between the appointees.”

Sumana Shrestha, Nepal’s newly appointed minister of education, science and technology, who is a member of a different party from the prime minister, said in March that she planned to amend current laws to allow “experts” to be appointed as the head of Nepal’s universities, giving institutions more autonomy. Before taking up the ministerial post, Ms Shrestha had criticised the appointment of Tribhuvan’s vice-chancellor.

Professor Bista said the education minister’s steps towards changing this were “commendable”.

“The universities should be governed by independent boards, and [the] prime minister’s office should not have a direct role in the process,” he said.


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