The momentum gathered by the Open University of Nepal (OUN) initiative has given much energy and excitement to those who are perspiring to build a futuristic university for Nepal, a university in pursuit of academic excellence and innovation. The potential OUN friends who are observing and waiting are questioning in their mind whether the fundamentals of OUN are sound. Perhaps stories of lacklustre performance of many Nepalese institutions, and the stories of foreign “universities” offering quick and easy certificates and degrees, makes Nepali aspirants weary in the first place. Naturally then, they want to be sure that certain fundamentals remain uncompromised for OUN. They want to be confident that OUN will not just be another university-business or a “diploma mill”. Therefore, much is there to tell about the lofty and inspiring mission of OUN. However, this article focuses on the questions of ownership, autonomy, and funding of OUN.
Who should own OUN? Should it be private, should it be public, or should it be in public-private partnership? Such are the dilemma that draw our attention and sometimes make us wonder and bewilder. However, these issues turn simpler once our own motivation for building OUN become clear. Our motivation has been not the profit for ourselves but a public good directed to strengthening human agency of fellow citizens, especially those who are today not able to acquire quality higher education despite having desire and talent for it. We aspire to use OUN as an agent for promoting excellence in education, research and innovation among broader Nepalese population.
Since all modern societies professionalize and regulate most aspect of human endeavours, including the works of private sector enterprises, it would be reasonable to expect that Nepal would also seek public control over performance specifications and regulatory controls of its universities, be they private or public. Therefore, in the case of OUN also, the regulatory authority would rest on the public. As representative body of the people of Nepal and the executioner of the public authority, it would be reasonable to expect that the parliament of Nepal and the Government of Nepal would assume regulatory authority over OUN.
Noting that we want to take higher education to people’s homes and communities regardless of their financial capacity, it is logical that we build a publicly financed, publicly owned, and publicly managed institution like most universities in the world. Being the custodian of the public purse of Nepal, we would expect that GoN becomes the major financer of OUN. This is no different than other public universities of the world. And even in building and operating a public institution, there are always undeniable opportunities for sharing resources, expertise, risks and reward between the public sector and the private enterprises; and we often identify such sharing schemes with public-private partnership.
A public model serves us especially well because we want to provide access to higher education to a large population of learners. And experience from around the world tells us that such a lofty goal is achieved only by public universities. To give an example, public universities like Oxford University, University of Tokyo, Athabasca University, Open University of UK, Korean National Open University, University of California, and Open University of China serve 20,000, 28,000, 38,000, 168,000, 182,000, 220,000, and 2,700,000 students respectively. Compare that with private universities such as Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and Princeton, which serve 21,000, 15,000, 10,000, and 7,000 students respectively. In general, the number of students produced by all private universities amounts to a small fraction of what the public universities produce. Further, private university education will be unaffordable to vast majority of learners. In OUN, we aspire not an exclusive service for elites but a service to a vast population; which leads to conclude that our path is headed to public education.
That being said, the OUN cannot and should not be subjugated to the grips of over-regulations from the government. And that warrants that the OUN be autonomous, a institution free from government interventions, over-regulations and micro-management. The autonomy is a necessary condition for retaining intellectual and scholarly freedom to examine every societal question without fearing the state, organized religion, and business interests. Such freedom helps OUN uninterruptedly develop and spread new knowledge. Autonomy is an instrument to protect OUN from the grips of over-regulation and to expand its entrepreneurial and competitive strength. If our primary motive were to achieve public funding in the expense of autonomy, OUN may end up inheriting the problems the existing public universities such as Tribhuvan University (TU) are facing today. The TU is an autonomous institution in principle but its governing positions are appointed by the party in government. Such political interference has hindered TU from achieving the expected level of autonomy and excellence. In order to build autonomy and excellence, OUN will be outward looking from the onset.
As much as OUN prizes autonomy, it also equally needs government funding for its operation. It should then be expected that a government that dispenses public funds to universities should have a responsibility to ensure that universities meet certain societal needs and serve people with high standards. For example, if OUN found it convenient to serve elite students only and did not serve the intended rural, remote, and marginalized groups, or if OUN issued degrees whose quality did not meet regulatory standards, if it did not provide expected service to society, a government should not be a bystander in its failings. We expect that a responsible government would set national priorities, develop instruments to provide equal opportunities for all citizens, finance and promote higher research and education, and intervene when quality of education falls below set standards. Therefore, in return for the autonomy and public funding, the OUN shall deliver excellence in education, research, innovation and entrepreneurship, and in meeting changing needs of the society.
On the area of funding, it is envisioned that OUN will be funded by an international consortium for the first ten years, which is desirable also for the reason that OUN is a massive undertaking for the size of the economy Nepal has. It is expected that within ten years, OUN shall be able to operate from the earnings made through its product and service offerings to its students and to other universities and colleges, from endowment funds, investments, and from the public funding it receives. It should also generate significant funds by offering high quality knowledge products and services in the international market. The OUN will be an internationally oriented institution, such as AIT where funding for the institution is derived not only from Thailand but also from other concerned governments, and its governance will be structured accordingly to make it possible to inspire international collaboration.
OUN initiative team is taking initial measures in the path of autonomy, international cooperation and excellence. Its Steering Committee already includes people from inside Nepal and from all around the world. The rationale behind forming such a outward looking committee has been that we would like to establish a university of international stature that freely and competently collaborates at the world stage. This proposition also commands support from all major political parties of Nepal. The OUN team has reached informal understanding with parliament members of different political parties and the officials of MoE on a three step process as follows:
- The University Umbrella Act gets pushed by the MoE at the earliest to the parliament; the umbrella act already includes provision for OUN,
- The necessary changes required to make OUN an internationally operating and collaborating institution, NRN scholars would provide a set of recommendations for amendments required on the act; these recommendations would be supplied to the MPs,
- The MPs will add those amendments to the bill before it passes from the parliament; and these amendments should give the basis by which our main objectives remain intact.
Therefore, an undeniable portion of finding right balance between autonomy, public funding, and excellence for OUN remains on the legal instruments upon which the institution would be founded. This means that scholars who are concerned with the success of OUN must help refine the legislative framework that is being developed in Nepal. It is a high time that intellectual and academic friends review the University Umbrella Act and suggest the type of amendments required on it. We invite them to educate the stakeholders on how great public universities such as the University of California, Open University of UK and Athabasca University were able to maintain such balances. And we seek recommendations on how the bill could be amended so that OUN will remain a truly autonomous public institution where NRN scholars and international scholars can play vital and inspiring role and bring excellence in education, scholarship and innovation in Nepal.