Nepali Times Asian Paints
State Of The State
The enigma of excellence


TOKYO -The verdant premises of the University of Tokyo have hosted Einstein, invited some of the most gifted international researchers, and attracted the best and brightest of Japanese society. Unlike other universities here, it also has a vibrant community of international students, which at one point included King Birendra when he was crown prince.

Todai, as it is affectionately called, has for over a century produced Nobel laureate physicists, celebrated litterateurs, award-winning artistes, renowned architects (Kenzo Tange, designer of the Lumbini Master Plan, was on the faculty), and premiers and tycoons. The university has also produced most of the vice ministers and career bureaucrats who run Japan.

There is an active group of Nepali scholars at Todai. As is often the case with diaspora elite, they seem to know more about their country of origin than folks back home. Apparently, distance doesn't just make the heart grow fonder, but also makes for clear-eyed, detached observation. Such longing and belonging creates a peculiar kind of love-hate relationship with the home country. That partly explains the ambivalence of Nepalis here to the monarchy.

Nepalis here would like to go back home, but career options discussed are in Australia, Canada, or the US. If things improve in Nepal, they might consider a return some time in the future.

There's a lesson for Nepal: we need centres of excellence to produce the administrative and technocratic elite necessary to modernise the country.

Consider what we could learn from India. The bureaucracy that runs that huge country is almost exclusively homegrown. Agriculture, business, and service are operated by graduates of Indian universities. The strides Bangalore and Hyderabad have taken in IT and bio-tech began in educational institutions set up by Jawaharlal Nehru. Without the IITs, IIMs, RECs, and central universities, the double-digit growth Manmohan Singh is contemplating would be unthinkable. Had they met at next week's The Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Delhi it would have been an ideal time for him to impress this upon Pushpa Kamal Dahal.

In Nepal, it's hard to think of an institution of excellence whose students are committed to working at home. The first choice of bright students, usually from private schools, is to migrate. We can't expect much from their long-distance patriotism. The 'system' has to be changed from within, and for that we need infrastructure conducive to creating commitment towards society. People can't be barred from leaving, but they can be encouraged to think of the rewards of transforming their society by staying on.

It's difficult to tie talented individuals down to a stagnant society, but there is no other way to break the dormancy. We could begin with public-funded centres of excellence in education, engineering, and economics. Perhaps some Todai alumni might want to give something back to the society which made them what they are.

Virtue can't be taught, but we know land-grant universities helped transform the American landscape. The ?cole Polytechnique of Paris, whose motto is 'For the Nation, Sciences and Glory', was instrumental in creating a forward-looking society in France, and Japan's five imperial universities played no small role in establishing a system where trains run on time, faucets do not leak, and bureaucrats can keep political bosses and business tycoons on their toes.

Every country needs a committed, competent corps of academics and administrators to keep society moving. This corps has always been cultivated by the public sector. Even today, Todai remains a government-run university.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)