University for a new Nepal

Ambitious foray into science and technology research avoids pitfalls like political interference

Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Just when you are about to give up on Nepal, the country springs surprises on you. 

Just one hour from the Ring Road in Kathmandu, up a steep serpentine road to the pass and down the other side in Chitlang is a brand new university campus. It is nestled amidst mountains draped in thick pine forests with facilities that would rival any college in Korea or Canada.

Rajendra Dhoj Joshi, formerly of the Institute of Engineering and a World Bank consultant, was always puzzled about universities in Nepal not contributing to the country’s economy, and why graduates were migrating in droves. Among the many push factors was that universities are stuck with obsolete content not designed to meet Nepal’s development priorities, and are over-politicised.

After a decade of lobbying by educationists, the Cabinet finally passed the University Act in May 2023 that opened the door for the establishment of new institutions, including the Madan Bhandari University of Science and Technology (MB-UST) in Chitlang.

Situated along the historic foot trail from Kathmandu Valley to the Indian border, the university overlooks the route taken by many young Nepalis in the old days for higher studies in Banaras or Calcutta. And it was there on 3 December that the university started classes with its first batch of masters and PhD students. It was immediately evident that MB-UST is a university unlike any other in Nepal.

Instead of mechanical or electronics engineering, the new students have been handpicked for research on subjects like bamboo architecture, domestication of wild mushrooms, extraction of bioactive compounds, or diagnosis of plant disease using AI. Among the masters students is Dhana Acharya, who was recently evacuated from Israel, where he was in an earn-learn program in a kibbutz near Gaza.

Joshi explains the rationale: “Nepal is falling behind the rest of Asia. The idea is to build a world-class university for technical and scientific research focusing on real-life needs of Nepalis to create jobs and make Nepal’s industries more competitive.”

New University
Rajendra Dhoj Joshi President of MB-UST and Chair Padma Jyoti.

Joshi has learnt the hard way that to do this he needs to prevent political interference and the accompanying corruption. A special selection committee set up a Board of Trustees for MB-UST that is chaired by industrialist Padma Jyoti. Members include former Auditor General Bhanu Acharya, Seeram Ramakrishna of the National University of Singapore (NUS), former president of the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology Nam Pyo Suh, ex-Vice Chancellor of McGill University Canada Suzanne Fortier, Lochan Gyawali of Jun Chiyabari in Hile, ex-officio government figures and others.  

“Small countries like Singapore and Nepal need to think big,” Prof Ramakrishna told the opening class in Chitlang. “A university like this allows us to transform our weaknesses into strengths, especially to confront a complex new world.”

Just because the politicians have failed Nepal does not mean Nepal is a failure, reasons Joshi who recalls meeting Nepal’s top leaders with the idea to set up a science and technology university. “Please go ahead because we have not been able to do it,” they told him.

Indeed, the Asian Development Bank was willing to backstop the university with a $17 million loan but the government had just turned it down because the necessary law was not in place. The first batch of students and their research are sponsored by Nepal’s private agro-economic sector, and Joshi is on the lookout to build a trust fund. True to its motto ‘prosperity and justice’, MB-UST charges no fees, and does not give affiliations. It expects 1,000 masters and PhD students in the next two years. 

Despite his aversion to political interference, Joshi had to make one concession to the government: name it after politician Madan Bhandari. “However, we do not have anything to do with the UML,” he clarifies, with the tone of someone who has answered that question hundreds of times. 

MB-UST’s world-class facilities have laboratories with state-of-the-art equipment and Nepali professors who have returned from Korea and elsewhere. The buildings all have cavity walls for insulation, and rooftop solar arrays earn the university Rs2.1 million per month from sale of power to the grid. And in a first-ever energy storage system in Nepal, surplus electricity will be used to pump water up to a reservoir that can be drained during peak hours to generate power.

Says Joshi: “My experience tells me what is needed and what to avoid. We will not allow partisan politics to affect our independence, we are building an international-level university in Nepal that will ensure not just prosperity but also justice.” 

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