False equivalence in Nepal academiaTribhuvan University gives Nepali graduates of foreign universities the runaround
The issue erupted on social media after I posted in anger on Facebook against Tribhuvan University’s (TU) Curriculum Development Centre (CDC).
I had applied for recognition in Nepal of my MPhil and PhD from the University of Cambridge for an equivalence certificate, which is required for jobs in Nepal. The document is also needed to issue a No Objection Certificate (NOC), a letter permitting Nepalis to undertake further studies abroad.
Almost two years had passed and my file remained unprocessed. They had first asked for online submission of degree certificates, transcripts, course syllabus, copies of visas, stamps in passports at the Nepali and London airports, copies of thesis, supervisor’s CV, PhD viva reports and a Rs 5,000 fee calculated by CDC’s online portal.
A green ‘completed’ button indicated I fulfilled the submission procedure. Then they asked that I submit all these documents in a printed file, yet they refused to accept my hardcopy files on the grounds that they could not guarantee its safekeeping.
I heard nothing from CDC for over a year. A month ago I made a second attempt to submit my paper-based files. Perhaps because a TU staff accompanied me this time my submission was eventually accepted, documents checked and a receipt issued.
But two weeks later I got a call from CDC and the person called me by a different name, shouted at me for not paying the required processing fees of Rs4,000 for the MPhil degree (I had just paid Rs1,000 as directed by the online portal), said I was to redeposit Rs4,000 and would lose the earlier paid Rs1,000.
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Out of anger at the lateness, the rudeness and extortion I posted that I no longer wanted an equivalence ‘that came at the cost of my human dignity’.
What followed was astonishing. My post got shared through national and international networks of Nepalis within the country and the diaspora. Hundreds spoke up about their own struggles with equivalence, including facing misbehaviour at CDC.
A CDC victim and Harvard post-doctoral researcher Jitendra Shrestha even coined a hashtag, #tu_cdc_scam. The Nepali press and TV gave the issue wide coverage and MPs raised the issue in Parliament.
Laxman Kafle and Nasir Ahmad, current PhD students at MIT and the National University of Singapore respectively, were told they did not spend enough time physically at Tsinghua University in China during their Master’s program.
They had actually been forced to return to Nepal because China shut down due to Covid. Jitendra Shrestha’s master’s in Microbiology was deemed an unacceptable prerequisite for his PhD in Cancer Biology and Drug Development under the Department of Pharmacy.
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Prajwal Raj Gyawali’s European Master’s in Law and Economics under the Erasmus program was deemed to contain insufficient credits for the standards of Nepal. The CDC halves all European course credits without any real justification.
Barsha Dharel, who is currently pursuing her degree at Columbia University, was told she did not take an English course worth 100 marks during her undergraduate degree at Delhi University.
Many applicants were victims of retrospective application of ad-hoc decisions made by the CDC to disqualify certain foreign universities from being recognised when its own regulatory procedures bar decisions from being applied retrospectively. The legal basis is that people should be able to legitimately predict outcomes before undertaking a procedure.
The responses from TU Vice Chancellor Dharma Kanta Baskota and CDC Director Paras Nath Yadav were unaligned and contradictory. While Baskota accepted that the equivalency mechanism is dysfunctional, Yadav summarily blamed all unsuccessful applicants for failing to fulfil the procedure.
TU has systematically prevented foreign graduates from entering Nepali public and private service for decades. Highly trained people have left the country in frustration, the loss of skills, talent, ideas and knowledge to Nepal is immeasurable.
The equivalence debacle is not just a small internal problem in Nepal. The refusal to grant equivalency to degrees from universities around the world, more often through stalling applications for years as opposed to outright rejection, is a dismissal of the reputation of global academies and centres of learning. Surely universities internationally would object to this as they do not impose the same arbitrary procedures to recognise TU degrees.
Many governments provide Nepali students scholarships to study at their universities such as Fulbright, Chevening, AUSAID, or Erasmus. Most of these awards bind Nepali students to return to Nepal upon completion of their studies. The objective being to benefit Nepal from the skills and knowledge of this trained human resource.
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But these scholarship recipients are barred from entering Nepal’s public sector because TU does not issue them equivalence certificates. Duke University-trained Fulbright scholar and environmental lawyer Jony Mainaly has abandoned her ambition to enter the TU academia because her equivalence has been pending for years.
This has larger human rights implications. Our right to employment and further education has been violated by a Nepali state institution. The brain drain due to this equivalence mechanism hinders Nepal’s overall development. While TU is directly to blame, the Ministry of Education also bears responsibility for its neglect of this problem for decades.
Without skilled human resources to work in Nepal, development aid is going to be a waste of taxpayer money to donors. A Chevening scholarship recipient showed me the letter issued by the scholarship body, which says, ‘it shall not be binding to the government of Nepal to recognise the degree or determine the equivalent of the degree…’
The Nepal government has abdicated its responsibility to absorb foreign university graduates back into its system. Better negotiations in signing memorandums of understanding between Nepal and donor countries providing scholarships are in order.
Oxford graduate Shrochis Karki found it perversely beautiful that young Nepalis from across the world had come together in a collective struggle.
The powers of equivalence should be taken out of TU, and given to an independent body with a pragmatic policy for the retention of knowledge and skills in Nepal.
We have no illusions that propelling systemic changes in deeply broken structures are going to be hard. But, we have to fight these battles from all quarters inside and outside Nepal.
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Aastha Dahal is a Kathmandu-based lawyer.