Towards Academic Freedom: Suresh Raj Sharma

Features Issue 66 Jul, 2010
Text by Baishali Bomjan

A man with a mission, Suresh Raj Sharma’s story is that of strength, patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.

Education is more than a luxury; it is a responsibility that society owes itself. No one knows this better than Suresh Raj Sharma, Vice Chancellor, Kathmandu University (K.U.) who believes that the problems we have in our communities and societies today, are going to be resolved only when we are brought together by a common sense that each of us is a visionary. He describes well the organization of institutions of higher learning in this country, and opines that building organizational competitiveness, managerial competency and professionalizing management is the need of the hour. But above all, he truly believes that the whole aim of education is not only to develop our minds, but our skills as well.There are various facets to Sharma’s colorful life. He completed his Phd. in Chemistry from London and came back to Nepal  to join Tribhuvan University as Associate Professor. At K.U. he taught the first ever batch of MSc graduates of Nepal.

After a period of active teaching for almost ten years, Sharma was appointed Member Secretary of the National Education Committee in 1977, a term that usually lasts for three years, but he was not released from the post for nine years. The committee comprised of the highest policy makers of the country, and it was during this time that Sharma in the company of other leading policy makers got the opportunity to stimulate the much needed change in the theory based education system of Nepal. They had to chalk out programs, structure the syllabi as well as formulate new policies to carry the light of education to even the remotest rural areas. They emphasized the importance of skill and practical knowledge development, teachers training programs, and promoted vocational education in Nepal, keeping in mind the rapidly changing face of education around the world. “After I completed my term in 1985, I was requested by the government to lead their technical and vocational education department. I conducted intensive research to find the fundamentals of what the country needed, made policies on national level and attracted more donors to fulfill this immense task," Says Sharma.

Spurred on by the economic liberalization drive of the early 1990’s in Nepal, business and development sectors began to take a definite turn where growth was the goal. It was during this time that Kathmandu University was established as an autonomous, non-profit, non-government public institution dedicated to maintain high standards of academic excellence. “I was appointed Vice Chancellor and together with the executive committee was responsible for carrying out policy decisions of the academic council. Within a span of almost 17 years, the university has grown tremendously to incorporate some of the most sought after courses in science, technology, management, social sciences and liberal arts through cutting edge education and research programs,” he informs.

The university is spread over 17 hectares of open land between Dhulikhel and Banepa and lies about 28 km east of Kathmandu. However, one potential cloud Sharma sees in his horizon is a push from the political forces and societal prejudices still existent in Nepal. Still, he isn’t overtly concerned because he believes that with time, commitment, drive and a flexible approach, the education sector in Nepal will boom.

Suresh Raj was born into a typical Nepali family- his grandfather was a farmer and his father a lawyer. He recalls a very happy and wholesome childhood, but confesses that he was never interested in sports and extracurricular activities in his school and college years. Neither was he too fond of music and reading. But today, he is at the helm of his affairs and despite being able to bring about immense changes in the education sector in Nepal, still believes there are miles to go. A man with a mission, Suresh Raj Sharma’s story is that of strength, patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. His career path to becoming the Vice Chancellor of KU has been exemplary, his mission impeccable and his vision boundless.

Major Achievements

While Sharma was member secretary, the National Education Committee had to execute policy revision and introduced a new education plan with emphasis on vocational class and skill development. But although the government’s intentions were ambitious, there were no preliminary preparation, infrastructure and facilities for a smooth transition into the new format of how they wanted the education system to function in this country. Parents and students alike still held English, Mathematics and Science in high esteem and most students either wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. Even teachers for these subjects were in greater demand and were paid more than vocational teachers. “During this time, I developed background information and researched intensively to come to the conclusion that the education system should be 70 percent practical skill learning and 30 percent theory. We needed more workshops and practical training for both teachers and students alike. Moreover, young students from rural areas on completing grade eight did not want to go back to farming. We saw a need for higher education in health related skills as there were no proper health services in the villages and modern development in horticulture was in demand,” says Suresh Raj. The committee started institutions to train local people of the villages to learn new skills in farming, auto-mechanics, plumbing, health, electrical and sanitary services for self-employment. Private schools that would be the property of the public and not individuals, were developed and encouraged.

The challenges

According to Sharma, the education system in the early ’70s was and is to a lesser degree still politically driven and not people or individual oriented. The mood in any institution of learning was guided by political powers. The implementation of programs that should have excelled did not meet with success because these ambitious projects had no resource, no continuity, no time and above all no funds for enough research. Sharma proposed that the education sector demanded independence and the parliament agreed. “But they could not give us enough funds to establish the system and therefore we had to generate the money ourselves. Finding an appropriate donor, laying the groundwork and the establishment of the university building itself was a daunting task and required thorough research and a great deal of paperwork,” recalls Sharma. However with the help of the Nepali government and financial assistance from four major donors, the University was finally established in 1991.

The FIRST EVERS in Nepal

The courses that were introduced at KU were probably the first ones in Nepal. Whether it was MBA, EMBA, Pharmacy, Environment Science, Biotechnology, Mechanical and Computer Engineering, Buddhist studies, and Natural and Human Resource, KU started courses that were never before taught in this scale in Nepal. Medical studies were started in affiliation with the Manipal Univesity in Pokhara, and a medical school in Dhulikhel was established to train people as nurses, technicians and lab assistants. “We have made an agreement with the Manipal University to enroll Nepali students for MBBS courses in Bangalore and Mangalore, India. 10 percent seats will be reserved for Nepali students for whom the entire course fee will be reduced by 60 percent. Furthermore, six students from Nepal will receive free training every year. But despite the heavy influx of students wanting to join K.U., at present we have only about 2,400 students, because we want to maintain quality and keep it manageable,” adds Suresh Raj.

Professor Vs Policy Maker
Sharma believes teaching is enjoyable and a noble profession. He has thoroughly enjoyed his tenure as a teacher. He finds immense joy and satisfaction in molding young minds and producing duplicates of himself.  But as a policy maker, he feels the field is bigger because you have to constantly think about how to develop the economy of the country at large.

Education Vs Experience
People seek education in preparation for employment. For good employment, a combination of both experience and education is a must. Sharma is of the opinion that there are highly qualified individuals who are underused mainly because the education system in Nepal is still confined within the four walls of the campus. They have no practical hands-on experience since there are very few or no internship facilities and therefore these highly qualified individuals have no first hand experience on how things really work in the job field. “This is why many students go abroad as the work and studying environment is more glamorous. The facilities in schools and colleges are better, they pay us more, and at the end of the day when you come back to Nepal, you’re more in demand,” he explains.

The need of the hour
Nepal is a country where people cannot work well together as there are a lot of cultural problems and clashes. Sharma opines, “We have to realize that to get into good schools, to get good results and employment, the government, institutions, parents and students have to work in sync and develop a connection to somehow work together while still projecting individual strengths. Innovation in our own way and encouraging new patterns of thinking and new and alternate models of skill-based learning is what I feel will make a difference.” He feels there is a need to promote intra-disciplinary courses, specialization from the very beginning and encouragement of children to be what they want to be, instead of compelling them to be what parents want them to be. “If they are weak in studies, encourage them to take up polytechnic courses that are skill based and does not require too much mental strength soon after completing class 10. Institutions should create facilities for student counseling on a personal level as well as for career development. However, in Nepal there are no professionally competent counselors, while parents and students do not have the right attitude and are not prepared to listen to advice. Their minds are preset and rigid and they do not truly value good counseling. But despite all this, I see a future for internship and counseling facilities in Nepal in the next couple of years, which will help students in making informed choices in their studies and careers. This in itself will create more employment and generate better income,” says Sharma.

Away from work
The Vice Chancellor likes to be close to nature. He tries as much as possible to get away from his world of work and loves trekking around the country. Fortunately for him, Nepal is endowed with spectacular natural beauty which attracts thousands of tourists each year. To get away from it all, he treks to places like Mustang and the Everest base camp whenever possible. It's not 'All work and no play' for Suresh Raj Sharma.