Nepal's newspapers and magazines are laden with attractive offers from engineering colleges, scholarships, discounts, flashy course names and big promises of quality education. Through all this, Nepal's oldest engineering school, the Institute of Engineering (IOE), popularly known as Pulchowk Campus, maintains its composure.
In 1998, Thailand's Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) ranked Asian technical schools on the basis of the performance of their alumni at AIT. Pulchowk campus came in eighth. The following year, the IOE came in fifth and last year it was ranked third among all the engineering colleges that send their graduates to AIT for higher studies.
It isn't surprising that this is one of the most popular institutes of higher education in Nepal. Competition to enrol here is stiff-over seven students take the entrance exam for each of the 370 seats at the college. Those who perform best at the exams go to Pulchowk, the others go to its three associate campuses in Dharan, Pokhara and Kathmandu's Thapathali Campus, and six affiliated private campuses in the Valley. Those who do not make the grade
"The high position of this campus in AIT's survey means I have greater responsibility to maintain the quality of education here," said a proud Dr Mukund PS Pradhan, who runs the IOE. Among the first changes Dr Pradhan instituted was ensuring that classes were conducted-he introduced a regulation that would enable the administration to ask for a written explanation if a teacher failed to conduct a class. It worked-from only 70 percent of classes actually taking place in 1998, last year more than 95 percent of classes were held. Once it was established that the teachers meant business, students, too, found it worth their while to attend.
The college, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, has bucked the trend of increasing unemployment among engineering graduates in the country, with talent scouts from the USA, India, Thailand, and Malaysia queuing up to hire its students even before they have graduated. IOE graduates don't all go abroad. Dr Pradhan is quick to point out that even those who stay on in Nepal find jobs within a year of receiving their degree.
Despite its success, the IOE has to fight many odds. The government established the institute to produce technical manpower trained in the country. Students here pay subsidised fees, but given the tiny annual grant, extracurricular activities are a dream. In recent years, the institute has received Rs 40 million annually from the government, 93 percent of which went to faculty and administration salaries. There are 270 faculty members in the departments of architecture, civil, electrical, electronics, computer, and mechanical engineering, the pure sciences, and the social sciences. The remaining Rs 3 million or so had to be stretched to cover everything else. And it was stretched pretty thin. As a result, students who, a few years ago, would happily attend the IOE, decided to go to other, better-equipped-but not necessarily better-colleges in Nepal and abroad.
Worried, the Pulchowk Campus started its own fund-raising activities. Half the students now pay Rs 30,000 per semester, and those how can prove they need support pay the old subsidised fee of Rs 985 per term. As a result, the campus has raised its annual budget to over Rs 50 million. The IOE also receives support from donors under the Engineering Education Project sponsored by the World Bank, and the Canadian and Swiss governments.
The major part of this extra income is still spent on non-academic areas. Now, salaries account for 55 percent of the annual budget, and there is more allocation of funds to pay faculty overtime in an attempt to motivate, cajole, and sometimes bully, them to moonlight less and focus more on providing their students at IOE quality education.
The IOE requires teachers to take fewer classes per week than the Tribhuvan University and pays a lot more for extra classes taught. The Institute also allows its employees to try their hand at engineering consultancy and research projects off-campus. It has seven research and consultancy centres that offer technical services to national and international clients. Teachers routed to such work through the IOE get to keep 65 percent of the fee, and the rest goes to the campus' kitty.
IT at the Institute
IOE watchers say there is no telling how good the school could become if it had more resources. They point to the success of the campus' computing and networking centre as a clever way of making use of limited resources. The campus has 70 laboratories and workshops, all networked through the campus's Computer Centre. The centre, which is open every day 8am-8pm, did not go through an Internet Service Provider, but instead invested in its own V-SAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) to provide broadband Internet access to students, faculty and administrative staff and charging them a minimal fee of Rs 250 per month.
Everyone at the Institute benefits from this, but one programme in particular is really only possible because of the computing facilities available here-the Department of Electronics and Computer Engineering began offering a four-year undergraduate programme in computer engineering in 1998. There's plenty of demand for something like this-close to 90 percent of all applicants say computer science is their first academic preference. Most are disappointed, as there are only 48 places in the programme every year, half of them reserved for government scholarships. But even the lucky full fee-paying students who get in get a relatively good deal. Standard fees for the degree are Rs 122,000 in the year of admission and a twice-yearly semester fee of Rs 36,000. About 60 percent of the students enrolled for the computer science degree are from outside the Valley, which is encouraging, although less than 10 percent are women.
The department has a 25-strong faculty, which makes the student-teacher ration extremely favourable. Among the teachers are two PhDs and 13 Masters of Computer Science.
It is not a huge start, but it is important that the country's pre-eminent engineering school now trains students in the technology of the future. "There are job opportunities for graduates now, but since so many institutes are producing computer science graduates, accommodating all of them in the not-so-developed IT industry is difficult," says Dr Subarna Shakya, deputy head of the Department of Electronics and Computer Engineering. A computer graduate starting out with the government starts at about Rs 9,000, but can also work part-time in the private sector.
The first batch of computer engineering graduates from Pulchowk Campus will enter the job market this year. From December this year the department will also offer a two-year Masters of Science in Information and Communication Engineering, for 16 students per year. Graduates in electronic, computer or electrical engineering will be eligible to apply for the course.