Nepal’s oldest university, Tribhuvan University (TU), was established in 1959 as a state-supported public university. In keeping with the centralized king-controlled nature of the polity under the ‘Partyless Panchayat System’ (1960-1990), TU was allowed to be the only university in Nepal until 1986. When Panchayat folded in 1990, the size of the student body at TU, the number of its constituent colleges and those to which it had provided affiliations had grown by many folds. After describing the manifold problems in Nepal’s higher education sector, the 1992 Report of the National Education Commission (NEC) identified the centralization of authority whereby all of TU’s colleges had to rely on its Kathmandu officers for academic direction and financial assistance as a main reason for that institution’s ill-management.

Several projects funded by donors have attempted to address this problem of TU by suggesting various actions that would realize decentralization within the TU behemoth. In the Work Bank-supported Second Higher Education Project (SHEP) which lasted from 2007 to 2014, the granting of autonomy to TU’s constituent campuses was made a major institutional reform objective. Grants were given to TU for coming up with a Campus Autonomy Regulation and for actually granting autonomy to any of its constituent campuses. Incentive grants were also given to the concerned campuses of TU which wanted to become autonomous. In early 2010 Mahendraratna Multiple Campus (MRMC) in Ilam in east Nepal became the first TU constituent campus to become autonomous and three others joined that set subsequently by mid-2014. This paper provides a detailed case study of the ideas and processes that have driven MRMC’s travels to become an autonomous campus of TU. It describes what has been achieved in terms of new infrastructure and related developments in the campus of MRMC as part of this process. It also describes the academic and research efforts launched by the MRMC management and faculty after it became an autonomous campus and demonstrates the inherent complexities involved in the process. Based on these descriptions, the paper then argues that MRMC has mostly achieved ‘administrative autonomy’ during the process but has not achieved ‘academic autonomy’ from TU. The paper also discusses the implications of this argument both for MRMC’s future and for the process of TU’s decentralization as envisaged by the country’s planners.  It finally argues that the reform initiatives designed to address TU’s highly centralized structure will not result in robustly decentralized higher education landscape in Nepal given the many inherent complexities involved in the process.