More could follow as private schools get hit by the cut off policy
Most private schools in Bhutan are in distress as some are facing bankruptcy because of the government’s decision to do away with the cut off point for class X in the beginning of 2019. It is worsened by the fact that the government plans to absorb another 1,500 students into public schools for the 2020 academic session.
The future of more than 1,000 employees in the private schools is uncertain.
The government stated it initiated the removal of the cut off point, with a noble intention to upgrade free basic education from class X to class XII, ensuring that all students get the opportunity to finish high school regardless of their financial means.
It was towards achieving its goal that the government decided to pay for the cost of education of all Bhutanese students.
However, while implementing it, private schools were affected severely.
Two private schools, Kelki School in Kanglung and Sherab Reldri School in Mongar, have submitted their applications to surrender the schools to the Ministry of Education due to financial loss.
There are reports of many other private schools running under loss, and are also planning to surrender the schools to the government.
Kelki and Sherab Reldri Schools submitted that they are not in the position to operate the schools at the rate offered by the government, which is Nu 30,000 for day scholars and Nu 50,000 for day boarding students.
Kelki School said that the project to start the first private school in Trashigang was perceived in 2015, which was received well during the time of the former government.
The proprietor of Kelki School started the original Kelki School in Thimphu in 1999. He said around 30 to 40 percent of the students studying in the school came from eastern dzongkhags. “Our worry is that when students from different dzongkhag comes to study in Thimphu, they don’t have proper place to stay and most of them stay with relatives where they are not able to focus in their studies as they have to do household works,” he added.
He said the school business venture was not solely aimed at making money. Kelki School in Trashigang was the dream of the school founder.
“We knew that for first few years it will be difficult to sustain, and we intended to input the money from Thimphu Kelki to repay the loan for Kanglung Kelki, but with the new policy, even the number of students in Thimphu Kelki has reduced drastically,” said the proprietor.
The Thimphu Kelki School enrolls around 700 students annually. 300 to 350 students are enrolled in class XI with each paying Nu 45,000 as a fee.
“This year government gave me 169 students in Thimphu at Nu 30,000 and so we are incurring a loss of Nu 15,000 from every student, and that is apart from drastic decline in the number of students,” he said.
The Trashigang Kelki school has invested around Nu 250 million, and currently pays a loan of Nu 1 million per month. As the government will take 1,500 students in public schools, the private school expects a decline in the enrollment numbers next year, and more hardships in paying off its loan.
“This year, Trashigang Kelki has 265 students and we incurred a loss of Nu 5 million and next year if the number of students goes down, we will incur more losses,” he said.
The owner of Sherab Reldri School also has the school running on a loss. He said the only option left is to hand over the school to the government.
“In the past, we had a good number of students, but last year, with the change of policy, the students started decreasing. From 300 to 400 students in the past, we received only 138 students last year. There might be others who are submitting the application. Schools in remote areas, especially in east and south, are suffering more and they are looking at surrendering the schools,” the owner said.
21 private schools across the country have formed an association called the Association of Private Schools (APS) on 5 November 2019, and the following day the association submitted a petition letter to the Prime Minister.
According to the General Secretary of APS, the policy change was so quick that it did not give the private schools the time to do proper planning.
“We approached the (education) ministry and we also sent the concept paper to the minister. They also got an audience with the PM.
The petition letter suggests for private-public partnership. It also expressed the challenges that the schools are faced with because of the change in policy, and for the ministry to relook the policy.
The GS said, “Not all the private schools were affected by the decision, but some schools benefitted from this. Those schools that were not doing well and were in distress benefitted in terms of number of students but schools in Thimphu and Paro were affected badly.”
APS has not heard from the government about details of the 2020 enrollment and how to move forward.
“Some of the proprietors were alerted that even next year, the government doesn’t seem to be favourable and Lyonchhen, in Bumthang on October 21 said an additional 1500 students will be absorbed in government schools from next year, which means only 2,500 students will be there for 21 private schools. That was the heaviest blow to us and all of us started gathering and started discussing about our worries,” the GS said.
Citing another example of Yonten Kuenjing School in Phuentsholing, he said that when all the turbulence was happening in the beginning of the year, the proprietor was not there, and with nobody to take decisions, the school did not claim any students. There are only 20 students in class XI this year. When the XII students leave, the school will be left with barely 20 students.
The GS said, “What I don’t understand is that if a child is educated in government schools, the government thinks that it is free, whereas if a child is educated in private the government has to pay, not realizing that public school is also equally expensive, and in fact it is more expensive for government to educate a child in a government school than in private.”
Going by the statistics, every year government spends around Nu 52,000 per student and this is not inclusive of capital investment they do like land acquisition, road construction and other infrastructures, he said.
“The government has taken private schools as hostage, and now it looks like it will be very difficult for private schools to get out of it. It is putting at least 6 to 7 schools if not all under huge distress,” GS said.
A member of APS said that the education ministry has made a concerted effort to find seats in public high schools to fit in as many students as possible next year, with 1,358 seats with classrooms accommodating more than 40 students each.
He said, “We are saying that we should be moving in the opposite direction toward quality. It is time for the government to achieve their blueprint target of 30 students per section in higher secondary schools, not increase that number. Schools today are crowded, both in the classroom and on the campus. One basketball court, being shared between 1,200 students, is not an ideal situation for encouraging students to lead an active lifestyle. One school sports instructor cannot manage 1,000 students during HPE periods.”
He said no public school offers music and art as a subject as of now, although the importance of wholesome education is known.
Lyonchhen, during the Meet-the-Press, said that every year the government can absorb more than 1,000 students in public schools and this will continue.
Around 4,000 students were allotted to the private schools this year, and next year there will be around 2,500 students for private schools, and over the next two to three years there will not be any students alloted in private schools.
The PM said that APS submitted the letter seeking for government intervention.
“But I instructed them to bring in ideas on how to improve the quality of education because if the standards of private school are really good, the parents would be sending their children to private schools. There are many private schools at primary level from class PP to class VI and though there are government schools as well, there is more number of students in private schools because the quality is better.”
“I am not saying that students will not be allowed to study in private, but at present as the quality of education is better in public schools, students passing class X opt for public schools,” the PM said.