Despite an outright request and even opposition from the private high schools, the government has stuck to its decision to do away with the cutoff point, and enroll all the high school students in the public schools by 2021.
The government said it initiated the move to raise the level of basic education from class X to class XII, ensuring that all students have the opportunity to finish high school, regardless of their financial means. To achieve this, the government said it has decided to pay for the cost of education of all Bhutanese students.
Education Minister, Lyonpo Jai Bir Rai, said that the many students who do not qualify for high school are from poor families. Some of the families have had to sell their last piece of ancestral lands to pay the fees in private schools.
Apart from their inability to pay for education, such students are academically good, and the government’s existing cutoff system denies them of education, simply because the public school system does not have enough capacity for student intake.
There are a few cases where students have tried to commit suicide, as their parents were unable to pay for their education, Lyonpo said.
According to the Education Minister, there are only a few private schools that are in distress, and most private schools have welcomed the government’s decision on the cutoff point and they wanted to be a part of it.
Lyonpo said that if private high schools are not doing well, it is not because of the government’s policy. He said private schools should also change their business model to keep up with the times. Over the years, despite having enough primary schools, parents prefer to enroll their children in private schools. Understanding that there is more demand for students in primary schools and having learnt that high schools are no longer sustainable like before, private schools should focus on primary schools, he added.
“As high school is not sustainable, many are changing their business model as there are so many public schools, in addition to so many schools being upgraded every year,” Lyonpo Jai Bir Rai said.
Lyonpo suggested that if schools still want to focus on high school education then they should go for quality education, besides the cut off policy does not affect schools like Ugyen Academy and Karma Academy, and irrespective of their fee structure, parents are willing to send their children to such schools. Private schools must attract students on their own. he said.
Lyonpo also stated that here are schools that used to get only around 100 students annually, but the government gave 300 to 350 students this year, which they couldn’t get in 5 years.
“Few private schools might have decided to surrender their schools to the government, but when so many public schools are closing down, will government buy schools from private entrepreneurs?” Lyonpo asked.
The government will absorb an additional of 1,500 students in public schools in 2020, and by 2021 all the students shall be absorbed in public schools.
“With 1,500 additional students to be recruited in next academic year, there will definitely be pressure on public schools, especially in urban areas, like Thimphu and Phuentsholing, because most parents want their children to study in urban centers. There are already so many students in public schools. In that case, I think we will have to recruit more teachers and even expand infrastructure in public schools,” Lyonpo added.
However, the Association of Private School (APS) opposed that private schools would have to maintain their standards.
General Secretary (GS) of APS raised an issue with the government referring to Ugyen Academy as a model for quality education. “Can all the schools become like Ugyen Academy? And would it be good to be like Ugyen Academy? If all the schools become like Ugyen Academy, can all the parents afford it?”
He said that standards and quality come at a cost and expenses to the proprietors and students. Hiring good teachers and putting in good infrastructure will drive up the fees as well. He asked if the government can supply the students to all the schools when they are upgraded to the Ugyen Academy standard.
GS said, “The government has caused serious problems, and now as a solution, it wants schools to remodel our business, but it takes painful long years and efforts to remodel it. It is absolutely wrong if the government is saying that it has given enough time to do so.”
He further said that the government has taken a sudden decision and kept the private schools in complete darkness. “There was no clarity at all, and even today, private schools are not aware what the government has intended to do with the policy change. The lack of clarity from government has disappointed all the private schools proprietors,” he added.
The association questioned whether the government has done any study before implementing the policy and if there is also an impact study done.
The GS said, “In the end, private schools are paying the price for it, and we are directly implicated by this policy. I think it will be necessary for the government to do a rethink. And if government has some intention, they should convince us by calling us or writing to us stating why they are doing this. Until then, we are not convinced and because of the absence of any necessary studies done, we still would assume that it is unfair on the part of the government to be doing it.”
He said the government suddenly realized that it is going to be very expensive to raise the education level and is now desperate to control their spending. “Suddenly, they found out that it would be profitable to send students to government schools then sending them to private schools, which has caused problems for not just private schools but also public schools,” GS said.