Re-thinking college education in Bhutan

Concerning the establishment of three new colleges in Bhutan, I am not convinced of the efficacy of having three additional colleges.

Every economy without doubt faces the problems of scarcity and choice. As a corollary, the decision to allocate our limited resources becomes important. While different economies allocate resources in different manner, government is the single most important player in our country. As we all know, most of the enterprises in Bhutan are state-owned and our private sector still is a minor player (or even negligible player to some extent though it shouldn’t be the case) in the economic development given the size and strength of our economy.

As far as I am concerned, our country needs skilled workers more than university graduates. Look at the quality of college education in Bhutan. Since the gradual increase in the enrolment to all the RUB colleges within Bhutan, we have produced more graduates but of inferior quality. If you are not convinced, look at the old alumni of Sherubtse College who occupies some of the most important positions at present in different ministries, agencies, corporations and etc.

Well, some may say it is inappropriate to compare since they had more opportunities than we did in job market. However, there is no doubt that they are better qualified than our recent graduates are. I think there seems to be unanimous agreement to this fact in our country. In past, it wasn’t easy to get an admission in Sherubtse being the only college in the country. It wasn’t a surprise that it attracted the sharpest brains from our country. Now, going to Sherubtse has become very easy. As a matter of fact, Sherubtse has become the 3rd choice for students who took science and commerce streams in higher secondary school.

In short, we have compromised the quality of college education while increasing enrollment exponentially over past decade. From the experiences of some advanced economies, we come to know that the availability of skilled labor plays very important role in bringing economic development. This is true to Bhutan as well.

What our economy needs is not graduates but people with skills. According to annual education statistics 2014, currently there are eight Technical Training institutes in the country with 2,209 students. On the other hand, as of 2014, there are eight institutes and one private college under the Royal University of Bhutan (RUB), two medical institutes under the Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan (KGMUS), and two autonomous management institutes i.e. Royal Institute of Management (RIM) and Royal Institute for Tourism and Hospitality (RITH).

In short, we have 15,435 students pursing college education against 2,209 undergoing courses in technical institutes.

The ratio is about 1:7 in favor of college students. Our country is largely agrarian and to make a transition to manufacturing sector, we need more skilled labor. We don’t seem to do that at present.

If we look at current scenario of college education in Bhutan, the future looks grim. We will continue producing more graduates but majority of them would be of no use. It isn’t a surprise that we hear people belittling graduates these days since some of us can’t even write a single sentence perfectly. What bothers me is the fact that having a college degree is almost becoming a necessity in Bhutan. This shouldn’t be the case. What purpose does your degree certificate serve if you are incapable of serving Tsa-Wa-Sum? Didn’t you waste tax payers’ money in getting that meaningless sheet of paper while our limited resources could have been put to some other important areas?

We will have to face some unintended consequences if nothing is done. First, our students who don’t qualify to highly competitive colleges in Bhutan will opt to study in India where you get a degree quite easily but not in all the colleges though. This would mean thousands of Bhutanese students going to India annually and thereby out flow of cash and increased demand for rupee.

How do we address this problem? It is complex but not undoable. Ours is a small county and our strength truly lies in our ability to manage things as His Majesty The King pointed out in his speeches.

Rather than increasing the number of colleges in Bhutan, we need to increase the number of vocational institutes. There is also a need to better facilitate those existing vocational institutes in terms of human resources and budget.

While this can be easily achieved, there lies another harder reality to confront. It is a fact know to all that Bhutanese society doesn’t take pride in blue color jobs. We belittle and look down on people who belong to the lower strata of the social group. And, to some extent, such mentality is also self-inflicted even when such prejudices doesn’t exist. Changing such an unhealthy societal norm will take time but we will surely succeed if efforts are made in two ways; top down as well as bottom up. Remember, we are country of less than 700,000 people. Social mobilization is not as difficult in other countries where the population is huge.

Establishment of more colleges is a short term solution to remedy a long term problem our country faces concerning that of youth unemployment. More colleges would mean more financial burden to the government which otherwise could have been sanctioned to provide skills. Once those three new colleges’ produce graduates, government will have to provide or at least assist them in getting employment. However, most graduates will not be qualified enough to take a job while the government can provide very limited employment opportunities given the health and size of our economy.

Increase in numbers of the colleges and enrollment rate obviously is not the only factor that has contributed to deterioration in the quality of college education in Bhutan. However, I am of the view that it is the most important factor. To reiterate the crux of this article, our country is in need of skilled work force and not college graduates who are often under qualified. Instead of wasting our limited resources in establishing three new colleges, the government must establish more technical institutes in the interest of our long term national goals.

By Rinchen Dawa

 The writer is a 4th year student currently pursuing a B.A. in Political Science and Diplomacy at Kyunghee university in South Korea.


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