Friday, July 01, 2011

The Smaller the Purse, the Harder they Fall

The Smaller the Purse, the Harder they Fall
By Tshering Cigay Dorji
Published in Drukpa, February 2011 Issue on Education.

Education is the key to solving social ills like poverty, inequality and injustice. Education is also the key to achieving many of our cherished goals as a society and as a nation. We do a great disservice to our nation when we deprive so many youths of equal access to this invaluable key in the higher grades. So says Tshering Cigay Dorji

Every year, only around 30% of Class XII and 40% of class X students qualify for government schools and colleges. The rest have to try to find a job or continue education in private schools or colleges in Bhutan or abroad. This year, the Class X and XII results declared recently shows that around 5,600 Class XII students and an equal number of Class X students fall in this unlucky category – quite a big number for our population. Those who come from better-off families can afford private education but students from economically disadvantaged families find themselves at a dead end.

This trend has been continuing for quite some time (See Table 1 and Table 2). But have we ever given a thought to how it will impact us in the long run? Although no study has been done on the backgrounds of class X and XII graduates who have been roaming the streets without a decent job, it is not difficult to deduce that they are mostly from poor families. A poor kid who gets an aggregate mark of 65% but doesn’t qualify for a government college might end up loafing about, while a rich kid who gets just 50% can study law or journalism in India.

The tuition fee for educating a child in Class XI in a private school is upwards of Nu 30,000 a year, excluding the cost of books, clothing and stationery. And the cost of educating a child in a college in India may be Nu 100,000 or more a year including fooding and lodging. The only private college within the country, Royal Thimphu College, charges Nu 97,000 a year for day-scholars, and up to Nu 140,400 for boarders. Most of our people, especially those who live in the villages, cannot afford to pay so much.

Finding a job is not easy either. Recently, Bhutan Telecom advertised 15 help desk operator posts that required a minimum qualification of Class X Pass plus call-centre training. Many applicants had to be turned down because they had no call-centre training but there were still 121 applicants who met the criteria for the 15 not-so-lucrative posts. This is the reality of the job market for Class X and XII graduates today.

With no job to make a living, nor money to study in a private school or college, many youths waste their golden years doing nothing productive. I have a neighbor, a single parent, who works as a cleaner with a daughter who has not been able to find a job since she passed Class X last year despite having attended a six-month computer course. There are many cases like this today.

No study has been done on the relationship between the academic performance of students and their economic background in Bhutan, but studies conducted in other countries suggest that students from economically better-off families generally perform better academically. From this and from the fact that around 70% of our people live in the villages where poverty is more prevalent, many of the 11,200 or so Class X and XII students who did not qualify for government schools and colleges this year must be from poor families. Higher education might have given them a chance to break out of the cycle of poverty, but now their hopes for a better life might remain just a hope.

Not so long ago, almost every Bhutanese student’s parent was a farmer and there was little difference between the rich and the poor. Also, every student who managed to reach Class X or XII either qualified for college, or got a job easily. Most of the senior officials in the civil service or corporations come from that generation. But today, the situation has changed completely.

With the rapid development of the country, some civil servants and enterprising people have become richer while the poor and some traditionally rich people have become poorer. Now, with the advantages enjoyed by the children from economically well-off families, coupled with the opportunities for higher education becoming slimmer by the year for poor children, the gap between the rich and poor may continue to widen from one generation after the other if no action is taken.

A survey commissioned by Japan’s Education, Science and Technology Ministry in 2009 revealed that the more parents earn, the higher their children’s academic test scores. A Japan Times editorial thus noted, “The disparity in academic performance between students of low- or highincome families… reveals a terrible rift in Japanese society, one that will likely increase if the social income gap continues to widen.”

However, the survey also found that activities like reading books, talking about the news or going to museums boosted student performance regardless of socioeconomic level.

Figures disclosed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in January 2010 showed that 19% of young people from the most deprived neighborhoods went onto a degree course straight from school compared with 57% from more affluent areas. Further, a study published by the British Educational Research Association suggests that schools are finding it hard to break the stubborn link between a poor background and low academic achievement.

One of the good things about Bhutan has been that we don’t come across pitiful beggars or street children as in other developing countries. This gives us the courage to talk to others about Gross National Happiness with such authority. But such days may be numbered if we do not change the way we handle higher education in the country.

In his message on the National Education Day, Lyonchen Jigmi Y Thinley cautioned, “We can take legitimate pride in our achievements hitherto but the warrant of changing times places added demands on the system, requiring it to be more sensitive to the needs of a knowledge-based society that we desire to be. With the advent of democracy, the need for education is further aggravated as it is only through knowledge that citizens are able to participate meaningfully in the political process and make a difference to their life.”

According to Section 16 in Article IX of our Constitution, “The State shall provide free education to all children of school going age up to tenth standard and ensure that technical and professional education is made generally available and that higher education is equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

One of the strategies in Tertiary Education Policy of the Kingdom of Bhutan 2010 is to “provide open access to tertiary education based on merit, so that all Bhutanese students shall have access to tertiary education appropriate to their abilities, interests, and performance, regardless of their economic circumstances”. One of the measures listed is to “institute loans and scholarship schemes to expand the scope of participation in tertiary education”.

Hence, as far as policy is concerned, there doesn’t seem to be anything lacking. Yet today, many students do not have access to tertiary education despite doing well enough academically, because of their economic circumstances. There are a number of remedial steps we can undertake.

Firstly, educational loans at zero or low interest rates could be made available to deserving students as is prevalent in some countries. Presently, educational loans are commercial in nature with at least 9% interest, and are also not easily available without collateral.

Secondly, the present system of free education for Class XI and above could be changed so that students could be charged a progressive fee structure based on the income of their parents or guardian. That means, a poor student studying in a Class XI in a government school could be charged a nominal fee, while a rich student in the same class could be charged a higher fee. Such a progressive fee structure also exists in other countries. The government can use the money collected thus to build more schools.

Thirdly, the government could increase the intake of students into government schools and colleges. The present intake capacity of around 40% for Class XI, and 30% for college leaves many poor students out on the street. Moreover, the private high schools in Bhutan don’t have the capacity to absorb all aspiring students who haven’t qualified for government schooling.

Fourthly, scholarships based on kidu could be instituted. A limited number of scholarships like this are already being offered by Tarayana Foundation, the Prime Minister’s Office, Youth Development Fund and the Gyalpoi Zimpon’s Office. The number could be increased in view of the fact that there are many deserving candidates for this kind of scholarship.

These recommendations could be used to improve the current practice of admitting only a limited number of students in government higher secondary schools colleges although the Tertiary Education Policy of the Kingdom of Bhutan 2010 promises to give equal access to higher education “regardless of their economic circumstances”.

This not only threatens to widen the gap between the rich and the poor, but also deprives many of our youths of the opportunities to realize their full potential as a person and as a citizen of Bhutan. The current practice needs to be reviewed as soon as possible if we are to achieve our goal of becoming a knowledge-based GNH society, and preserve our long-cherished attributes of peace, stability and sovereignty in the the times to come.

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