Contrast and compare

Express job

Express job

Have you travelled on the Thimphu – Chunzom higway recently? Is so, you would have noticed a frenzy of construction activity at “Charkilo”. What’s being constructed is the road to the controversial Education City.

For all the controversy surrounding the Education City, the government has made sure that the project has not suffered for want of attention or support. The cabinet has earmarked and approved the lease of 1000 acres of land as the government’s equity for the project.  A new company, DHI-Infra, was established two years ago to spearhead the project. A full board, with the works and human settlement minister as the chairman, has been set up. Numerous road shows have been conducted. The cabinet “further ratified” the Education City project bid, and awarded the bid to a consortium of bidders. A law was passed specifically for the Education City. The government has allocated a subsidy to the Education City in their 2012-13 budget. The construction of the Nu 133 million road and bridge has taken off. Someone has lobbied hard enough for the IFC to recognize the project as an outstanding public-private-partnership venture. All this while the detailed project report is still being prepared.

The Education City project is going ahead. It is being bulldozed ahead by the government.

What’s not going ahead, and what deserves our attention, are the proposals to establish three private colleges. These colleges will be established by Bhutanese people, using Bhutanese money, and for Bhutanese students. So we should render them our full support. Instead, they’ve been left on their own, without any government support. And the proposals, all three of them, are lost, mired in the government’s infamous red tape.


Code language

What we, as a country, need to do to rescue the Thimphu Tech Park. Yes, it will take a full generation to get there. But that’s why we must start immediately, with a sense of urgency.

Ache Lhamo

Sonam Dorji, 12 years, Class 5
Rinzin Norbu, 12 years, Class 4
Sangay Dorji, 12 years, Class 4
Namgay Chojay, 13 years, Class 4
Thinley Norbu, 11 years, Class 4

These five students go to Monmola community primary school, in distant Serti gewog, in the Shingkhar Lauri region. And boy, they can dance. I met them during my recent tour to Jumotshangkha, in the eastern-most part of our country. And they honoured me with an active performance of the very lively Ache Lhamo chham. 

The students say they took over a month to learn the historic Ache Lhamoi chham. They were taught by two farmers, Lobsang and Yeshey, both renowned dancers themselves, before and after school every day. The farmer-teachers proudly explained that they volunteered their services to promote their culture and heritage, and to add value to their children’s education.

The Ache Lhamoi chham, one of the teachers told me, has over 100 separate movements which would take several days to perform. What the students showcased was just one movement, and an abbreviated one at that. Enjoy…

I’ve lifted the following description of the Ache Lhomoi dance  from the Asia-Pacific Database on Intangible Cultural Heritage. It was written by Lopen Phuntsho Gyeltshen of the Royal Academy of Performing Arts.

Ache Lhamo or Ashe Lhamo is regarded more as drama rather than dance, but many scholars accept it as dance-drama flourished in Bhutan since a long time back.

The characteristics
Ache Lhamo literally means Sister Goddess or Lady Goddess. This is performed by herdsmen once a year in keeping with the local customs. It tells or relates stories of people famed for their piety and miraculous achievements be it spiritual or temporal. The repertoire of this art was not very broad and the style of presentation cultivated by each group varies, although the overall performance of the general framework is the same. The dance by one man and a woman is accompanied by the rhythm of the cymbal and beating of the large-sided drum, while the story unfolds in operatic recitative and chorus. Aside from the main performance comic scenes are acted with great brilliance.

The Merak Saktenpa people perform this dance-drama once a year, for five days at a time. Apart from the yearly festival, Ache Lhamo is performed, at some great monastery or wealthy noble’s house and other special events of national importance.

The Tibetan saint and the bridge-builder Thangtong Gyalpo, in the 14th century, began his project of building iron bridges over many big rivers in Tibet. To provide adequate provisions for the laborers he developed an interesting means for collecting donations. The Chhongje Bena family with seven daughters was called upon and to each daughter he assigned different roles, while he himself beat the drum. A large audience was gathered and everyone who watched the play enjoyed it very much. This was the first time that drama was introduced in Tibet.

During the late 14th century, the saint expanded his activity of bridge construction over Bhutan, and it is believed that along with him this art traveled to Bhutan.

The saint regarded his building of iron-suspension bridges and related engineering feat as a practical application of thebodhisattva ideal, and his introduction of this dance-drama Ache Lhamo is in no way different from any Buddhist activity. He is also credited for the introduction of other classical dances and folk performing arts.

Not so fast

What do you make of this?

The cabinet has reportedly “further ratified” the Education City project bid, and awarded the bid to a consortium of bidders (infinity Infotech Parks Ltd., and Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd.) It appears that a contract agreement will be signed this month following which work on a detailed project report will begin.

Good? I don’t know. I still have serious misgivings about the size and feasibility of the project. True, education is a viable business, and we must harness its potential to service both local and foreign demand. But planting a bunch of education institutions in one location, like industries in an industrial estate, is not the way to go.

The Education City could easily become a white elephant. Or, worse still, it could become a breeding ground for large scale, low quality education catering to tens of thousands of foreigners. Instead, it will be easier, and much better, to encourage investors – local and foreign – to build international schools and colleges in various parts of our country.

But there’s another reason why we should be worried. The Education City Bill has not yet been passed by the Parliament. The National Assembly approved it during its last session. Now it has to be approved by the National Council. And then it has to be submitted for Royal Assent.

So why has the government ratified the Education City project bid? And why have they awarded the bid? The government will have the authority, by law, to proceed with the Education City project only after the Parliament passed the Education City Bill. That, after all, is the whole purpose of the Education City Bill.

The Bill is still under discussion in the Parliament. The Parliament may pass it. Or it may not. Either way, the government does not have the legal authority to proceed with the Education City at this time, not until the Parliament passes the Education City Bill.

An atrocious crime

Feed our children well

It’s been three months since two students died and 31 became very ill at Orong HSS due to chronic vitamin deficiency.

It’s been three months, and finally, last Friday, the education minister announced his response to the disgraceful state of nutrition in our schools. First, the the education ministry has submitted a proposal to increase the school feeding stipend from Nu 700 to nu 1000 per month. Second, the ministry has formed a task force to investigate what happened and to assign responsibility to those involved. And third, the education and health ministries have decided to work together to identify nutritious food, provide medical check ups, and resume the supply of vitamin tablets for students.

The education minister is correct in calling the Orong HSS deaths involuntary manslaughter. Two students died tragically, and as many as 31 students were taken seriously ill. But many more students would have suffered by not having the minimum amount of micronutrients in their diet. And that would mean that their mental and physical development has already been compromised.

We cannot allow this to happen. We now have proof that our children in Orong, but also in other schools, do not have the minimum amount of micronutrients needed for the healthy development of their bodies and minds. Allowing this to continue – that is, depriving our children of essential micronutrients – would now amount to an atrocious crime.

Here’s Tim Harford telling a story about how Archie Cochrane, a prisoner of war during the second world war, identified vitamin deficiency among his fellow prisoners of war, and how he secured the vital vitamins for them.



Secondary tertiary policy


About a year ago, on the 26th of July 2010, the prime minister launched the Tertiary Education Policy. The policy, one of this government’s most significant declarations so far, aims to enrich tertiary education in the country by streamlining how colleges and universities are planned, funded, registered, licensed and accredited.

The education minister described the 112-page policy as, “… a road map for the development and expansion of tertiary education in the country,” and boasted that it would contribute to making our country a “knowledge hub” and our people an “IT enabled knowledge society.”

In his introduction to the Tertiary Education Policy, the education minister boldly, and rightly, declares that:

Henceforth, this Tertiary Education Policy document, approved by the Lhengye Zhungtshog, will be the definitive instrument to guide all stakeholders, public and private, national and international, in developing and implementing programmes of study, material selection and pedagogical practices, assessment and certification, establishment of facilities and the integrity of all elements related to tertiary education in Bhutan.

So far, so good.

Now, the bad news.

It isn’t even a year old and the Tertiary Education Policy is already coming under attack. Actually, the policy is not being challenged. Instead, it’s being sidelined. It’s being ignored. It’s being snubbed. And that’s much worse than coming under any direct attack.

So who is the culprit that is overstepping the government’s inspired policies? Who is the perpetrator that is disregarding the government’s visionary policies? Who is the delinquent that is ignoring the government’s road map?

Believe it or not, that culprit, that perpetrator, that delinquent is the government itself.

The government has drafted a bill – one that the National Assembly is currently discussing – to establish the Bhutan Institute of Medical Sciences. There’s no doubt that the institute is important. It will benefit our country and our tremendously. So it must be established.

But in doing so, the government must follow its own policies. Otherwise why make policies? Why draw road maps?

The Bhutan Institute of Medical Sciences Bill has completely bypassed the processes outlined in Tertiary Education Policy. And it takes absolutely no notice of many of the policy’s important provisions.

So the Tertiary Education Policy’s credibility and authority are at stake. They’re being compromised by the government, no less.

And what are we doing nothing about it? Nothing.

Where’s equity?

Bright stuff?

First, the good news: the government has granted autonomy to the Royal University of Bhutan. This means that the university can now concentrate on improving standards without the usual encumbrances of the bureaucracy., a tertiary education search engine, places our university at a lowly 7,418 of the 10,000 universities they rank. Hopefully, their ranking is not accurate. Hopefully, the RUB will correct it to more accurately reflect their real ranking. And hopefully, RUB will improve on their real ranking.

Naturally, a lot more is now possible – and expected – from our university.  There’s a lot of work to do. But I’m optimistic.

Now the bad news: the first thing that an autonomous RUB has done is to start charging fees.

Actually, charging fees is not bad. Tertiary education is expensive. And, in order to improve standards and to ensure sustainability, we must start paying for college.

But the way the university is going about charging fees is questionable. 90% of their students don’t pay any money, while 10% of them are charged hefty fees. Those 10% of the students have to shell out a colossal Nu 69,000 to 83,000 depending on their course. And on top of that, they, unlike the other students, are required to pay boarding fees.

Our last poll asked if RUB should charge fees. 46% answered “Yes”. And 54% said “No”. Perhaps they too would have supported fees if those fees had been applied more sensibly.

So how should RUB charge fees? With equity!

A minority of the students – say 10% of them – should be given full scholarships for, for example, excelling in academics, sports and culture, and to promote diversity and gender balance. The rest should have to pay fees.

So, instead of 10% of the students paying Nu 70,000 per year, there would be 90% of the students paying a much more manageable Nu 7,777 per year.

And in three years, instead of 30% of the students paying Nu 70,000 per year, as envisaged by the university, there would be 90% of the students paying Nu 30,000 per year.

The RUB should charge fees if they must, especially if college standards are set to improve. But they should do so sensibly. And with equity.

Photo credit: Royal University of Bhutan

Life in Ngangla

What children see

Four special guests are in Thimphu. They are Sonam Zangmo, Sangay Dorji, Thinely Wangmo and Sangay Wangchuk. The guests, all of whom are more or less 12 years old, are in Class VI in Kagtong Community Primary School in Ngangla gewog, Zhemgang.

Kagtong is a village in lower Kheng. The village does not have electricity and is not connected by motor road. The nearest road-head to Kagtong is in Panbang, from where it takes a day to reach the remote village.

25 students from Kagtong CPS recently took part in a two-week photography course. During the training they recorded life in their village as they see it.

A selection of their photographs are on exhibition at the Allaya Gallery at the Tarayana Centre in Chubachu. The exhibition, entitled “Life in Ngangla through the Children’s Eyes” runs through the 18th of May and is open from 10:30 am to 5:00 pm every day.

Helvetas, who sponsored the unique photography course, bought Sonam, Thinley and the two Sangay’s to Thimphu to show off their work, their school and their community.

If you are in Thimphu, you should go to meet them at the Allaya Gallery. You’ll be impressed. I’ve uploaded some photographs, along with the descriptions provided by the student photographers themselves.

Here’s Sangay Dorji introducing Ngangla, and inviting you to their exhibition …


Bonded teachers?

Teachers matter

Suppose you’ve just completed college. And suppose that you are a topper – that you’re in the top 5% of the graduates. Would you consider becoming a teacher?

You should. For the sake of our children, you should. That, at least, is what McKinsey & Company suggest.

About five years ago, McKinsey sought to find out why some schools succeed while others don’t. They did that by studying the school systems of 25 countries, including 10 of the top performers, to identify the common characteristics of high-performing school systems.

McKinsey’s year-long study revealed that increased spending and ambitious education reform do not necessarily improve school systems. Instead, they singled out teacher quality as the most important attribute affecting student outcomes, and suggested that:

“The three factors that matter most are:

  1. getting the right people to become teachers;
  2. developing them into effective instructors;and
  3. ensuring the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.”

Teacher quality matters and matters a lot. That’s why South Korean schools make sure they attract the top 5% of the graduates. That’s why they boast one of the best school systems in the world. And that’s why the Koreans claim that: “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”

Similarly, other countries that have great school systems also attract the best teachers. Finland, for example, attracts the top 10% of graduates. And Singapore and Hong Kong each attract the top 30% of their graduates.

The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. That’s right. So that’s why we should do more to encourage our best graduates to become teachers. That’s why we should – as suggested by McKinsey – get the right people to become teachers, train them well, and then enable them to teach.

If we really want to improve our school system, we should get serious about attracting and then training and retaining the best possible teachers. That, unfortunately, is not the case right now.

And the situation is about to get even worse.

The RCSC has recently announced that, except for posts that require a teaching background, teachers will not be eligible to apply for other vacant positions in the government.

Our schools need to attract the best of our graduates. But the best will not opt for teaching if they know that they will never be able to apply for other government posts.

There’s no doubt that the RCSC’s rule is meant to address teacher shortage. But the rule is shortsighted – by preventing teachers from competing for other government positions, teaching is going to become even more unattractive and the best teachers will stay away from teaching in the first place. That will not be good for our schools. And that will not be good for our children. So the RCSC should rescind its rule.

Teaching should be attractive. It should not be forced, even for teachers.

Bonded teachers is not a good idea. The RCSC and the Education Ministry may wish to read McKinsey’s “How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top” to understand why.

RUB fees?

The RUB has accepted McKinsey’s recommendation to charge fees to their students. This year, 10% of the students entering RUB’s colleges will have to pay fees. And by 2013, 30% of them will have to do so.

Is this a good idea? What do you think?

Please share your thoughts. And please take the poll that asks “Should RUB charge fees?”