Learning to Love Work

By Michael Rutland.

Author’s special note: I would first off like to begin by paying a sincere and heartfelt tribute to the quite remarkable progress made in education in Bhutan over the last forty years. Forty years ago the total pupil number was in the hundreds. Today it is well over a thousand times more. No mean achievement. Some may say the quality of education has fallen over the years – but all too often those who make that comment have given little real thought to the issue – they repeat it as a mantra because they’ve heard someone else say it. I do feel there needs to be some changes in the “system” and in the curriculum at the national level to cope with Bhutan’s needs in the 21st Century, and this is what I would like to discuss. .

What is “education”; if you know, then skip this first paragraph. Certainly we spend a lot of money on it, and the education industry gives employment to a lot of people. I suppose to “educate” in its purest sense is to encourage the development of the intellect, to stimulate the mind, to pass on knowledge, to enhance skills of analysis and synthesis, and to bring out the best in a person; I never liked the phrase beloved of educationists “to allow each person to achieve their potential” because we cannot know somebody’s potential actually is – so how can we know if we’ve achieved! But I suggest there is another fundamental purpose of education, less philosophical and more practical, more concerned with the individual as a member of society than with just the individual as an individual; a more social aspect to education – it’s about “putting in” as well as “bringing out”; it’s about “giving” as well as “receiving”. It’s about the individual as part of a larger whole called society.

The education provided for young people should equip them to provide for their families, to contribute to the common wealth of society. Education should provide a person with the means to “give” to society by earning their daily bread through productive work. Does our education system give enough emphasis to the “giving” – a pass certificate, a degree and perhaps yet another degree on top of the first. Educationists, those whose profession is education, sometimes give insufficient value to this second purpose and devalue it by calling it “training”. I remember the days when the term “Passed for Training” was used and for most students and parents and teachers was interpreted as “failed”! Perhaps they forgot that we talk of a “trained” doctor, not an “educated” doctor or a “trained” lawyer, as opposed to an educated one.

When education was first introduced into Bhutan it has a very clear purpose – to create the nucleus of Bhutan’s Civil Service. It was elite in its approach in that the purpose was to train a body of highly educated graduates who could lead Bhutan on its new path of development. The education provided was primarily to equip students to go on to University. Appropriately, it was academic in its approach, style and content. It served Bhutan well in those early days. However, the total number of students in schools numbered only in the hundreds. Now times have changed. Firstly, instead of a few hundred, there are now around 150,000 students in schools. Secondly, today there is arguably a surplus of University graduates being produced. Yet the approach, style and content of the education system has hardly changed in its fundamentals. What was suitable for a few hundred potential university entrants in 1965 is neither suitable nor appropriate for a larger proportion of students in Bhutanese schools today. It could be argued that the education provided today will unintentionally create unemployment in the Bhutan of the 21st Century. Graduates from Class 10 and 12 have not been equipped with the skills needed for employment – they have been equipped primarily to go on to college and emerge as yet more graduates seeking an employment status which they feel is deserved by their qualifications but which is increasingly in short supply.

The human resource needs of Bhutan today have changed from forty years ago – has the education system anticipated this change and reacted to it? Way back in 1982 a new Draft National Education Policy was produced by a working committee which included many strategies to address some of these problems, but unfortunately the Policy was never implemented. Today too many students still see the only road to success as Class 10, Class 12 and a university degree of some sort. Fundamentally, the problem is not really the students’ mindset – the problem lies with the parents’ and wider society’s views. Why do so many parents make enormous and often unreasonable financial sacrifices which they can ill afford to send their children to private schools and to universities in India and other countries in the mistaken belief that it will improve their children’s job prospects when their job prospects may well be significantly better if they had carried out some form of training more connected to the actual needs of the job market in Bhutan.

We have seen a dichotomy growing here in Bhutan; on the one side “academic” education and on the other, “vocational”. The latter has become seen as second-class, undesirable, unattractive or of lower status. My first argument is that there needs to be a profound change in Bhutan’s education policy to better cater for that majority of students who need to be educated for work rather than further studies. Such changes in fundamental policies and attitudes will certainly take time and the rate of growth of unemployment surely calls for more immediate measures to create more employment opportunities for young Bhutanese. My additional thoughts and recommendations also include:

Considering the increase of economic activity in Bhutan – along with the rapid expansion of construction in the form of apartment blocks, road building or hydro-power projects – it is important to note that despite all this activity in the last few years, it has only provided a marginal increase in employment for the Bhutanese as the vast majority of jobs and work is taken up by expatriate workers. Surely this calls on determined Government policy to reduce Bhutan’s dependence on expatriate workers and instead ensure that results also include increased employment for young Bhutanese entering the job market. In doing so – however – it must also be noted that this approach will probably also increase the cost of construction but in the long term, this increase would be of over-all benefit to the nation.

This could be considered “right” economic development where it is the sort of development which really does provide employment for the Bhutanese and could also be addressed through the “GNH Filter” or an employment filter which examines how much employment is provided for Bhutanese by major or high-profile projects either under-way or planned. In addition, some of these large projects could add a component associated with a training school or program in order to build capacity of the Bhutanese youth and produce the sort of skilled resources which are needed for various projects. This might also be implemented or operationalized through the use of “training tax” to support these types of activities. This is not unusual in other countries and within the Bhutan context, could be levied as a special tax payable for each expatriate worker employed by the project in order to contribute to skill development of Bhutanese. This would serve the dual purpose of supporting training and employment and also encouraging the hiring of a greater proportion of Bhutanese.

The concept of “right livelihood” – one of the elements of the Buddha’s Eightfold path needs to be promoted and also considered. If society in general were more aware of this, many of the currently despised occupations might be seen as more acceptable, meritorious and worthy. Perhaps by placing greater emphasis on the basic principles of Bhutan’s ancient Buddhist religion, this could enhance the perception of what is really worthwhile work amongst both parents and students. It could also help make young people feel proud of doing any and every sort of job without concern to status.

Finding solutions, short term and long, to Bhutan’s growing youth unemployment problem is surely the most fundamental and challenging job the Government has to face. Education has a crucial role to play. But so have society’s attitudes and this is something that we adults have to understand. In a demographically young country such as Bhutan the problem of unemployment can be especially dangerous and it is up to us adults to address and to help secure the future of this unique and marvelous Kingdom.

Mr. Rutland is an educator by profession who has taught at Oxford and at the Ugyen Academy in Paro, Bhutan, He is currently the Honorary Counsul of Bhutan. The article is an excerpt from that published in The Raven magazine, January 2013.