Education Bill, a bridge too far

Can the Education Bill see the light of the day?

PEMA TSHOMO
Thimphu

The National Assembly (NA) witnessed a lively debate on the future of the country’s education system.

While all parties acknowledged the need for improvement, disagreements arose regarding the most effective approach. The debate centered on a motion proposed by the South Thimphu MP, calling for the drafting and tabling of a separate education bill.

This proposal ignited a discussion about the role of existing policies, the potential dangers of political influence, and the best way to implement the Royal Kasho (decree) on education reform.

The 4th session was a discussion on prioritizing implementation over new legislation on June 17. PM Tshering Tobgay, emerged as a staunch opponent of the proposed Education Bill.

He emphasized the importance of shielding education policy from partisan politics, highlighting the existing monitoring mechanisms designed to prevent such manipulation. “Education policy, curriculum guide, and plan are protected from falling under politics,” PM asserted. He pointed to the successful collaboration between the government and opposition over the past four parliamentary terms in improving education, emphasizing a shared commitment to progress.

Sharing the PM’s concerns about political interference, the agriculture minister, Yonten Phuntsho, presented a contrasting viewpoint. He argued for a more thorough review of existing policies, suggesting that a lack of clarity was hindering effective implementation.

“There are a lot of laws and regulations in the country,” Minister Phuntsho observed. “So, I could say that there’s a lot of confusion on this about providing the budget to the people in every part.” He advocated for revisiting existing policies based on the Royal Kasho, which incorporates considerations of past experiences, current needs, and future aspirations.

While the MP of Thrimshing-Kangpar voiced concerns about the transparency surrounding the development of current education policies, they expressed doubts about inclusivity, claiming, “These acts and policies are being framed by a few people and never came to the national assembly for approval .” 

They highlighted the disruptive impact of frequent policy changes on teachers’ morale, stating, “We have noticed that as the government got changed, teachers are getting demotivated and getting resigned.” This viewpoint underscored the need for a more open and consultative approach to policy development.

Despite the differing perspectives, a common thread emerged: a commitment to strengthening Bhutan’s education system in line with the Royal Kasho. The South Thimphu MP clarified their original motion, explaining, “I have just shared this topic as a recommendation, but I didn’t mention taking immediate action on this act.” They acknowledged the value of existing policies but expressed a desire for a more robust framework to safeguard education from political manipulation.

The Prime Minister outlined a plan to achieve this objective. He announced upcoming conferences with teachers and education experts to refine the new policies based on the Royal Kasho and expert consultations. 

“These policies will be revisited by hiring experts and discussing their concerns about the new policy by seeking help on how to make changes to those policies in what way,” PM elaborated. This collaborative approach aimed to leverage expert knowledge while addressing concerns about transparency and inclusivity.

The PM’s emphasis on seeking expert input during policy refinement resonates with the broader educational community. Education experts in Bhutan, like those who can bring drastic changes and for point to the need for evidence-based policymaking. Further to advocate for incorporating international best practices while maintaining Bhutan’s unique cultural identity.

While navigating political interference while maintaining neutrality. The specter of political influence continues to loom large in the debate. Opposition leader Pema Chewang expressed concerns about the potential misuse of education policy for political gain. “Education is the bedrock of our nation’s future,” declared the opposition leader.

“We cannot afford to let political agendas dictate the direction of our education system,” he added. Striking a balance between responsiveness to public needs and protection from partisan manipulation will be a crucial challenge for Bhutan’s policymakers. He was concerned about the education leading these days compared to earlier.

Finance MinisterLekey Dorjihighlighted the allocation of over Nu 20.1 million for the 2024 to 2025 fiscal year, which is around 22 percent, and the priority provided by the government to the education sector.

Further, the upcoming conferences with teachers and education experts, as outlined by the PM, offer a promising opportunity to build consensus and address concerns. He said, “Active participation from all stakeholders, including teachers, parents, and students, will be crucial for creating a sense of ownership and ensuring the success of any reforms.”

As the Minister for Education and Skills Development (MESD), Yeezang D. Thapa, emphasizes, “We need a holistic approach that takes into account the needs of all stakeholders in the education system.” Moreover, she also shared the best curriculum of a well-recognized education system in Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

She said, “This includes incorporating international best practices while maintaining Bhutan’s unique cultural identity, ensuring financial sustainability for effective implementation of reforms, and fostering collaboration with teachers, parents, students, and experts to create a sense of ownership and achieve success.”

Apart from the members of the National Assembly, an educationist expressed strong concerns about the lack of a national education policy and an education bill in Bhutan. An educationist claims this absence is the main obstacle to progress in the education system. Bhutan’s journey towards educational reform will undoubtedly be met with challenges.

An education expertargues that an education bill would prevent political parties from using education as a ‘political tool’ during elections. Without a set of lasting guidelines, any positive reforms by a ruling party could be overturned by the next government. Moreover, these people believe a strong education bill would provide the foundation for a well-rounded national education policy, ensuring its effective implementation and long-term benefits for Bhutan’s education system.”

A Bhutanese educator expressed frustration with the current state of education. “We need a strong education bill to make the system more organized and improve teaching quality,” he said. Further,he believes, this would prevent politicians from making frequent changes to educational policies.

 “However, the commitment to collaboration, the emphasis on expert input, and the recognition of the need for financial sustainability offer promising avenues for progress. The coming months will be a time for focused action, with the successful implementation of the Royal Kasho serving as a key benchmark for success,” informed by the PM.

“If Bhutan can navigate the complexities and seize the opportunities presented by this reform process, it has the potential to create a truly world-class education system that equips its future generations for success on the global stage,” he added.

Thus, the speaker concluded, “Everyone’s been talking about whether this recommended act in education helps learning or not, and it seems like there’s just as equal people for and against it.” So, it gives a space to discuss in another session for a clear cut.

The speaker directed the Ministry of Education and Skills Development to share the National Education Policy 2024 to the Members at the earliest, following which further discussions  will be held.

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