With the Bhutan Civil Service Examinations (BCSE) and the third parliamentary elections arriving, the anxiety level among graduates from the Gangtok-based Sikkim Manipal University (SMU) has reached its peak.
The graduates have appealed to Prime Minister (PM) Tshering Tobgay, the education minister Norbu Wangchuk, and the Bhutan Accreditation Council (BAC) for recognition of their degree certificates.
The graduates told Kuensel that the responses they received from the officials have left them dejected.
“We had so much hope when the PM in a meet the press session earlier this year said that he would look into our issue. But the PM has changed his stand now,” a SMU graduate, Sonam Jamtsho, said.
Sonam Jamtsho graduated in 2010 from the BB Pradhan Management College in Kalimpong.
“All the officials we met expressed their sympathy, but no one was ready to solve our problem. They are just passing the blame from one agency to another,” Sonam Jamtsho said.
PM Tshering Tobgay at the meet the press on April 14 had said that the government had no issue recognising the degrees obtained from SMU.
Hundreds of graduates from SMU were left stunned after the university reflected on the graduation certificates its mode of education as “distance education” beginning 2016. The Royal Civil Service and the election commission do not recognise distance education degrees.
It is not only the graduates from colleges in Kalimpong and Sikkim who are affected by the issue.
Many colleges in other states of India that Bhutanese students have graduated from are also affiliated to the Gangtok-based university, according to the graduates.
Kinzang Thinley, who graduated in 2010 from Six Sigma Educom College in Shillong, said that about 5,000 Bhutanese have so far graduated from various colleges affiliated to SMU.
He said that the affected graduates have formed a closed Facebook chat group, which he said have about 400 members. “SMU graduates and their parents alike are worried and anxious,” he said.
The graduates say that most of them come from a humble economic background and that some of them have taken loans to pay their college expenses.
Sonam Jamtsho said that three siblings, including him, from his family have graduated from the same college. “There are many cases of more than one sibling of a family having graduated from the college. We are facing chaos and anxity,” he said.
Namgay Tenzin, who graduated last year from the BB Pradhan Management College, said the uncertainties are affecting the students mentally as the BCSE is nearing. “We want to sit for the upcoming preliminary exams and BCSE but there is little hope for us,” he said.
According to him, the students in the BB Pradhan Management College availed themselves of both the Bhutanese Students Association (BSA) fund and scholarship funds from the Indian Embassy in Thimphu, which they say are only granted to regular students. “Distance education students are not eligible for neither the DSA nor any kind of scholarship funds,” he said.
Sonam Jamtsho said it was unfortunate that the issue has affected not only the unemployed SMU graduates but also those who are already in the civil service and the private sector. He said the issue has also affected many graduates who are interested to serve the country by joining politics.
“We are already witnessing a lot of social problems arising from lack of employment opportunities for youth. This issue could further aggregate the problem,” he said.
BAC started categorising the degrees as “regular” and “distance” in 2016. However, Sonam Jamtsho said the degrees that were obtained from SMU before 2016 were also categorisd as “distance”. “But the certificates obtained before 2016 should be accepted.”
The graduates say they have been a victim of double standards. “I know at least three MPs in the current Parliament,” Kinzang Thinley said, adding that the MPs upgraded their qualification through distance education.
Sonam Jamtsho said that the Election Commission of Bhutan allowed graduates from SMU to contest elections in 2013. The attestation of certificates was then carried out by the Royal University of Bhutan (RUB).
“Some of them are planning to contest again in the upcoming parliamentary elections,” he said. He said that before providing attestation to SMU degrees, RUB had visited the college campus and was satisfied that the mode of education was equivalent to regular courses.
The graduates say some employers, both the corporations and private firms, have already started treating them as “second-class graduates”. Such a reaction from employers, they say, has affected their morale.
A 2010 graduate, Sherab Dema, who worked as an IT professional for five years in the Chiphen Rigphen project, has been left jobless after the project closed. She said that although she applied in one of the corporations, she was not shortlisted.
“It could be because I am a SMU graduate. The issue has rendered my five years of experience in IT useless,” she said.
Recently, a SMU graduate working in Phuentsholing was selected for a better job in a Thimphu-based corporation. However, soon after his selection the corporation expressed their regret for their decision to not recognise his degree.
A female graduate said that a private employer offered her a monthly salary of Nu 6,000 for holding a SMU degree. “The employer really tried to take advantage of the situation,” she said.
“People have already started making fun of us on social media,” she said. “People have started to look down on us,” she said.
Soman Jamtsho said that there are many graduates in the civil service as gewog administrative officers and in other posts. There are also many more graduates from SMU in corporations and Royal Bhutan Police as officers.
The graduates say that it was the failure of the government and the relevant agencies to notify the students about these impending consequences. Soman Jamtsho said that SMU used to be part of education fairs in Thimphu but the Department of Adult and Higher Education (HAHE) spoke nothing.
He said all the universities that come to education fairs in Bhutan report to DAHE.
“But DAHE had no objection,” he said.