Phurpa Lhamo

Private schools across the country are worried that there could be zero enrolment in a few years from now.

A proprietor of a private school in Thimphu said that the number of students in private schools had dropped from around 11,000 about five years ago to about 4,500 in 2021.

“In 2022, the number will be just about 2,500, not including Class XII repeaters. And in 2023, it will be zero,” he said.

A private school in Gelephu incurred a Nu 8.9 million loss in 2019.

According to the school’s principal, the government paid lower than the approved enrolment fee for each student. He added that the approved fee was Nu 45,000 for day scholars and Nu 75,000 for boarders.

Private schools, however, were paid Nu 30,000 per day scholar and Nu 50,000 for boarding students.

The enrolment number in the school was 338 in 2019; 107 in 2020, and 164 in 2021.

The decrease in private student enrolment number is attributed to the government’s decision to remove the Class X cut-off mark. In 2019, the government decided to do away with the cut-off mark to not detain any student based on merit-based competition.

However, despite the decision, many could not be absorbed in the government schools due to a lack of infrastructure. Thus, in the 2021 academic year, 2,251 Class X pass students studied in private schools under the government scholarship. In the 2020 academic year, 2,088 students studied in private schools.

A proprietor of a private school in Thimphu said that starting this year, Class XI enrolment in private schools could end. “Schools that are able to attract repeaters can still operate Class XII sections for some time, but most schools are likely to close because of severe excess capacity in the private high schools.”

The current policy, the proprietor pointed out, would not affect the private primary schools directly. “However, if many higher secondary schools restructure themselves as primary schools, then the pressure will fall on primary schools.”

Another school principal pointed out that if not for the government’s interference, the private schools would have been able to sustain themselves.

“It is difficult to have a vision for the future as the government keeps changing the policy every five years,” he said.

Another private school principal said that the government’s decision could lead to the closure of many schools, result in mass unemployment, overcrowding in government schools, and decrease options in terms of stream choice for students.

The government’s decision to remove the cut-off point is also expected to affect the enrollment in Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET).

A private school proprietor in Thimphu said that the market for higher secondary private schools was created by government policy when they decided on basic education up to Class X in the 1990s. He added that students who did not qualify from Class X were to be absorbed in TVET.

However, he pointed out, TVET failed to attract many and students chose to continue their regular education in private schools. “The removal of the cutoff mark raised the definition of ‘basic education’ to Class XII. So, with the government now providing free education up to Class XII, the market for the higher secondary schools vanished.”

He added: “It can also destroy the market for TVET. The target group for high schools and TVET are the same students.”

Many are worried that the education system and the quality would be compromised by the government’s decision.

A vice-principal of a private school pointed out that the government reasoned that the drop in the performance this year was because of the pandemic and the new assessment criteria. “But how come they affected only the government schools? Many private schools have 90 percent pass percentage.”

A private school proprietor argued that besides better education quality, private schools provide choice to students and parents.

Six of the total 11 toppers in the 2021 academic year were from private schools; two out of 14 in 2020; six of out 10 in 2019; and four out of nine in 2018.

A principal of a private school in Paro said that private schools play an important role in shaping the lives of thousands of youths. “In this regard, I feel the need to assist and promote private schools for the benefit of our children.”

A private school proprietor said the government’s “overtly hostile” stance against the private schools waters down the oft-repeated government mantra that the private sector is the engine of growth.

He added that the public school system is facing the problem of facilities shortage, acute lack of essential facilities for sport, and a fast-depleting teaching force due to emigration to Australia. “Yet, no stone is being left unturned to ensure that all students are sucked into the already over-stretched public school system. This is a mistake of a monumental proportion and the impact will only be seen a decade from now.”

A principal said: “Education shouldn’t be politicised.”