Thousands of students who finished higher secondary school are in a dilemma. Some have done well, but the opportunity of continuing their education is limited. Border closure, travel restrictions and Covid-19 vaccine passport systems mean that many students, including the brightest, have no means to pursue further education outside the country.

Out of the 12,595 students who qualified to study in government colleges or government scholarships to study in specialised fields outside Bhutan, only 3,567 are absorbed in government colleges within the country.  What will happen to the other 9,000 or so students? This is bothering both parents and students. 

The issue is now politicised as the government is not clear on the way forward. Political parties are questioning the government and accusing them for lack of farsightedness.

The Royal University of Bhutan is looking into the possibility of taking in more students. How and when, however, is not clear. The government directed the RUB, even before the issue was pointed out, to look into the issue. Taking in more students, however, requires more than a government directive. Are we prepared? Do we have the infrastructure? Do we have the faculty to teach students who would be studying engineering, architecture, medicine, environmental engineering and so on?

Like in any other sector, the pandemic disrupted education. For almost a year, students have not attended regular school. At the primary level, notwithstanding the learning, there were not many issues as students were promoted to higher classes. The problem is at the higher level. While we have assured government schooling without cut-off points, we have overlooked the capacity of our tertiary education. 

Notwithstanding the accusations, it is another lesson the pandemic has taught us. It will not be soon that we return to normalcy. Even without the pandemic, not all Bhutanese students, who do well in higher secondary school, study within the country. We have no capacity to absorb nor teach or train the professional skills that are still in short supply, for instance doctors.

There is no pressure on our tertiary institutions when times are normal.  Thousands of students go abroad to study on government or private scholarships. The pandemic has taught us a lesson like in other sectors. We started growing our own food, skilling our people to fill the gaps left by foreign workers and opening new avenues to absorb the growing job seekers.

Education, at all levels, will always remain an important sector even as we talk of reforming the sector. Given the uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus, which is always mutating, it will be years before the entire world returns to pre-Covid-19 times. What is certain is that we will be living in a new normal after the pandemic. The consensus is that we have to prepare for the new normal. And this includes education. In the Covid-19 context, we should look for long-term solutions. We cannot open colleges with MBBS, architecture, engineering and many other specialised courses overnight. But a start has to be made. 

We have invested millions, if not billions in building our human resource. Taking in the rest of the students who finished higher secondary school until the pandemic is over is not the solution. It might help for a year or two. A permanent solution would be building institutions that can not only absorb our students, but make the country an educational hub where the brightest minds, the best teachers or professors would want to come to live, work in Bhutan and be a part of the change.

Bhutan has advantages. There is peace and political stability. The environment is suitable and there are interests. What we lack is ideas or political will. Brand Bhutan has already interested the best institutions that are into latest exploration like artificial intelligence, quantum computing or internet of things. Outsiders see potential in Bhutan for many reasons. The irony is we cannot.