Higher Education is the soul of a nation. It is regarded as the catalyst of the communities and societies as per the theories of planning of the last century. It propels a nation to heights never imagined. It shapes the careers and lives of generations. It becomes intellectual symbol and the greatest asset for nation branding. AIT, IIT, NUS, Oxford and Harvard are not mere institutions of learning. They are the symbols, soul and future of Thailand, India, Singapore, the UK, and the United States of America.
Although only18 years old, established on June 2, 2003, the Royal University of Bhutan stands as a pinnacle of higher education in our context. Its role in the future of Bhutan is more precious given the fact that the mandates of RUB are deeply woven with the age-old values and the visions for modern Bhutan. It is not surprising that any interventions, new facilities, and new courses in RUB send ripples amongst students and parents creating a sense of hope and optimism. As the nation refines her far-reaching education reforms it is ever crucial to reflect the role and the soul of RUB in the reforms. How can RUB complement and complete the education reforms? Where will RUB stand 20 years down the line to nourish the reforms? What are RUB’s aspirations and what are the challenges of higher education for Bhutan? These are the issues that need not just a PowerPoint presentation and mere opinions but a detailed investigation and long-term investment.
RUB – expectations and constraints
During my pre-university days (1994-1996), I had the greatest fortune to stay in the PU-2 hostel at Sherubtse College. All the PU hostels of those days were so simple yet so impactful and defined and refined my wellbeing and worldview. The hostel had a central core, housing the warden’s residence and the staircase with student rooms on either side with an open and spacious veranda. One veranda faced the hill and the other overlooked the maize fields and the valley below. Apart from being the common circulation and cloth drying area, the veranda looking towards the hill allowed us to get the first rays of the sun, it allowed us to interact and observe the activities close by in the other hostels like PU1, the road nearby and the activities of the fellow student community. The verandas facing the valley took the view and vision beyond the sunset, mountains, and clouds of Kanglung. Thanks to the visionary leaders and architects of those times, the old Sherubtse campus, the clock towers the red and white band buildings with their courtyards, quadrangles and a centrally placed library complement Sherubtse’s dream and theme as a peak of learning.
Twenty years later, I had the opportunity to visit the campus again for a two-day assignment in 2014. It was so emotional, enlightening, and special to visit the old campus, the clock tower, the corridors, and courtyards. At the same time it was painful to see how new development has diluted Sherubtse of its old charm. Many new buildings in the campus were copy-paste and box-type building designs contrasting in character as well as colour with the old campus and one could feel like being in unfamiliar territory and a cocktail campus. Then, as a part of the assignment, we visited the new hostels above the road and the experience there was shocking, to say the least. Unlike the old PU hostel, the new hostels were forced into the steep hill due to lack of space. They had a narrow entrance and dark corridors. Forget the luxury of views and vistas, the rooms on either side of the dark alley were the bare minimum standard of a hostel for learning. I was not sure if it was a coincidence or a daily routine but the toilet wing at the corners was leaking, smelling, flooding, and cultivating fungi, mosses and lichens abundantly. A few years later I had the opportunity to spend three weeks at the hostel of the Samtse College of Education and the same hostel design was repeated with the same effect. Many of the institutes have no space available for expansion and the facilities I complained were designed by copy and paste consultants and built by corrupt contractors.
Campus expansion is further complicated by facilities located within the campus that occupy large space but are used very rarely like the twin helipad located inside the CST campus which is used less than 5 times a year. It must be a world record that a three-storey laboratory building in a RUB college undertaken by a local consultant and a contractor is still incomplete 11 years after the construction began. Our education reforms must rectify such constraints and fix not the blame but the problems to enhance student satisfaction and experience.
Investing in institutions will never fail us
The Royal University of Bhutan carries enormous expectations from students as well as parents but is constrained by space and resources and the pressure to offer diverse and employable courses to the increasing number of students leading to increasing student intake and inadequate facilities. The removal of cut-off points for admission into Class 11 and the Noble initiatives of National Service from 2022 will bring thousands of Bhutanese youths to the doors of the University.
Therefore, investment in the facilities at the Royal University of Bhutan will flower and fruit the seeds of inspiration planted in His Majesty’s Royal Kasho that education is an indispensable national priority. The world-class campus at RTC completed in 2011 was built with a budget of approximately Nu 700 million in record time and quality. The project architect shared that the amount is close to the budget allocated for a few of the corporate office buildings proposed in Thimphu. As per the RUB annual report 2019-2020, the University was allocated with Nu 1.08 billion for infrastructure development in the 12th Five-year plan. The report reflects the budget for infrastructure development in eight RUB colleges except for Gyalpozhing College (Nu 642 million), while the DGPC’s Corporate Office building at Babesa was estimated to have cost Nu 400 million in 2017.
Education Reforms is an opportunity to crosscheck these figures and make a bold investment in higher education.
The Royal University of Bhutan carries the highest hope of thousands of Bhutanese. The future of Bhutanese democracy, civil service, space satellites, smart cities, digital connectivity, physical infrastructure, and the economy will be mostly decided in the quality of the classrooms, hostels, corridors and courtyards, canteens, and facilities of the colleges under the RUB. His Majesty has repeatedly reminded us that investing in institutions will never fail us. One hopes that our policymakers will consider and make RUB the main butter lamp to illuminate and sanctify the initiatives of Education Reforms for all times to come.
Dhrubaraj Sharma (Novak)
QUT Design Lab