The right to education is fundamental to human development. While Bhutan boasts of free education, it faces numerous challenges. Rising inflation creates further pressure on family incomes, making any additional expenses a burden. Despite serious repercussions for economically disadvantaged families, the informal collection of funds in both private and public schools often goes unnoticed. Such practices need proper regulation from the Ministry of Education as it impacts the lower-income population, especially with more children.

Although there is no Right to Education Act in Bhutan, Article 9(16) of the Constitution mandates that the State must provide free education to all children of school-going age up to the tenth standard. Acknowledging this, His Majesty stated:  “Our people are the biggest and most important wealth in our country. In other countries, wealth may come from resources such as oil, petroleum, gold, pearls, gemstones, etc. However, since we do not have such wealth, our people are our most prized and important resource. To make our people more beneficial and helpful to the country, it is vital to provide them with good education. If our people are firm and stable, our country will also be firm and stable.”

Bhutan is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 28 of this Convention mandates that States provide equal opportunities to every child, in particular, free and compulsory primary education. Under the wise leadership of our monarchs, Bhutanese citizens have enjoyed free education not just at the primary level but even at the tertiary level in an unprecedented manner.

The Private Schools Establishment and Operational Guidelines of 2018 state that school fees should be guided by promoting access, maintaining equity in education, enhancing staff morale and motivation, value addition to the provision of quality learning resources and services, and supporting the professional development of teachers. The guidelines require all kinds of fees, including tuition and hostel fees, to be endorsed by the School Management Board (SMB) and have prior approval from the Ministry of Education. The Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) Guidelines require that the cost of admission, tuition, materials, stationery, books, snacks, and food be included in the fee, and no additional charges should be made. However, it is common for both public and private schools in Bhutan to ask for various collections for various purposes. While these collections supplement public expenditure and in the best interest of the children particularly in public schools, they make economically disadvantaged parents nervous, especially when made mandatory, leading to a dilemma of whether to send their children to school or not.

Although both private and ECCD guidelines prohibit additional fees beyond what is approved by the Ministry of Education, unauthorised collections such as security funds, annual rimdro, and sports funds are common.

A Facebook post recently claimed that a private school refused to refund the security fund and it was deducted for maintenance of the school. Such unauthorised collections are unhealthy and may be ways to avoid paying taxes as they are unaccounted for in private schools. For instance, a private school with 500 students collecting Nu 1000 per year would amount to Nu 500,000. Despite the private ECCD guidelines’ instructions not to charge additional fees for admission forms, many ECCDs charge fees for admission forms. Therefore, it is crucial, as Bhutan aims to transform the nation, particularly in education, to re-evaluate if such practices should continue.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.