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Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, at the end of mission in Bhutan (26 May – 3 June, 2014)

Thimphu 3 June 2014

Members of the press, ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to start by warmly thanking the Royal Government of Bhutan for inviting me to examine the situation on the right to education. I remain thankful for the full support of authorities over the last eight days to my visit in your beautiful country, and for sharing documentation and information with me.I am pleased that the Government welcomed my visit as being opportune in the context of the current review of, and reforms in, the education system in Bhutan.

I would also like to thank the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nation Country Team in Bhutan and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva for their valuable support in preparing for and conducting this country visit.

It was also my privilege to meet with the Honourable Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, whose passion for education I admire greatly.

During my stay, I met with high authorities, including Lyonpo Mingbo Dukpa, Minister of Education; Lyonpo Damcho Dorji, the Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs; Lyonpo Ngeema Sangay Chenpo;  Minister of Labour and Human Resources; and Lyonpo Namgay Dorji, Minister of Finance. I also met with the Gross National Happiness Commission and the National Commission for Women and Children. I met representatives from the United Nations system and civil society organizations working in Bhutan. I also had the privilege of a dialogue with members of the Social and Cultural Committees of the National Council and National Assembly of Bhutan.

I had the opportunity to visit the Royal University of Bhutan, technical institutions, as well as public and private schools and met their management, teachers and students in Paro, Thimphu and Punaka. I would like to warmly thank all those who received me and took the time to share their experiences, and to provide information and documents. 

Today, I am here to share with you my initial impressions. I will limit myself to preliminary remarks on some issues that, along with others, I will be exploring in more detail in the report on my visit which I will present to the Human Rights Council in June 2015.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Over the last years, Bhutan has made remarkable progress in achieving the universal right to education. This shows the national efforts are in line with the Constitution which establishes the right to education to the 10th standard for all, and that higher education is equally available based on merit. 

The Bhutan has achieved all education-related objectives in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including nearly universal access to education for all children, and parity in education for boys and girls. This also deserves appreciation as it shows that the country has lived up to its political commitment.  I also saw that students are doing well in their learning attainments as per the curriculum contents.

It was encouraging to see that education is a high priority in national development. The 11th Five Year Plan demonstrates Bhutan’s commitment to education. The Plan sets out the Government’s pledge of ensuring “Prosperity for All” through the effective empowerment of its people – “Wangtse Chhirpel.”  It provides a path for Bhutan to achieve self-reliance, for which education is indispensable.  My dialogue with education authorities also included the Bhutan Vision 2020 and the Education Sector Strategy: Realizing Vision 2020. These documents articulate the goals and processes for achieving Bhutan’s unique needs underpinning the development objectives of Gross National Happiness (GNH).  The Bhutan Vision 2020 already acknowledges the need to address the disparities and inequalities in education.

I hope very much that the National Blueprint for Education being prepared will build upon past experiences as a roadmap in strengthening the right to education.  I also hope that this will impart further strength to people-centred holistic path to development, making Bhutan exemplary as a small country in terms of excellence in educating for GNH.

I would like to commend the Royal Government of Bhutan for embracing the concept of GNH, and their efforts to give shape to it.  Educating for GNH, as well as curriculum reform and practical measures to ensure teachers are demonstrating GNH in their daily actions will all assist in operationalizing the overarching concept for imbibing universal values.

Bhutan played a pioneering role in the UN General Assembly Resolution (A/RES/65/309, adopted 19 July 2011) which recognizes happiness as a holistic approach to development, and welcomes further international discussions on this theme.  I strongly support this call, and urge Bhutan to continue its pioneering efforts to bring this concept forward in the discussions on education-related goals in the post-2015 development agenda, particularly on the occasion of the UN General Assembly Summit in 2014.  This resolution demonstrates the global interest in the concept of GNH.

Gross National Happiness is based on the four pillars of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.  These pillars in turn are further elaborated into nine domains, of which education is a significant component.

It is important that the Government continue to support efforts by universities and the intellectual community to conduct research to better understand the concept of GNH, and to find the most effective means of operationalizing it.  Efforts by the Royal University of Bhutan, the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, and the GNH Research Centre are welcome developments in this direction.

During my visit, I noted that Bhutan has placed emphasis on supporting the needs of children with disabilities. The School for the Deaf and the School for the Blind are notable examples of inclusive education.  I further encourage the implementation of special needs programs in schools throughout the country to ensure that all children, even in remote areas, are able to continue their education and not to be sidelined by a lack of needed support.  I also encourage the Government to consider further ways by which students with disabilities are given the opportunity to integrate into the regular system.

Bhutan’s performance in education was widely recognized during Bhutan’s recent participation in the second Universal Periodic Review during the session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.  This demonstrated many of Bhutan’s successes to the world, and highlighted in particular global recognition of attainments in education as a right. It also showed the need for skill development through Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) as well as the need to intensify efforts to raise the quality of education and to operationalize the concept of GNH.

I would also like to urge Bhutan to sign and ratify the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UNESCO Covenant against Discrimination in Education, which I believe would only support Bhutan in its endeavor in realizing the right to education as an internationally recognized right.

I consider it opportune for Bhutan to explore the possibility of taking measures within the framework of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for promoting education through collaborative endeavors, based on the experience of the SAARC Development Goals.  This is an area which has enormous potential for Bhutan to take the initiative in exchanging experiences and learning from available examples, with a view towards strengthening the right to education in the countries of the region.

Members of the Press, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Despite these many achievements, there are many areas where Bhutan can take additional measures to strengthen its education system.  I would like to briefly highlight some of them, which I will consider in greater depth in my upcoming report.

The decision to provide education in English is an important means for a small, land-locked country to ensure its graduates are able to avail themselves of international opportunities.  The success of its students in international programs, and in the ongoing economic development of the economy is perhaps a testament to this.  However, the preservation of diversity in national languages is a key part of the concept of Gross National Happiness.  I was concerned to receive reports during my visit that some students were unable to write well in Dzongkha, and that other languages were not even offered as second language courses in any curriculum.  In some cases, particularly with grade 10 school leavers, students were reportedly not fully proficient in either national language.

This is a cause of great concern, as it would be a national setback if English became the national language and Dzongkha and other languages were gradually forgotten.  This would also be contrary to the second pillar of GNH, which seeks to celebrate the diversity of Bhutan’s cultures and languages.  The trend towards urbanization from rural villages will only accelerate the loss of local languages. It should be addressed seriously and quickly, particularly at the primary school level where language skills are most easily learned.  The Government should consider whether bilingual education, with English, math and sciences taught in English, and all other subjects in Dzongkha, might prove an effective long term strategy in preserving Dzongkha. 

In my meeting with the Minister of Finance, I emphasized the importance of Bhutan adopting alegal framework which ensures that a minimum floor for spending on education, such as 4 to 6 percent of GDP, or 15-20% of the national budget, is secured. This is necessary to ensure that education remains one of the nation’s highest priorities, even as governments change over time. Achieving middle-income country status for Bhutan will result in less international aid and financial support.  For Bhutan to maintain its growth it will need to find domestic, sustainable ways to support its education system. 

In my report to the United Nations General Assembly, and in various statements, I have always emphasized the importance of a normative framework for financing education in line with international legal obligations, since a solid legal framework is essential to ensure sustainability and continuity to public policies and education programmes.

I was pleased to see the success of students pursuing the traditional arts and crafts being taught by the Institutes of Zorig Chosum.  Graduates have found a ready market for their skills, and have become successful, self-employed artists.  This is an important means of supporting the national cultural heritage.

These programs should be carefully expanded as they provide an excellent way of promoting both cultural development and employment generation avenues. I noted with keen interest the contribution of the Tarayana foundation in this context.

I am very concerned that today the vocational training is considered a programme for low performing students in the academic stream. In some of the most successful economies of the world, vocational and technical training and education is a valued career path. Technicians, craftsmen, managers, operators are critical to the success of industry. As Bhutan modernizes, the need for such skills will only grow.   With a large number of foreign workers in its workforce, particularly in construction, Bhutan must develop innovative approaches to ensure that national human resource policies and education system will lead to the development of a competent and skilled national workforce that for economic development with self-reliance.

Institutional collaboration between the vocational and technical education and training programmes and private industry is necessary in order to ensure that adequate skilled workers are trained to meet the requirements of the economy. I am pleased that the Government has made significant recent efforts in this respect, and I call on the private sector to engage with the government to ensure this partnership grows for the benefit of students and employers.

I also call upon the government to enhance its national investment in TVET so that this sector of strategic importance receives the needed support to train qualified graduates and provide them skills.  This will provide great leverage in addressing the present 12% poverty rate and empower students from poor families through education and skill development.

The Government could develop and implement a competency-based qualifications program for TVET students that provides a pathway towards further education for qualified and capable students.  Serious consideration should be given in ensuring closer integration with industry, including longer work placements which are partially funded by employers who benefit from such programs.

Despite the tremendous progress made in Bhutan, particularly in the area of improving access to education for all, there is a need to focus on quality, which has been recognized by the Government.  Teachers are increasingly qualified and trained to a higher standard, and curriculum reform continues in an effort to improve both education results in academic disciplines, as well as bringing GNH values and philosophic traditions to children.  With the help of international partners, many teachers are receiving ongoing training and upgrading their qualifications. 

However, teacher training should be increased for many teachers, particularly at the primary level, who remain under-qualified.  Further, due to limited resources, many students are unable to progress beyond the 10th standard.  Greater effort must be made to ensure these students have the necessary values and skills to participate fully in society and the workplace at the end of their education.

The Government should step up its efforts to promote education for democratic citizenship as part of education and training for human rights and universal values.  The human rights education dimension of the United Nations Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures launched on August 23, 2013, is an important emerging concern in the field of education, especially as Bhutan recognizes culture as an evolving, dynamic force.

The right to education is a fundamental human right that everyone should benefit from, regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic condition or birth.  Primary education is an inalienable right of all children, and secondary and higher levels of education must be provided to all without discrimination.  I would like to remind the government that it must take special care to ensure that when access to education is limited, it must be made equally available to all. Bhutan should offer at a minimum primary education to all children, including those of Nepali origin and those who are stateless, without regard to citizenship.

I would also like to encourage the Government to take additional measures to improve the educational achievements of girls in the later years of education.  It is a worldwide trend that girls do better in education compared to boys, yet in Bhutan girls are facing challenges which are preventing them from succeeding in the later years.  Targeted measures are needed to ensure that girls have the confidence and support to reach their full potential in education, and any barriers to this should be addressed. As CEDAW has noted, incentives should be developed for girls and their families to ensure they remain in school.  Family education is needed to provide training for parents in early childhood care, parental guidance and joint parental responsibilities.

Efforts should continue to be made to achieve gender parity in tertiary education, as there are still only three women for every five men in tertiary institutions.  Increased female representation in the civil service and the national parliament will provide additional role models for school girls, and encourage them to transform their lives.

I am pleased to see that graduates of the Monastic school system receive recognition for their achievements, and are able to take participate in civil service competitions.  I believe that there is space for the formal education sector to import some of the universal human values and philosophic traditions being taught in the monastic system. In turn the monastic system should consider provide training in English, as well as some applied math and science skills to ensure that its graduates have the necessary skills to participate in the labour market should they wish to do so.

In Bhutan, as in other countries, privatization in education is a growing trend.  The government is ensuring that private schools follow the public curriculum, and that fees are regulated.  Government should also ensure that only qualified teachers are employed in private schools. I encourage the Government to build on the existing “Guidelines for Private Schools in Bhutan” by legislating a regulatory framework that will ensure that the social interest in education is not sacrificed for the sake of private profit, and education is preserved as a common good.

Members of the Press, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In my dialogue with high level government authorities and parliamentarians, I also considered it important to underline the need for developing furtherlaws and policies for the right to education, so that national legislation is modernized in key areas, such as the right to quality education, the status of teachers, domestic financing of education, and the regulation of privateproviders of education.  This can be achieved either by a new comprehensive law, or by specific legislation in these areas of critical importance.

I take this opportunity to express the hope that Bhutan will emerge as a middle income country on the strength of its economic development. This must be considered an opportunity to spur on progress towards nation-building through human resources development, giving primacy to domestic resources and national potential and strength. Development which is founded upon a nation’s own strength and of its people is far more sustainable, and promises a bright future.

Before concluding my statement, I would like to reiterate that the on-going discussions on the post-2015 development agenda are opportune for Bhutan to project its unique concept of GNH to the international community.  Education must be seen as more than a means of achieving employment.  It must be seen in its full context as a means to achieve the full development of the human personality.  As stated in the Report of the Kingdom of Bhutan entitled ‘Happiness: Towards a New Development Paradigm’, the “time has never been more opportune to re-orient the goal of development towards genuine human happiness and the wellbeing of all life.  There is a growing global consensus on the need and urgency for such a holistic new model.”  There is much for the world to learn from this concept, and I urge the Royal Government of Bhutan to make every effort to share and disseminate these ideas throughout the world.

Thank you

Kishore Singh (India), the Special Rapporteur on the right to education since August 2010, is specialized in international law, who has worked for many years with UNESCO for the promotion of the right to education, and advised a number of international, regional and national bodies on right to education issues. Throughout his career, Mr. Singh has supported the development of the right to education in its various dimensions and worked to promote better understanding of this right as an internationally recognized right.