BHUTAN: Future higher education hub of Asia?
Its current plans are groundbreaking. Bhutan has a tradition of insularity that has only recently started to weaken. But its government - democratised only two years ago - is embarking on an ambitious plan to build a high-end US$1 billion education city to encourage prestigious universities and colleges worldwide to establish affiliated institutions in Bhutan.
The project aims to bring in the branches of about 30 top universities, including those from the US Ivy Leagues, and about 50,000 international students. The city would be spread over 1,000 acres (405 hectares), whose development was approved recently by the government, with a population of more than 100,000 people, including academics and support staff.
The city would have R&D (research and development) facilities, laboratories, hotels, healthcare services, sports centres, libraries, cultural and entertainment centres, and cafes. It would be located in one of the most picturesque spots in Bhutan, between the capital Thimphu and the country's only paved airport, Paro International Airport, around 20 miles (32 kilometres) away.
"World class international schools, general education colleges and specialised colleges in the fields of ICT (information and communication technologies), architecture, engineering, medicine, law, management, and design will be encouraged to open franchises/campuses ..." says the country's 'economic development policy' (EDP), unveiled in April this year. "Education in the fields of maths and science shall be the priority."
The policy lists education as a top priority sector for Bhutan and guarantees investors 100% foreign equity, tax holidays of up to 15 years, and exemption of customs duty and sales tax on various kinds of school equipment such as buses and books. The city is Bhutan's largest foreign direct investment proposal yet.
Bhutan became the world's youngest democracy in 2008 when, steered by its fourth monarch King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Its drive to tap into the growing demand for high-quality education in Asia comes from its emerging desire to transform itself into an internationalised economy.
Bhutan opened its doors to the outside world only in 1960, after centuries of obliviousness to what lay beyond its borders. Its first motor road was built in 1961, television and internet were introduced in 1999, but the nation has come a long way at a dramatic and increasingly fast pace.
Today Bhutan's annual economic growth rate averages 8% and average per capita income is nearly US$ 2,200, the highest in South Asia.
"Bhutan's pristine natural environment, political stability and peaceful social environment...give the country a major role in attracting educational clientele from around the world," says the EDP.
The education city, the Bhutanese government hopes, will meet its larger national objectives of building a "green and sustainable economy", boosting "culturally and spiritually sensitive industries", creating a "knowledgeable society", and promoting "Brand Bhutan".
With its emphasis on environmental protection and a demonstrated capacity to generate growth without destroying traditional culture, Bhutan hopes to leverage these values to expand national prosperity. The education city will be a "significant source of foreign exchange earnings and employment generation", the policy adds.
But things could take a while. The city is still in the planning stages. Bhutan's main national public investment organisation, Druk Holding & Investments (DHI), has invited investors from Bhutan and abroad to propose private-public partnerships focused on developing the city. The scope of work contracts envisaged includes concept design, feasibility studies, detailed project reports, infrastructure development, fund raising, marketing and establishing links with premier global and regional educational institutions. DHI officials are organising road shows in India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Singapore, Austria and Norway.
"DHI will be engaging reputed international consultants with a good track record to conduct a thorough study on educational cities internationally and to develop a strategy for setting up an education city in Bhutan," says DHI chairman Om Pradhan.
A five-member project advisory group for the education city has been formed, comprising renowned international experts in education and business, and involved in developing high-quality educational institutes in Singapore, Australia and India.
In a recent meeting between the advisory group and DHI, one of its members, Arun Kapur, director of Vasant Valley school in New Delhi, said: "I think it's a fantastic opportunity for this part of Asia, for Bhutan to become an educational hub."
Meanwhile, Bhutanese Education Minister, Lyonpo Thakur Singh Powdyel, has said foreign universities and colleges could spread good practice across Bhutan. "We'll stand to gain in being able to participate in the intellectual exploration for which these institutions are known," he says. "We also feel our national intellectual profile will be enhanced."
To that end the education ministry is also drawing up policies to encourage the arrival of high-end education institutions by offering freedom of curriculum, fees and salary structures as well as convenient immigration procedures and long-term land lease.
The education city is also the pet project of Bhutan's Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y Thinley, who has wedded it firmly to the country's Gross National Happiness (GNH) principles, within which education has a priority. "Every pillar and domain of GNH literally depends on good education," the prime minister said in an annual conference of national teachers recently held in Thimphu.
The GNH yardstick is supposed to guide the government in putting people's happiness, rather than wealth alone, at the centre of development activities. Its supporters argue that economic growth on its own does not bring contentment, and the blind pursuit of wealth has blighted economically developed countries.
A country's progress, under the GNH system, should be balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government. To that end, under Bhutan's EDP the education city, should it take off, would have special programmes on environmental studies, Buddhism, GNH, and renewable energy.
"I am convinced that it is only through a genuine and far-reaching change of consciousness ... that we in Bhutan will not be swallowed by the frenzy of greed, consumption, and environmental degradation that has gripped the world," said Thinley during the teachers' conference. "Education is the key - and likely the only - means through which essential change of consciousness can occur."
He added: "If we are ignorant of the natural world, how can we effectively protect it? If we are ignorant of politics and of national issues, how can we cast an informed vote and have a healthy democracy and good government?"
Bhutan should first take back its citizens who were thown out through ethnic cleansing policy of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk. Only then has it the right to go for other noble work. When Bhutan evicted its one sixth of its population just for asking justice and end to discrimination and treats its southern Bhutanese like a cattle, it has no moral right to say that Bhutan has happiness.
When Bhutan has a big population living away from the light of education, the idea of building an education city with an international-standard university, sounds ridiculous.
The best idea for the government of Bhutan at this crucial juncture will be to educate its people who have even not heard of a thing like school or education. "Educating everyone in Bhutan" should be the first priority. Building a world-class university in a semi-democratic nation is not a bad idea though.