Don's diary: New beginnings in Bhutan

January 16, 2004

October

"So, when do you want the university to start?" I ask. "In June," answers Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup, the minister of health and education in Bhutan. I am leading a consultancy team charged with preparing the plan for a national university in Bhutan. A university has been under discussion for several years. Some see it as a potential source of radical discontent, others as an essential step for the future. Lyonpo speaks with passion of the need for this little Himalayan kingdom (population 650,000), sandwiched between China and India, to establish its own cultural and intellectual integrity.

March

Explaining our proposals for the structure of the university at a seminar, we are fascinated and uplifted by the sense of vision that the seminar members express: "The university should provide a national symbol and identity and fulfil the cultural needs of the nation"; "It should provide a vision for the nation and a vanguard for society"; "It should validate indigenous knowledge"; "It should inspire a generation of students with confidence" - a refreshingly up-beat view of university education. The main educational development priority is secondary education but the university is seen as an essentialelement in improving the whole system.

The university will incorporate nine colleges that offer or are preparing to offer tertiary education programmes, and it will thus be responsible for all of Bhutan's tertiary education. There is general agreement on this, although some still hanker after a more classic structure with a degree-only university. It will use features of British university governance and the Scottish credit and qualification framework, and will be established by a Royal Charter.

June

The charter and statutes have been prepared, translated into the classical legal language of Bhutan and signed by the king. Our proposals have survived with no changes to the section about equality of opportunity irrespective of race, origin and so on, but with some softening of the section on the intellectual and academic independence of the university.

The balance between the government and the university looks set to be a delicate issue.

On June 2, a date selected to coincide with the anniversary of the king's coronation, the university is inaugurated and the multi-talented Lyonpo appointed as foundation vice-chancellor. No one can tell us whether this is a permanent appointment or whether it is just to get the system going. At the ceremony, all the guests are offered traditional gifts: soup, sweetmeats, tea, betel nut and a small currency note. This is followed by speeches (we are provided with printed English translations) and then dances by students from the constituent colleges, on the playing field beside a rushing mountainous river. Thunder and approaching rain, seen as a propitious sign, cut short the festivities. We all go home remembering the phrase: "The university should provide an education that is inward, allowing the students to understand themselves as Bhutanese, and that is outward, preparing them to be citizens of the international community."

December

I hear a cabinet has been appointed, and that there is a new vice-chancellor, Dasho (Sir) Zangley Dukpa. He and the registrar want to come to Scotland to "get a feel for how a good university is structured and governed. Can I help arrange the visit?"

Austin Reid, formerly vice-principal of Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh, is director of WBL Consultants with responsibility for higher education and quality assurance. Details: wbl@austinreid.co.uk

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