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Official Country Name: Kingdom of Bhutan
Region: East & South Asia
Population: 2,005,222
Language(s): Dzongkha
Literacy Rate: 42.2%

Bhutan is a small, landlocked South Asian country of 47,000 square kilometers located in the eastern Himalayas between China and India. In the year 2000, Bhutan had a population of about 2 million people with 40 percent below the age of 14 years. (Official statistics do not include people of Nepalese origin, though, and place the population count at 600,000 people.) Nearly 90 percent of the population lives in rural areas in the 5,000 scattered villages and hamlets. The population growth rate is 2.2 percent with a life expectancy of 52 years. Agriculture, animal husbandry, and forestry employ 94 percent of the population and account for 40 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the world's smallest and least developed economy.

In 1616, for the first time, Bhutan became unified under the leadership of Ngawang Namgyel. The nineteenth century witnessed constant conflicts with the British that divided the country. The second unification occurred under the regimes of Ugyen Wangchuk and Jigme Dorji between 1873 and 1948. Jigme Dorji Wangchuk succeeded in 1952, and after his death in 1972, then Jigme Singye Wangchuk became the youngest king. He has paved way for slow modernization of this traditional country.

Bhutan is a monarchy. The country is divided into twenty dzongkhags (districts). The head of the state is the King with a unicameral Tshogdu (National Assembly). Tshogdu has 154 seats of which 105 are elected from village constituencies, 12 from religious bodies, and 37 nominated by the king. The supreme court of appeal is the king. The government is committed to universal education as a signatory to the policy of "Education for All" and the Convention of the Rights of the Child (in 1991 at New Delhi, India). In 2000, the literacy rate in Bhutan was 42 percent, with female literacy being only 28 percent.

Until the twentieth century the only schools that existed in Bhutan were the monasteries set up by the Drukpa subsect of Kargyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism. The growing influence of the British in the late nineteenth century influenced Ugyen Wangchuk (1907-1926) toward Western style education, and he set up English-medium private schools for the elite in Ha, Bhumthang, and Thimphu (the national capital). In the 1950s, Jigme Dorje Wangchuk began government-supported primary schools for common people. In 1960, there were 29 public and 30 private schools that enrolled nearly 2,500 children. Secondary level schooling was available only in neighboring India. Systematic efforts toward developing the education sector began in 1961, with the introduction of the First Development Plan (1961-1966) that provided for free and universal primary education. By 1998, the government had established 400 schools, of which 150 were primary community schools in remote areas, 188 regular primary schools, 44 junior high schools, and 18 high schools. However, in the twenty-first century there is still a shortage of schools with adequate facilities.

The schooling begins with preschool (at age four) for one year, followed by five years of primary school, three years of junior high (grades six through eight), and then three years of high school (grades nine through eleven). The National Board of Secondary Education in the Department of Education conducts nationwide examinations at the end of the eleventh grade. Instruction is in English and the national language, Dzongkha. The Department of Education is responsible for producing textbooks, course syllabi, in-service teachers training, organizing interschool tournaments, recruiting, testing and promoting teachers, and procuring foreign assistance. Curricula have been developed in assistance with UNESCO, the University of London, and the University of Delhi.

In 1998, gross primary school enrollment was 25 percent with a total enrollment of 77,300. The proportion of girls among primary students was 45 percent. In addition, in the remote areas, 12,600 students were enrolled in community schools. In 1998, the percentage of primary school entrants completing fifth grade was 82 percent. Also in 1998, gross secondary school enrollment ratio was 7 percent for males and 2 percent for females.

In 1998, there was only one four-year degree college, located in Kanglung, that offered undergraduate degrees in arts and commerce, as well as nine technical institutes. Under a national service plan and fellowships, many Bhutanese students receive higher education abroad.

Bhutan's government spends 22 percent of its budget on health and education. The Department of Education sets educational policies. In the 1990s, Asian Development Bank funding boosted the Department of Education and its Technical and Vocational Education Division.

Nonformal education (NFE) supported by UNICEF, UNESCO, and ESCAP has established 54 centers with an enrollment of about 4,000 participants, of which 70 percent are women. The course, in Dzongkha, is designed for completion within 6 to 12 months. The course materials deal with everyday situations and messages concerning health and hygiene, family planning, agriculture, forestry, and the environment.

In 1998, there were a total of 2,785 teachers in Bhutan. Each primary school teacher has an average of 37 students, but the class size goes up to 70 in some schools. Although the government offers special incentives to those who join the profession, it has not been able to train enough teachers. The National Institute of Education (NIE) does provide distance education courses to already-trained teachers.

Bhutan is a slowly modernizing, traditional country that had approximately 100,000 students in its educational system in 1998. The country is still grappling with the problem of illiteracy with more than half of its population being illiterate and more than two-thirds of its women being without education. Since the 1960s, the country has been able to develop a basic educational infrastructure that is slowly expanding with foreign aid. The governmental commitment toward universal education is a healthy sign for its continued progress.


The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The World Factbook 2000. Directorate of Intelligence, 1 January 2000. Available from http://www.cia.gov/.

Central Statistical Organization, Planning Commission. Bhutan at a Glance 1999 Thimpu, Bhutan: Central Statistical Organization, 1999.

Cooper, Robert. Bhutan. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2001.

Dompnier, Robert. Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1999.

Karan, Pradyumana P. Bhutan: Environment, Culture, and Development Strategy. Columbia, MO: South Asia Books, 1990.

Planning Commission. Eighth Five Year Plan 1997-2002. Thimpu: Royal Government of Bhutan, 1998.

Savada, Andrea M. Bhutan Country Study. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division. Library of Congress, 1993.

—Manoj Sharma

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