Bhutan’s teachers, doctors and other medical staff will earn more than civil servants of corresponding grades, if a policy recently announced by the country’s government is implemented. The new salary scales will benefit about 13,000 teachers and doctors. This is a novel move. No other country has accorded teachers and doctors such pride of place in its government service, both in terms of remuneration and symbolism. Remarkably, the proposal was announced by Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, himself a qualified doctor — which suggests that professional experience informs the policy.
Is the proposal part of a coherent strategy, or an inspired announcement that is resolute in intent but likely effete in effect?
The policy’s tonal reference is to be found in Bhutan’s 12th Five Year Plan (2018-23), published by its Gross National Happiness Commission, the country’s highest policy-making body. The commission’s strategy to achieve desired national outcomes through education opens with the notation, “making teaching a profession of choice”. The proposal then is evidently at the core of a larger governmental strategy to achieve the country’s human developmental objectives. The decision also comes in the wake of high levels of teacher attrition, especially the best. Clearly, the government has formulated the policy as a styptic to stop the serious haemorrhage.
Intuiting the correlation, as Bhutan has, between attracting the best talent to a profession and the renumeration it potentially offers is easy. But importantly, is it possible to demonstrate that improving the status of the teaching profession positively influences educational outcomes?
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study that measures and compares student ability in reading, mathematics, science and global competence, with financial literacy an option. Accordingly, it ranks educational systems of countries. An independent study led by the economist, Peter Dolton, has demonstrated a distinct correlation between student outcomes in a country, as measured by PISA scores, and the status that its teachers enjoy. The initiative’s latest report, Global Teacher Status Index 2018, based on its own surveys across 35 countries, goes on to make a strong case for high wages to improve teacher status.
Policies act as levers that governments use to achieve desired results in focus areas. The results of Bhutan’s policy, if implemented, will take a few years to emerge for critical evaluation. It is, however, based on credible research.
Bhutan already spends about 7.5% of its GDP on education. The fiscal implications of the new salary structure are unclear now. Generally, teachers constitute a considerable portion of government employees. Therefore, governments looking to emulate Bhutan’s lead will inevitably be asked questions about the financial viability of such a momentous administrative decision. For instance, the Minister concerned in Tamil Nadu, one of India’s better performing States on educational indices, turned down demands of striking teachers for better pension explaining that wages, pensions, administrative costs and interest repayments already amounted to 71% of the State’s expenditure. He asserted it leaves little for other developmental programmes.
India currently spends about 3% of its GDP on education, accounting for about 10% of the Centre’s and States’ budgetary expenses. Salaries constitute a large portion of this expenditure.
The NITI Aayog in its report last year recommended that India raise this to 6% of GDP by 2022. Paying teachers (and doctors) significantly higher salaries may seem like a tall order, but the Central and State governments could consider rationalising both teacher recruitment and allocation of funds to existing programmes.
Some programmes may have outlived their purpose, while others could be pared down or better directed. In fact, improving accountability in the system could free up huge savings.
A World Bank study found that teacher absenteeism in India was nearly 24%, which costs the country about $1.5 billion annually.
Absenteeism could be the result of many factors, including teachers taking up a second job or farming to boost incomes, providing parental or nursing care in the absence of support systems, or lacking motivation.
The incentive of an enviable income which is girded with unsparing accountability could mitigate many ills that plague the system, free fiscal space and help meet important national developmental objectives.
Piloting a policy of such consequence may also be easier in a smaller administrative unit, say Delhi. Education is a key focus area for the Delhi government; the State invests 26% of its annual budget in the sector (much more than the national average). The administration has also worked on improving teacher motivation as a strategy for better educational outcomes. The base has been set. The political leadership in the State, which is unafraid of the bold and big in the social sector, could build on this. Moreover, since the State is highly urban and well-connected, it would be easier to enforce accountability measures, which must underpin so heavy an expenditure.
Gross National Happiness (also known by the acronym: GNH) is a philosophy that guides the government of Bhutan. It includes an index which is used to measure the collective happiness and well-being of a population. Gross National Happiness is instituted as the goal of the government of Bhutan in the Constitution of Bhutan, enacted on 18 July 2008.
The term “Gross National Happiness” was coined in 1972 during an interview by a British journalist for the Financial Times at Bombay airport when the then king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, said “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”
In 2011, The UN General Assembly passed Resolution “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development” urging member nations to follow the example of Bhutan and measure happiness and well-being and calling happiness a “fundamental human goal.”
Ultimately, no investment that enables an educated, healthy, responsible and happy community can be deemed too high by any society. The short-term GDP-minded would do well to consider these words in OECD’s ‘Education at a Glance 2018’ report: “The quality of education can be a strong predictor of a country’s economic prosperity. Shortfalls in academic achievement are extremely costly, as governments must then find ways to compensate for them, and ensure the social and economic welfare of all.” Governments intent on improving the quality of education they offer must step out of incrementalism in policy-making. Improving teacher status by offering top notch salaries to attract the best to the profession could be that revolutionary policy-step forward, which Bhutan has shown a willingness to take.