When His Holiness was driven from Tibet in 1959 and took refuge in India, more than 100,000 Tibetans followed their spiritual leader. The Tibetan Government in Exile was then established in Mussoorie, North India, where it began to tackle the many issues it had to face in order to rehabilitate the community of Tibetan refugees. Life in Tibet had not prepared the escapees to face the challenges of a new culture and an ever-modernizing world, and the Government in Exile was forced to take on the burden of facing these challenges and propelling the exiled community into the future.
At that point in time, education was seen as a means to achieve the goals of the exiled community and many efforts were made to properly educate future generations of Tibetans. In His Holiness' words, "The Tibetan children are the seeds of our future Tibet." Schools were set up in Mussoorie and Shimla with the goal of not only making modern education available to Tibetan children, but incorporating Tibetan culture and religion in the curriculum as well.
"Since 1959 a lot of schools have been started and every child has access to schooling," says the Additional Secretary at the Ministry of Education, Ngodup Dorji. "Now we can frankly say that the literacy rate is about 70-80%. Most of [the students] stay at least until Class 5 … Before 1959 there was no kind of mass education system. Only the monastic education is there where those who want to learn something must go to the monastery - so in the general population there was no access to school."
In the past 50 years, 81 schools are overseen by the Department of Education, administered and funded by the Government of India and the Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Included are autonomous schools such as the Tibetan Children's Village and the Tibetan Homes Foundation. Education is denied to no Tibetan.
With the welfare of approximately 28,000 students in Tibetan schools in India, Nepal, and Bhutan to oversee, the Department of Education shoulders a great deal of responsibility in the exiled community.
While education systems are modeled on the structure of the system in each respective host country, subjects such as Tibetan language and traditional Tibetan subjects are included in the curriculum. According to Secretary Dorji, this strikes somewhat of a contrast to the education in Tibet:
"There is very strong emphasis on education that is more Chinese-oriented [in Tibet]. If you do not have Chinese language expertise, it is very difficult for a student to compete in the job market. Therefore, I think that either deliberately or unwillingly, I think really there is a strong emphasis on the student doing their education in the Chinese language."
The Education Policy for Tibetans in Exile saw an overhaul in 2004, including changes to the curriculum and new approaches on learning and teaching processes. Up until Class 3, for example, no other language is taught but Tibetan. "When [students] are young, at least, they should learn Tibetan. They should not forget Tibetan. So the basic groundwork of the Tibetan language encourages students while they are in school, and then we let them go into the outside world." Says the Secretary.
While the new policy is supposed to be for all Tibetan schools in exile, only 13 schools under the Sambhota group of schools are fully implementing the policy, according to Secretary Dorji. While it is gradually being implemented in TCV schools in India, it remains unclear whether or not it will ever be used in schools in Nepal.
"Passing the examination or finishing the textbooks is not important." Continues Secretary Dorji in reference to the relatively recent changes to the Education Policy. "Ultimately, at the end of the year, what is important is how much the children have learned. No matter whether you have finished the curriculum textbook or whether the children have 100% marks or not, that is not that important. These things were given so much importance in other times - now what is important is how much the child has learned."
Indeed, each new generation of Tibetans in exile must take on the pressures of working hard for the future of Tibet and upholding the country's traditions and cultural heritage - no easy task for any student to take on as they simultaneously face the prospect of jumping into the competitive and sometimes vicious modern job market. Seen in this light, education takes on a new meaning for Tibetan refugees. Going to school is, in reality, only the first hurdle, albeit a crucial one.
"Anyone who is getting an education must see some kind of light at the end of the tunnel." Says the Secretary. "Living here we do not have that kind of very clear picture; there is an uncertainty of opportunity after you get your education. In many cases there is a lack of opportunity after Tibetans have a good education - that I think in many cases deters the child … Being a refugee, I have nothing except knowing that I have to work hard and study - that can be also a positive force."
Despite past success, the Department of Education has had and will continue to have its fair share of challenges to overcome. Being a teacher is not lucrative - it doesn't pay as well as other professions, and it therefore proves difficult to staff educational facilities with quality faculty members. Setbacks within the student body as well have proven not to be so easily remedied.
"Student product is mostly average - there's no excellence in different fields." Dorji explains. "We've not been able to produce so much over the years … we are trying to find out why. Maybe there are so many factors - they are in exile, you know, they don't have much opportunity … The department wanted to improve the existing school system quality wise so that we don't have just average quality students coming out of schools, but more than average who can go on to university or different professional fields and specialize."
The Secretary, however, has cause to hope as more and more exiled Tibetans are going on to get a higher education - around 45-50% of students go on to university and, slowly but surely, the number of students finding vocations is on the rise. Very few students go on to get a PhD, but it is one of the Education Department's goals to change this in the future, giving the students the means to achieve a higher education after 7 years in the Tibetan exiled system.
"More and more Tibetan children are … getting jobs in the Indian system, in the private sector, and in different fields: in media advertising, banking, in computing industries. The education that our children get here in Tibetan schools is the same as Indian children because we have the same curriculum. They are well equipped to really compete in this modern world if they so desire."
Learning for Tibet
For exiled Tibetan students, the pressure to succeed is not merely rooted in the desire to do well for oneself, but in the hope of bringing skills to the aid of Tibetans in Tibet, and the Tibet cause. Measures are taken within the education system to ensure the ability to think clearly about the future of Tibet and the current situation, and encourage students to form their own thoughts and perception of the truth (this in direct contradiction to the inherent flaws of Chinese education in Tibet).
"We do not really provide any kind of biased information to the children - we do not really want to spoil their education from the beginning, which is totally contradictory to what is happening in China. It is total propaganda. But in Tibetan schools in India, we do not really give any kind of politicized education as such. We really want children to realize these things by themselves, as they grow up … there is not any kind of deliberate attempt to give information that is supposed to be our version of the truth to the children here.
There can be no doubt that a modern education for Tibetan children is crucial in furthering the Tibetan cause, but an understanding of the modern world must be balanced with an understanding of culture and heritage. Excellence cannot be assessed based on exam results alone, but on the ability of students to apply their knowledge in a competitive and oftentimes unfriendly world.
For each setback for the Department of Education in the past, there have been many successes. However, while the Department has made tremendous efforts to ensure the success of students within the system, the fruits of this labor may not be seen for many years. On that token, it appears that this is what Tibetans in exile are willing to work the hardest for- a bright future for Tibet and every Tibetan struggling in exile in the present.