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Research project

HAPPY - Qualitative research in Higher education teaching APProaches for sustainabilitY and well-being in Bhutan

This 3-year EU Erasmus+ co-funded project focuses on the strengthening and improvement of teaching qualitative research methods across a range of disciplines in the Social Sciences and Humanities in Bhutan.

2022 - 2025
Erik de Maaker
Erasmus+ Erasmus+

Vrije Universiteit AmsterdamRoyal Thimphu College (RTC)University of Ljubljana (UL)College of Language and Culture Studies (CLCS)Sherubtse CollegeNorbuling Rigter College (NRC)Institute for Innovation and Development of the University of Ljubljana (IRI UL)Institute for Innovation and Development of the University of Ljubljana (IRI UL)

The enhancement of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has been the most significant national priority for Bhutan since the 1980s, and it has evolved into the guiding purpose of Bhutan’s development. GNH is itself rooted in the much older Buddhist tradition of the country, better stated as ‘well-being’ or ‘welfare’. In Bhutan scientific research teaching methods, as applied in the country’s institutions for tertiary education, are strongly geared towards the natural sciences with a dominance towards quantitative research methodology. Statistical analyses are arguably the most common approaches applied in research in Bhutan, and most sectors participate in the collection, analysis, and dissemination of “data”, often equated with quantitative research.


These quantitative research methods do however not suffice to engage with the social and developmental challenges that Bhutan is facing. Rather, qualitative research data are required to contribute to evidence-based policies which address social and developmental challenges such as:

  • Bhutan is transitioning from an absolutist kingdom towards a constitutional monarchy, which demands the development of civil society. New modalities of civil organization emerge, crystalizing around rural self-help groups aimed at the modernization of agriculture or watershed management. To meet the challenges this transformation poses, qualitative research data are urgently needed into the inter- linkages between traditional and modern patterns of governance.
  • In Bhutan, contrasts between the rural areas (which have the majority of the population) and the rapidly growing towns are sharp, giving rise to increasing disparities of class and culture. Anxieties around what this means for Bhutanese culture and identity are frequently expressed, for example, on social- and national media and by lawmakers as they deliberate on how best to direct and manage these challenges. Insights from Social Sciences and Humanities, based on qualitative data, can play a crucial role in identifying the societal challenges this poses, and in developing strategies aimed at mitigating these.
  • Bhutan, location in the Himalayan mountain range, is currently the world’s only carbon negative country in the world (absorbing more carbon dioxide than it produces) and by law 60% of the country must remain forested. Bhutan is, so far, an example to other developing countries when it comes to sustainable development, but climate change (rising temperatures, glacial melt, flooding), poses a major challenge. To develop policies aimed at keeping up Bhutan’s remarkable track record in terms of sustainable development, the Bhutanese government and NGOs are in need of professional researchers who are trained in Social Sciences and Humanities.

Qualitative research methods

Qualitative research methods allow researchers to learn about the challenges that people face in their everyday lives, the ideas they cherish, their beliefs, and the values which they adhere to. As an approach, qualitative methodology allows researchers to explore societal notions such as ethnicity, gender, religion, social class and so on. Categories such as these do not exist separate from one another, but are interconnected and interdependent, resulting in complex social and cultural configurations. Qualitative research skills are central to any efforts to gauge the complex interplay between processes of development, modernization, and resilience.

The tertiary education system in Bhutan

The tertiary education system in Bhutan, emerged relatively late compared to other South Asian countries. The first university (Royal University of Bhutan, RUB) was established in 2003; its first degrees were awarded in 2010. It is Bhutan’s main and only general degree granting University, representing over 90% of the tertiary learners in the country and encompassing 10 constituent and 2 affiliated Colleges. Our project focuses on 2 constituent Colleges and 2 affiliated Colleges of RUB, which together offer 16 BSc programmes in the field of Social Sciences and Humanities. The Bhutanese higher education institutions (HEIs) involved are (1) Royal Thimphu College (RTC); (2) College of Language and Cultural Studies (CLCS) at Trongsa, (3) Sherubtse College (SC) at Trashigang; (4) Norbuling Rigter College (NRC) at Paro. The academic programmes of these colleges are similar in structure and follow the same programme development and quality assurance mechanisms. The HAPPY Project is coordinated by the Amsterdam Free University (coordinator), with Leiden University and the University of Ljubliana as European academic partners.

Erasmus+ Capacity Building in Higher Education Project 618793-EPP-1-2020-1-NL-EPPKA2-CBHE-JP

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