Higher education systems in many small developing countries have been referred to as ‘topless systems’. They are bedevilled by a common range of planning constraints, one of the most significant of which at this level is the absence of a critical mass of students of appropriate quality upon which to base an academically credible and cost-effective institution. Hence, they are often dominated by high school or junior college intakes and their ethos and output are more characteristic of schools than universities.
Bhutan is a recently developing small system that seeks to explore the creation of a National University both as an apex learning institution and as a symbol of its emergent modernization. Nevertheless, it faces the planning constraints that typify many small systems, including a heavy dependence (for staffing and models of curriculum, pedagogy and examinations) on its proximate neighbour, India. Characteristically, such dependence is a major constraint on endogenous creativity in the contemporary period of Bhutan's transition to modern nation state. Lessons from other small systems indicate that regional responses may be less desirable from a nationalistic viewpoint but of a greater economic reality.