Key pillar: Increased spending on education to boost socioeconomic development

Since the opening of the economy to the outside world in 2011, President U Thein Sein’s government has implemented various policies in an attempt to raise standards of education. In order to boost the country’s socioeconomic development and better prepare students for the growing economy, the government increased the education budget from $340m in 2011 to $740m in 2013. Under the military junta, education suffered severely, receiving only 1.3% of the national budget, a miniscule figure in comparison to that of defence, which received more than a quarter of national spending.

In an effort to improve the education sector, the government increased its social spending significantly in fiscal year 2012/13, when the national budget stood at $7.13bn, with education accounting for 11% of total government spending, according to a UNICEF report on Myanmar in 2013. In November 2013 the EU and Myanmar discussed the need to focus on four main areas for development cooperation during 2014-20.

These four areas have been identified as rural development, governance, support for the peace process, and finally, education. With EU support to Myanmar reported to increase to around €90m per year, education will benefit immensely from this aid in future years, and as one of the four crucial pillars for development, it will play a vital role in alleviating the damages left behind by the junta, increasing access to education where previously a large part of the population was excluded from both higher and tertiary education.

Basic Structure

Management of the education policies is split between two offices under the Ministry of Education (MoE); one is located in Mandalay (for Upper Myanmar) and the other is located in Yangon (for Lower Myanmar). The academic year begins in June and ends in February, with summer vacation running from March until the end of May.

The public education system provides four distinct levels of education including “lower primary”, a-three-year programme for children aged 5-7 with Burmese, English, mathematics and science making up the subjects covered; and “upper primary”, a-two-year programme for children aged 8-9 with geography and history added to the curriculum. Secondary school commences with a four-year “lower secondary” programme for children aged between 10 and 13. The final “upper secondary” or “high school” is for two years and is for children aged 14-15.

According to the MoE, only 22% of 3- to 5-year-olds benefit from day-care services prior to school. MoE statistics indicate primary enrolment is currently above 98%, whilst a competing source states that, as of 2011, enrolment was at 85% with completion at 81%. “Students from less privileged families leave school around the age of nine to assist with family income,” Daw Mie Mie Soe Nyunt, managing director of Nexus Myanmar, told OBG. “In rural areas they will work in fields, and in urban areas they tend to work in tea shops.”

On the plus side, basic education at public schools is free, although families are expected to contribute funds for books, classroom furniture, building repairs and registration fees. However, the government has announced its plan to eradicate these costs to ensure that public basic education is entirely free of charge.

Private Schooling

Outside the public education system an increasing number of international colleges and schools have opened in the economic capital of Yangon. These schools come with high tuition fees and are generally enjoyed by foreigners, expats and affluent local families. These institutions were eliminated in the socialist era between 1962 and 1988 but have since grown in popularity. Another source of primary education is provided by religious schools in which around 160,000 children receive lifelong learning from officially recognised monastic schools. Prior to British rule, Buddhist monasteries were the main educational institutions in the country. These religious schools still play an important role in terms of access to free education for many children from poor families.

While literacy among people aged 15-24 is in the 90th percentile, lower secondary education enrolment is at 47.16%, with upper secondary enrolment at 30.01% and tertiary at 10.15%, MoE data shows.

Vocational & Higher Education

Aside from the well-established institutes, all universities and colleges are highly specialised. Following the student uprisings in 1988 the majority of universities in Yangon were closed until 2000. Throughout the 1990s many universities were relocated and moved to campuses far away from urban areas. This resulted in an increase of institutes across the country which assisted the military’s efforts in preventing high concentrations of students at any one campus. During the same period ethnic minorities were barred from attending higher education. On December 5, 2013 after two decades of forced closure, Yangon University, the oldest and most well-known university in Myanmar, reopened. Considered one of Asia’s top universities at the time of Myanmar’s independence, the reopening of the institution shows the government’s determination to bridge the gap between socioeconomic development and education.

According to the MoE there are 163 higher education institutions under 13 different ministries in Myanmar, with 66 institutions falling under the MoE. This is a considerable expansion, taking into account that only 32 institutions existed prior to the 1988 uprisings.

With 61 institutions, the Ministry of Science and Technology is the largest public provider of technical vocational education and training (TVET), and represents 18% of all higher education enrolment.

“Our technology and engineering graduates have a strong theoretical understanding,” Dr Theingi, pro-rector of West Yangon Technological University, told OBG. “Unfortunately their practical abilities are lacking due to a lack of exposure and equipment.” There has been an increasing number in private sector TVET providers in recent times, which are generally of a shorter term and more technically focused. Progressive steps have also been made within the IT space with the establishment of Myanmar Information and Communication Technology Centres in Yangon and Mandalay.

When they have completed lower secondary education, students may gain entry into pre-employment TVET. Upon completion of upper secondary education students can apply for entry into a higher-level TVET or higher education. Upon completion of high school or upper secondary school students must complete a matriculation exam in order to be considered for one of the nation’s tertiary education institutions. The Myanmar higher education system consists of a four-year bachelor’s degree course. A master’s degree requires an additional two years of study.


As it stands, education levels are far behind international standards and lag behind ASEAN norms. The educated workforce is small and the administrative capacity is ill-equipped to deal with the task at hand. Much of Myanmar’s 70% rural population has limited or no access to internet, textbooks or laboratory equipment, and, in many cases, teachers lack the relevant experience to deal with overcrowded classrooms and a weak curriculum. Although some international accredited schools have sprouted up around Yangon, only a small percentage of families can afford the fees, widening the gap between the have and the have-nots. Ethnic minorities have considerably less access to higher-level education and relatively no access to education within the fields of engineering and medicine. Classroom practices do not foster creative thought and restrict expression. “The current education system does not encourage creativity by teachers,” said Daw Shirley Nang Hom Leik, programme coordinator at Nexus Myanmar. “Another problem is overcrowding of classrooms, which leads to high rate of absenteeism.”

Poor infrastructure, lack of governance and limited finance all hamper the development of Myanmar’s fragmented education sector, which is clearly reflected in the 2012 matriculation pass rate of 34.4%.


Driven by the Comprehensive Education Sector Review, and in line with the national development plans, the government is working alongside the Japan International Cooperation Agency, UNICEF, the World Bank and many other development agencies to promote access and raise the standards of education. Some major initiatives include the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed in February 2013 between the Myanmar Medical Science Department of the Ministry of Health and John Hopkins University on cooperation for medical technology. Later in 2012 Sydney Medical School signed an MoU with the University of Medicine in Mandalay and the University of Medicine, Magway which will provide scholarships and research assistance. In October 2013 British Ambassador Andrew Patrick announced that £60m will be given in humanitarian aid on an annual basis, with a primary focus on health and education. Also in October 2013, Japan pledged its assistance to build eight primary schools across two regions. Universities around the world including Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Oxford University have all expressed interest in assisting the re-emergence of Yangon University. Other initiatives are being managed by a variety of organisations in an attempt to foster development of education at basic and higher levels.

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The Report: Myanmar 2014

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