Interview: U Pho Kaung

How can more investment in education enhance economic competitiveness?

U PHO KAUNG: Improving the economy’s overall competitiveness through investment in education is very important for long-term national development. The focus on reforming Myanmar’s education system should be in three critical areas: better governance and management; improvements in quality and relevance in university syllabi and programmes; and solutions to help students arrive to the right places in access to higher education institutions. Improvements will also depend on better investment in teacher and professionals training, creating the right learning environment, improving student enrolment numbers, expanding access to primary education, establishing the right student/teacher ratio and classroom size while reducing dropout rates.

A performance-based assessment and competitive promotion system could be introduced to retain qualified teachers. This concept was highlighted in the National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) 2016-21, which states that quantitative assessment bodies should be launched for quality assurance (QA) at the national, university and ministerial levels. The establishment of QA criteria should be aligned with ASEAN University Network (AUN) and other partner institutions. Without a QA system, it is difficult to transfer credit and sustain the credibility of the education system. Additionally, through scholarship programmes supported either by the government or foreign universities, experts in specialised fields can be encouraged to stay for longer periods. Improving the research capabilities of our higher education institutions can become an important resource in boosting the innovation of our manufacturing sector and of our companies in general.

What is being done to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)?

PHO KAUNG: STEM programmes are not clearly mentioned in the NESP 2016-21, and only a few secondary and tertiary schools push these subjects. However, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and alternative education (AE) programmes are two new concepts which have been given the commitment of the government to improve access to out-of-school and/or disabled students, and people from a lower socio-economic backgrounds. The government has developed a TVET National Qualifications Framework, which will act as a quality assurance system. Foundations are also being laid to set up a TVET governance system and council, which will oversee the implementation of new programmes and the establishment of public-private partnerships. This is expected to guarantee the sustainability of TVET and AE initiatives in the long term. Those who finish the programmes will be awarded a National Youth Education Certificate. For the government, TVET and AE are two indispensable instruments in reducing poverty and improving the skills of the local population.

What can ASEAN offer Myanmar higher education institutions in terms of new partnerships?

PHO KAUNG: There are multiple scholarship programmes in collaboration with ASEAN. Most of them are student exchanges or curriculum and human resource development schemes. Typically, such cooperation is channelled through the AUN or the South-east Asia Engineering Education Development Network.

The ASEAN+3 network, which includes China, Japan and South Korea, is another important cooperation forum. On this front, China and Japan are already funding student exchanges and other mobility schemes, such as joint research and doctoral degrees for the faculties within the dialogue partner frameworks or other bilateral cooperation mechanisms. Although ASEAN has a system of credit transfers, cooperation can still be improved, particularly in terms of distance learning courses and the removal of existing barriers to student mobility, such as credit requirements and differences in academic calendars across the region.