While numerous education policies have been set in motion by Myanmar’s outgoing regime, the degree of implementation has varied considerably. As negotiations between lawmakers and education reformists continues to delay legislative change, the decentralisation of the Ministry of Education (MoE) is a key topic of discussion.
By most accounts, steady progress has been made since the decision to overhaul the education sector in 2011, which was shortly followed by the establishment of the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR) , a three-phase initiative to rebuild Myanmar’s education network. Currently in its third phase, the CESR was initially scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014, but it has encountered some delays, particularly regarding the reform of education laws.
Efforts to pass the National Education Law have been met with well-publicised student protests. The education bill, intended to reform the outdated education system with new policies and quality standards, was initially passed in September 2014. However, it was met with wide-ranging criticism. The disapproval of the law mostly stems from the fact that many of the requested amends are still not represented in the draft. The Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE) has also criticised the proposed education system for remaining overly centralised.
The passing of the law has largely been held up by debate between those in favour of decentralisation and those reluctant to give up control. Students in favour of a less centralised system have been represented by three vocal organisations: the ACDE; the National Network for Education Reform, a coalition of educational, political and religious organisations; and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. Their combined voices pressed parliament to amend the law, and a new bill was signed by the outgoing president, U Thein Sein, in June 2015.
Although it adopted some of the requested amends, such as the recognition of student unions and teaching of ethnic languages, it still failed to address various issues, with funding being key among them. Demands were made that the education budget be increased to 20% of the total national budget within five years, whereas the new bill stated it will try to reach the 20% mark, but gave no indication on time frame.
Another area lacking necessary attention is that of decentralisation, to which there is no concrete commitment in the new law. The main concern the protesters have cited is that the National Education Law will maintain the current central government control over universities through a central university council. However, the outgoing government has tried to reassure the public that the council will only be used to set sector-wide policies, and will have no control over university charters and how university budgets are spent.
Despite these concerns, there is promise on the horizon. While the law may still be lacking in certain areas, the adoption of other reforms is a major stepping stone for the MoE. The decision to expand free education to the tertiary level and develop ethnic language schooling in marginalised communities is evidence of the changing landscape in Myanmar.
In addition, the new government has publicly announced that it is in favour of institutional autonomy, which will go a long way toward resolving legislative disputes about the educational system. It is clear that the philosophy and implementation of government policies under the National League for Democracy will focus on social reform and development. This should serve as a sign of change to come for the students and scholars in the country.