Changes to Myanmar's education sector needed

With an increasing need for human capital, the government of Myanmar has made the overhauling of the education system a national priority. With an enlarged budget, a new national education law and the removal of public school fees, major reform of the entire education sector is well under way. However, significant challenges remain.

 While the education sector was largely dismantled by the military, leading to student uprisings in 1988, there is a growing sense of enthusiasm for the sector, fuelled by the overwhelming victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the November 2015 election. The NLD’s chairperson, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has often highlighted the importance of revitalising the local education landscape.

Budget Increase

In an effort to bolster the development of the education system, spending significantly increased during the tenure of the outgoing president, U Thein Sein. In his last approved budget, spending on education increased to $1.3bn, accounting for more than 5% of total government expenditure and up from $1bn in fiscal year 2014/15. This is a significant step up from the days of the military regime, when education only received 1.3% of total expenditure on average over a 50-year period. The latest increase in funding has been earmarked to employ an additional 50,000 teachers, while the free education system launched in recent years has been extended to higher education to assist in the drive to expand the number of graduates entering the workplace. The budget increase will also be allocated to university stipends and scholarships, as well as supplementing fees at technical institutions.

The Challenges

Many of the current educational reforms are aimed at alleviating the damage caused by the military junta. As it stands, the majority of public schools have limited access to textbooks and supplies, and teaching styles are based on rote learning. On top of those constraints, much of the school infrastructure is inadequate, there is a shortage of teachers and classrooms are overcrowded.

Discrimination against ethnic minorities also remains a problem for the education system. Community-based schools have a history of being closed by the government, which only serves to aggravate conflict between rebels and the Myanmar army. In the absence of these schools, minorities are forced to choose state-run schools that do not teach in their native tongue.

 Overcrowding remains a major problem that hinders effective teaching, with a pupil-to-teacher ratio of 28:1 in primary schools and 34:1 at the secondary level, considerably higher than in neighbouring Thailand, with a ratio of 16:1 for primary schools and 19:1 at secondary schools. However, the Department of Basic Education seems committed to easing the strain. In August 2015, the department announced that it was relaxing high school teacher requirements as a solution to the massive staff shortage of teachers at high school level. Under the new requirement, middle school teachers with a minimum of 10 years experience can be promoted to a temporary high school post, whilst graduates from any field can teach at high schools under a three-year contract, and graduates with a bachelors degree in education will be offered permanent teaching positions.

 According to U Tin Latt, the executive director of Chindwin College, execution of policy is a major concern. “The government has initiated important steps to bring education to international levels, but there is still a lot to do in terms of infrastructure and access to resources, such as libraries in rural communities,” he told OBG.” Education is moving in the right direction. However, there is a major delay in implementing rules and regulations due to the concerns or actions of certain parties, such as the student union.”

  Various sector studies and collaborative efforts have been made in the last 25 years to identify key issues and implementation programmes. Challenges in the management and application of curriculum reform are largely due to the complex nature of a diverse population, which is spread among 330 townships and uses more than 100 languages.

 Despite the many obstacles to progress, optimism is on the rise, and the influx of foreign investment across a variety of industries has increased the demand for qualified graduates, who in the past struggled to find employment in their field. Those responsible for setting education reform in motion are also demanding more correlation between curriculum and the skill sets required by businesses.

Structure

Basic education is divided into four distinct levels, comprising a total of 11 years at the lower primary, upper primary, lower secondary and upper secondary levels. School attendance has traditionally been a problem for students in the country. While basic education at public institutions is free, tens of thousands of children are sent to work on farms and tea shops to support family income. According to statistics in 2000, 85% of children in urban areas attended primary school, compared to 76% in rural areas. Of those enrolled, 26% fell outside the standard age bracket.

At the same time, 69% of children in urban areas attended secondary school – more than double the proportion in rural areas. More recent statistics from the Ministry of Education (MoE) suggest that the situation is improving, with primary enrolment above 98%. However, it is thought that many of those enrolled do not complete the course, with a vast number leaving school around the age of nine to work in the informal sector.

  In an effort to integrate young school-leavers back into the system, the MoE is undertaking several initiatives. A noteworthy example is the Non-Formal Primary Education programme, designed to re-engage children who exited the formal system during the primary level. Developed by the Department of Myanmar Education Research Bureau under the MoE in 1998, the program is aimed at children aged 10-14. Students attend classes for 12 hours a week over a two-year period. Upon completion of the programme students can enrol in secondary school To assist in this area, the government mandated in 2011 that primary education be completely free, including textbooks and exercise books. Although local laws would suggest that free education was already in place, most families had to pay $100 in annual fees for each child prior to 2011. Following those progressive changes, lower secondary school was made free in 2014, and free tuition was extended to 40,000 upper secondary schools in June 2015.

Filling The Gap

Monastic schools have long offered primary education to ethnic minority groups and orphans. Established by monks and administered through the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the courses follow the government curriculum, though the schools operate autonomously. There are more than 1700 monastic schools nationwide, providing education to approximately 300,000 pupils, though their facilities usually leave much to be desired.

With little history of government funding, these schools have relied mainly on donations. According to research by the Myanmar Education Consortium (MEC), funded through the Australian and UK Governments, 72% of schools surveyed relied on individual donations the remainder coming from fundraising activities and income generation projects. The MEC has committed $22m to education development in Myanmar, with a special emphasis on monastic and community schools.

Tertiary

According to the department of higher education, there are 163 public higher education facilities in Myanmar under 13 ministries, with the majority of institutions in Mandalay, Yangon and the Shan State. The majority (66 in total) fall under the MoE, and 61 are led by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) in the form of technical vocational education and training (TVET) facilities.

The management of the TVET sub-sector is quite fragmented. Established by outgoing president U Thein Sein in 2014, the TVET Taskforce is responsible for reforming the sector under the MoST. However, the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security is in charge of the Employment and Skills Development law, enacted in August 2013, while the National Skills Standards Authority was established to develop skills standards in 2007. This division of authority, according to industry insiders, has led to a lack of clarity and policy formation.

 According to the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR), TVET institutions and universities are falling short in a few areas. First, there is a lack of coordination between skills development and the job market; secondly, the existence of overarching policies is quite limited; and finally, there is a lack of trust in the qualifications on offer. However, a number of international organisations are providing technical assistance and funding to further the development of these vocational education units, which will bolster the talent pool in years ahead. Among these is Japan International Cooperation Agency, which has committed some $24.63m to education colleges. In addition, a number of bilateral agencies have invested large sums in the country’s higher education re-emergence, such as Australian aid agency AUSAID, the British Council and the UK Department for International Development, to name a few.

  Another notable development is the UNESCO-managed public-private partnership with the MoE and PepsiCo, a first of its kind for Myanmar. The partnership launched its second phase in August 2015 with the aim of providing industry-focused programmes to improve the skill sets of graduates entering the local workforce. The Strengthening Business Skills for Youth Employment in Myanmar programme is a sign of things to come, as more international firms roll out corporate social responsibility projects aiming to bolster education development. The programme helped to establish the Centre of Excellence for Business Skills Development at the Hlaing Campus of Yangon University of Economics.

International Certificates

The market for international schools is expanding fairly rapidly, particularly in the financial capital of Yangon, where there are a growing number of foreign schools and increasing partnerships and collaborations between local entities and universities abroad. Two of many examples are Chindwin College and Myanmar Imperial College, which have partner universities in Singapore, the UK and Malaysia.

With foreign curricula mainly targeted at affluent families and the expatriate community, these institutions offer internationally accredited courses that are in high demand but are out of reach to most pupils due to the high cost of tuition, with fees as high as $25,000 per year. International pre-schools likewise come with a hefty price tag, averaging around $11,000 for one year, while the most expensive school is the British School of Yangon with a total cost of $19,480 a year for pre-school.

 Limited government supervision has some industry members calling for a separate law to govern foreign schools, which often impose their own curricula.  There is an abundance of so-called international schools in Yangon alone, though the exact number is difficult to attain since they operate outside the control of the MoE. Currently, these schools operate under a company licence issued by the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC).

The wishes of those calling for a new law seemed to be partially answered when in May 2015 the MoE announced that an international schools law covering areas such as taxation and curricula would be released within a month. However, the draft law was quickly sidelined when the National Education Law was once again met with protest (see analysis). As of early December 2015, no announcement had been made regarding the passing of the law.

Private Schools

During the socialist era, aside from a select few international colleges, all forms of private education were banned in the country. This lasted until 2012, when the government of president U Thein Sein allowed them to reopen in his bid to increase schooling options. The response has been enthusiastic. According to a local report in the Myanmar Times, a local news agency, as of May 2015 there were 100 new applications filed by potential investors to the MIC to build private schools in the Yangon region, adding to the already 160 existing nationwide.

This in turn has led to an influx of native English speakers seeking teaching roles. Locally owned private schools are still too costly for the majority of citizens, but are reasonably priced in comparison to international schools, at least for urban middle-income families, with private primary, secondary and high school enrolment costs averaging around $400, $600 and $800 a year, respectively. Curricula mirror that of the public sector, with extra attention given to English and courses in sport and music. With fewer students per teacher, these schools are an attractive option for the growing middle class.

All Aboard

The erosion of Myanmar’s once-prestigious education network began in 1964, when English was abandoned as a core subject under the orders of General Ne Win. This decision to neglect the teaching of English was later reversed, in the late 1980s, yet although it has since remained on the syllabus, the move did little to improve teaching methods.

In the absence of international education standards, many students from wealthy families opted to send their children to schools abroad, with the UK, the US, Australia and Singapore being the most popular destinations. This trend still holds today; however, the rate of departures may well slow, as students previously seeking international qualifications can now obtain them in Myanmar. In addition, many professionals who obtained their credentials at a foreign institution are now returning to Myanmar to capitalise on a growing job market.

Capacity

Aside from the Ministry of Defence and a select few public departments, limited funding has for a long time hindered government faculties. However, the management abilities of the MoE have been bolstered by international donor support. One project in particular has been hailed by analysts as a critical step to revive education. 

The Capacity Development for Education for All (CapEFA) programme, introduced by UNESCO, is aimed at promoting the skill sets of policymakers within the MoE. The programme focuses on several key areas, including decentralised planning, sector diagnosis, education costing, education statistics and education management information systems (EMIS). According to UNESCO, more than 200 MoE officials had been trained under the programme by June 2015. The programme has also played a leading role in the development of the country’s CESR, the first of its kind in 20 years (see analysis).

Outlook

The education budget was increased significantly under the outgoing regime, and will continue to do so under the new government. In the short term, the overhaul of Myanmar’s education sector will continue to encounter growing pains as the MoE tangles with capacity constraints. However, with the support of international technical aid, the MoE is in a position to negotiate hurdles – a big stride considering the overwhelming tasks of just a few years ago. In the long term, the education system looks set to gain significant momentum, particularly under a government that is determined to increase the amount of graduates and improve the quality of degrees. The future success of Myanmar’s schools will, however, greatly depend on the restructuring of the sector under the National Education Law, a vital building block from which development will be measured (see analysis). While the development of basic education is a key piece of the development puzzle, a great deal hinges on the role of TVETs, particularly to align graduate skills with employer needs in the key growth areas of energy, IT and infrastructure. The promotion of these vocational education centres is likely to accelerate as the influx of foreign firms ramps up, with emphasis being placed on governance and demand-driven courses. While appropriate steps are being taken, it will require considerable time before an adequate level of cohesion between educational offerings and the needs of the local job market is reached, particularly in rural areas.

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The Report: Myanmar 2016

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