Since Myanmar’s democratic transition began in 2011, the education sector has undergone a significant transformation under successive administrations. Higher government spending and the easing of restrictions on foreign investment in private schools have paved the way for increased enrolment rates and improvements in education infrastructure. Despite these developments, however, notable demographic and regional disparities remain. Closing these gaps and ensuring equal opportunities is necessary to improve the country’s education system.
Structure & Oversight
Myanmar’s education system is divided into five segments: early childhood care and development (ECCD), basic education, alternative education, technical and vocational education and training (TVET), and higher education.
The ECCD segment is managed by the Ministry of Education (MoE) and the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement (MSWRR). There are also a number of civil society organisations that supplement government efforts to provide educational opportunities for hard-to-reach communities.
The Department of Basic Education is a subdivision of the MoE. In 2016 the National Education Law divided basic education into primary, middle and high school levels. The government curriculum mandates that students complete 12 years of education after kindergarten. The Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) estimated that there were nearly 400,000 teachers in the 2017/18 academic year, catering to 9m students nationwide, equating to a ratio of one teacher for every 23 pupils.
The alternative education segment caters to groups that have either dropped out or lack access to the formal education system. The Department of Alternative Education (DoAE) oversees programmes to boost education in Myanmar by targeting students in conflict zones and migrant areas, as well as children who are employed, homeless or disabled. One such programme is the Non-formal Primary Education Programme (NFPE) for out-of-school children. Between 2008 and 2018 more than 75,000 students attended the NFPE in 93 townships nationwide. Upon completion, children are able to access the formal education system in government institutions. The DoAE also runs the Summer Basic Literacy Programme for adults. It is estimated by UNESCO that approximately 3.5m Myanmar adults over the age of 15 are illiterate.
Meanwhile, job skills education is supported by the MoE’s Department of TVET (DTVET). The government is continuously expanding and strengthening the quality of TVET to develop the employability of graduates and ensure they have the required skills to enter the job market. In 2017 the DTVET opened 36 state-run technical high schools across the country. Education is both theoretical and practical, available to any student who has passed eighth grade. Students in urban areas are required to take an entrance exam.
All tertiary education, including state-run and private universities and colleges, is overseen by the Department of Higher Education. According to UNESCO, tertiary education enrolment rates are on the rise, increasing from 13.9% of the population in 2012 to 16% in 2017. These numbers are indicative of the government’s commitment to reform higher education institutions to reach international standards.
Myanmar’s education system was highly regarded in Asia until the 1960’s, when the military government sharply reduced the sector’s budget. The current civilian-led government has committed to remedying the situation with the launch of its National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) 2016-21. In addition to expanding basic education from 11 to 13 years, the plan focuses on reducing school dropout rates, creating a more engaging and interactive curriculum that discourages rote memorisation, and equipping students with the necessary skills to meet the changing demands of the global labour market.
While the NESP has been widely well received, challenges still remain. One such issue is the high cost needed for implementation. Education experts estimate that the government will have to spend $2.1bn per year to complete 80% of the plan. Another problem involves low inclusion and participation levels of educators, civic organisations and ethnic minorities in the decision-making process.
Despite these issues, however, there are clear indications of progress. In addition to the extension of basic education and key modifications to the curricula and assessment systems, the number of basic literacy programmes almost doubled from 47 townships in the 2016/17 academic year to 81 townships in 2017/18. Another significant piece of legislation is the National Education Law (NEL), which was amended in 2015. One of the major objectives of the NEL is to preserve and develop ethnic languages and literature. In 2018 over 5000 ethnic language teachers were hired in different schools nationwide. With this policy, the government expects to see a reduction in the number of dropouts in minority areas.
Myanmar also introduced a new curriculum for first grade students in the 2017/18 academic year with assistance from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Through the Curriculum Reform at the Primary Level of Basic Education (CREATE) programme, new textbooks for a number of subjects were distributed to nearly 1.3m first grade students. Pupils are encouraged to develop competencies in nine subjects: science, English, life skills, arithmetic, social studies, music and art, physical education, morals and civics, and the study of Myanmar – the official language. The curricula for students in other grade levels will also be progressively revised, commencing with grade two in the 2018/19 academic year, followed by grade three in 2019/20, and so forth.
A new system for assigning pupils to classes has also been implemented in all state primary, middle and high schools, with students no longer segregated based on their academic performance. This reform is intended to encourage the students to help and learn from each other regardless of their examination results.
To foster critical thinking, the format of questions for matriculation exams will also be revised for the 2019/20 academic year. Comprehensive performance assessments have already been introduced, replacing a system introduced in 1988 that measured performance based on exam results alone. Several indicators will now be used, combining a student’s exam results with extracurricular activities and athletic achievements. The new method promotes a more holistic assessment of a student’s development.
Since the government introduced free and compulsory education in 2011, enrolment numbers have risen substantially. The initiative started with primary schools, and was then expanded to middle schools in 2012 and high schools in 2015. From 2010 to 2017 enrolment in primary, middle and high school increased by 6%, 19% and 17%, respectively, according to the Myanmar Living Conditions Survey, a joint report by the CSO, UNDP and the World Bank. Increases are being driven in part by a higher number of rural students with access to education. Rural primary, middle and high school enrolment rates increased by a respective 8%, 21% and 19% over the same period. By 2017, 95% of all primary school-aged children were enrolled in classes.
The high rates of student attendance can also be partly attributed to steady increases in education spend over the years. Funding for education increased by 351% between FY 2011/12 and FY 2015/16. In FY 2014/15 the state allocated MMK300bn ($212.2m) to education, a figure that more than doubled to MMK700bn ($495.1m) in FY 2015/16. This increased considerably in the FY 2016/17 budget – by approximately 147% – to reach MMK1.73trn ($1.22bn). The level of funding has held steady since, with some MMK1.76trn ($1.24bn) allocated in both FY 2017/18 and FY 2018/19.
Such increases in spending have led to a number of developments, including the construction of new schools, which totalled 5755 in 2017; the renovation of 7543 existing schools in 2017; and the training of more teachers, with the MoE planning to train 10,000 teachers per year starting in June 2019. In 2017 it was estimated that in basic education alone, there was a shortage of some 30,000 teachers.
Despite the progress, the sector is not without its challenges. While increases in its recent education budget are impressive, Myanmar still lags behind its neighbours in the region, and at 8.8%, the country allocated the least for education as a percentage of the overall budget in FY 2018/19. According to the World Bank, Malaysia and Indonesia each spend 20.6% of their national budget on education, followed by Thailand (19.1%), Vietnam (18.5%), Laos (12.2%) and Cambodia (9%). Domestically, the budget allocation for the MoE ranks below the Ministries of Planning and Finance, Electricity and Energy, and Defence.
Foreign Direct Investment
The increase in government spend on education has been accompanied by a rise in foreign direct investment (FDI). In April 2018 the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC), which is responsible for verifying and approving investment proposals, stated that foreign nationals were now able to make full capital investments in the education sector, as well as own and operate schools, provided that their curriculum is accredited by the MoE. The move has drawn interest from foreign investors, with U Than Aung Kyaw, deputy director-general at the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA), telling local media in June 2018 that global education groups from Singapore, Australia and New Zealand had already shown interest in investing in the sector’s development. To streamline FDI flow into private schools, DICA released a series of investment guidelines and rules, including the necessary qualifications and experience for teachers, and a code of conduct for teachers and students.
In April 2018 a joint venture was formed between London-listed Myanmar Strategic Holdings (MHS) and Singapore-based Auston Institute of Management to open a private school in Yangon, offering courses in engineering, project management and information systems. MHS, which holds a 70% share, is providing $500,000 in funding for the project, while Auston (30%) is producing the curriculum and contributing to management. The opening is slated for August 2019.
There are still benefits to involving local companies, however. “Although the MIC has approved fully foreign-owned companies to run private schools, foreign investors would be smart to find a local partner in order to benefit from better interest rates at banks and more appealing tax schemes,” U Kyaw Htin Latt, CEO of Myanmar education, health care and retail services provider Seezar Soesan, told OBG.
The uptick in FDI should help reduce reliance on international grants and aid packages from other countries. In February 2017, for example, Japan signed a contract to provide a $501,075 grant for the construction of schools and roads under its Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Projects (GGP) Scheme. The Australian government pledged $50.8m from 2017 to 2020 to support the government’s implementation of NESP, while Switzerland has been committing $5m per year since 2013 to help provide vocational training in five sectors: hospitality, carpentry, electrical, beauty and sewing.
Private & International Schools
Since the government allowed private institutions to reopen in 2012, the number of private and international schools has risen considerably, with the former appealing to the country’s growing middle class, and the latter its high-income earners and foreigners. The MoE reports the number of private institutions increased from 50 in 2013 to 585 in 2017, while the number of international schools doubled from 25 in 2012 to 50 in 2017. Although they were once concentrated only in Yangon and Mandalay, private and international schools have now expanded to other cities, including Naypyidaw, Taunggyi, Mawlamyine and Pathein. As the education system continues to liberalise and the demand for internationally accredited courses increases, enrolment in international schools is expected to rise.
Private and international schools currently operate without any legal framework. The MoE initiated the creation of a Private Education Law as early as 2015 to regulate all private and international institutions, although it has yet to be finalised. There is already a Private School Registration Law in existence; however, it only applies to those institutions that teach the national curriculum. “The establishment of an independent classifying entity for private schools is necessary to allow parents to choose the right school for their children based on a reliable ranking system,” Luke Godley, managing director and principal at Dulwich International School, told OBG.
Demand for e-learning has encouraged a number of educational institutions to digitalise their courses and provide students with online applications, for example. The International Language and Business Centre (ILBC), a leading local private school, uses video-conferencing to teach several classes simultaneously from different cities and facilitate more interactions between students. It also provides online platforms so parents can monitor their children’s performance. Similarly, the Monastic Education Development Group, which provides basic education to poor children in rural areas, has collaborated with Norwegian mobile communications provider Telenor to provide video-conferencing facilities to technical classrooms in selected monastic schools. 360ed, an education- and technology-based social enterprise located at the NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley, has started distributing augmented-reality teaching tools for first grade English and 10th grade biology and chemistry classes in Myanmar. Lastly, in an effort to boost science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM ) education, Hour-of-Code, a global movement that teaches computer programming to children, was introduced in January 2018 at Myanmar’s largest school by the Myanmar STEM Education Association.
Boosting teaching quantity and quality is a major focus of the NESP. To enhance the skills of educators and technical specialists, the current two-year diploma requirement will be upgraded to a full, four-year degree programme starting in December 2018. The programme will be spearheaded by the MoE, which expects to have upgraded all education colleges in Myanmar by 2021. From January to May 2018 the MoE, in partnership with the JICA CREATE Programme, trained 250,000 second grade teachers from private, government and monastic schools. This followed an initiative carried out between September and December 2017, in which some 1000 teachers received 13 special education training sessions from the Myanmar Special Education Association, in collaboration with the MSWRR and the UK’s University of Wolverhampton, to better support pupils with intellectual disabilities.
At the same time, private schools in Myanmar have implemented their own teacher development programmes. For example, the ILBC sends 30-40 teachers to the US each year for a month of teacher training.
A number of schools have started to engage with local corporations to ensure that their students are better equipped for the job market. Telenor has signed partnership deals with Thanlyin Technological University and the National Management Degree College, allowing students to gain professional experience through vocational workshops, internships and worksite tours. Meanwhile, as part of the government’s efforts to develop the local fishing industry, a bachelor’s degree in fisheries development is set to be introduced at University of Yangon in the 2019/20 academic year, beginning in June. These efforts to collaborate aim to narrow the gap between the skills of graduates and the needs of the market in Myanmar (see analysis).
The transformation of Myanmar’s education system is ongoing and requires substantial investment. The government has started to implement the NESP, while initiatives such as free education and new regulations for FDI are expected to increase enrolment and improve student performance. As the market is anticipated to expand, more creative measures will be needed to catalyse investment for education infrastructure development and teacher training. This will likely lead to further partnerships with both the private sector and foreign institutions.
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