Revitalising a fragile education system, which was once considered amongst the best in South-east Asia, remains a top priority for Myanmar’s transitional government. However, rapid urbanisation, limited infrastructure, and a mesh of civil and religious unrest have left the Ministry of Education (MoE) with numerous hurdles to overcome. During the height of military rule, the Ministry of Defence received a quarter of the national budget, while education received a miniscule 1.3% of government expenditure. With education’s budget increased to 5.92% for the 2014/15 fiscal year, efforts are being made to boost an underdeveloped, understaffed and fragmented system.
With many of the country’s development goals relying on the improvement of education and the expansion of vocational training, the transformation is well under way, but significant challenges remain. As it stands, the education system in Myanmar is far behind its ASEAN counterparts and international norms. As a result, the educated workforce has dwindled at a time when demand for skilled labour is at its highest. With foreign investment on the rise and the Myanmar Investment Commission overrun with applications, the demand for skilled graduates is growing.
Inherited from British rule, Myanmar’s education system still resembles that of its colonial era. After independence in 1948, the MoE was formed in 1950 with the task of implementing policies. The management of these policies is currently split between two offices: one located in Mandalay for Upper Myanmar and the other located in Yangon for Lower Myanmar. Basic education at public schools is free, although families can be expected to donate money towards books and other materials. However, the government has announced a plan to eradicate these costs to ensure that public primary education is entirely free of charge. Speaking with local media in July 2014, U Soe Thein, minister for the President’s Office, said, “We are planning, together with the Ministry of Education and the government, to provide a free education system at all levels throughout the basic education sector. Schools have been instructed not to ask for any kinds of fees from parents enrolling their children. Parents can report to the ministry if a school asks for the fee.”
There are four distinct levels of education lasting a total of 11 years, beginning with lower primary, a-three-year programme for children aged 5-7 with Myanmar, English, mathematics and science as core subjects, followed by upper primary, lasting two years with the addition of geography and history. Secondary school starts with lower secondary, a four-year programme, followed by upper secondary, which is a two-year course. Most high school graduates sit their final matriculation exams between 15 and 16 years of age.
According to the World Bank, in 2014 over 7.9m students were enrolled in Myanmar’s pre-secondary education system, with primary enrolment accounting for 5.13m, lower secondary accounting for 2.18m and high school counting only 674,000 pupils. The significant drop in high school attendance is often a result of children needing to contribute to household income, with many ending up leaving school at a young age to work in tea shops or rice paddies. MoE statistics indicate primary enrolment is currently above 98%, although the UNDP found it to be 88%. The World Bank estimated that in 2010, the latest year for which figures were available, the student transition rate to secondary school was 77% and high school enrolment was at around 50%.
Prior to British rule, Buddhist monasteries acted as the main educational institution in the country. At present, more than 1700 monastic schools supplement the government elementary system. They are located throughout the country and provide education to more than 300,000 children, who often come from impoverished families and are unable to attend government schools. According to a report conducted by the Monastic Education Development Group in 2014, almost 20% of monastic schools were attended primarily by students from ethnic minorities. Of the schools surveyed, it was found that the majority (81%) did not charge enrolment fees, and among the schools that did the median charge was MMK1500 ($1.50). Additionally, 70% conducted multiple lessons in the same classroom. With limited funding and no government support, these institutions are reliant on donations from individuals and the community. As a result, they cannot match the salaries offered in government or private schools, making staff recruitment and retention difficult. However, following a recent review of the education sector the government is likely to take on a more active role in promoting monastic schooling.
During the worst years of military rule, between 1962 and 1988, private institutions were either expelled or shut down, leaving public and monastic schools as the only options for primary education. Nearly half a century of military oppression and international sanctions have restricted foreign participation and stunted the country’s education network. However, under President U Thein Sein the Myanmar government has succeeded in encouraging foreign investment into once-restricted sectors, such as education, and has attracted a host of institutes to service the rising demand for internationally certified courses, training programmes and schools.
Today, Yangon is home to a growing number of international schools and private colleges that cater to wealthy families and the expatriate community. Scattered across the city, these schools charge monthly fees that exceed the annual wages of most Myanmar families. There is a concern that the increasing number of private institutions further fragments the system. Eugene Quah, founder and CEO of EduLink, a private provider of English-language training and study abroad services, told OBG, “For international providers, having the right local partner can make or break everything. Most local players recognise the importance of international partnerships. It is important to make sure you do your homework and be selective.”
However, Harrow International Management Services and Dulwich College are among the international players that have successfully entered the country in a partnership with local entrepreneur Serge Pun, and they are looking to satisfy the demand fuelled by wealthy local families and the expatriate community.
Vocation & Higher Education
The student uprising of 1988 led to the closure of the majority of universities throughout the 1990s. In an effort to prevent large gatherings of students, the military either shut down universities or relocated them far from urban areas. By the year 2000, however, some institutions were reopened; Yangon University, the most well-known and oldest post-secondary educational institute in the country, was only reopened in December 2013. With a student population of 60,000 and known for being among the best universities in the region, the reopening of Yangon University is a vital step forward and shows the government’s commitment to restructuring and rebuilding Myanmar’s educational offerings.
Prior to the 1988 uprisings only 32 higher education institutions existed. Today, there are 163 institutions under 13 different ministries. The MoE oversees the largest number of these with 66 establishments under its wing, followed by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST), which oversees 61 institutions. MoST is the largest public provider of technical vocational education and training (TVET), government-run vocational education and training institutions.
Upon completion of lower secondary school, students can either opt for pre-employment TVET programmes or they can wait until they complete upper secondary school and then apply for entry into a higher-level TVET or higher education programmes. Students are required to pass their matriculation exam in order to gain entrance into one of the nation’s tertiary education institutions, at which they can obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree, and then a master’s degree after an additional two years of study.
General Ne Win’s decision to ban English at certain levels of the education system in the mid-1960s signalled the start of a long decline for education in the country, and began a trend of students and scholars seeking to study abroad. Today, pupils can take up residence in neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Thailand, and many travel as far as the UK, France and the US to obtain an internationally recognised degree. The traffic is very much one way, however, according to the 2012 “Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange”. While 807 students from Myanmar studied in the US during the 2011/12 academic year, only 29 US students enrolled in Myanmar over the same period. While the figure is bleak, that was the highest it had been in decades. However, these numbers are expected to grow in the coming years due to initiatives by the Institute of International Education, which is encouraging academic exchange and collaboration between the two countries.
Successive waves of exiles are now returning from abroad, partly due to an increase in job opportunities and improved education prospects. For example, the Yangon Institute of Economics’ Department of Management Studies, a public institution, has the most popular MBA programme in the country. With course fees being only a fraction of its international counterparts, admission is hard to come by and in order to gain entry students have to take a Graduate Management Admission Test. The course is full-time and takes three years to complete. In the private sector, the Business Institute Yangon is one of the institutions that offer MBA courses. Although it is easier to gain admission than at a public institution, MBA programmes at private institutions can cost as much as $10,000.
With a shortage of both textbooks and qualified teachers, much of the country’s rural population is piled into overcrowded classrooms. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, pupil-to-teacher ratios in Myanmar are considerably higher than in neighbouring countries. In primary schools the ratio was 28:1 in 2010 and 34:1 at the secondary level. In comparison, neighbouring China had pupil-to-teacher ratios of 17:1 for primary schools and 15:1 for the secondary level.
While literacy among people aged 15-24 is in the 90th percentile, many believe that students exit the school system with a lack of entrepreneurial spirit. “The current public school system relies on rote learning. This restricts creative thinking and makes students reluctant to ask questions,” Daw Poht Poht Kyi, managing director of Myanmar Imperial College, told OBG. This in turn has a negative impact on the labour market. “Filling middle-management positions is a huge obstacle. It is expensive, and hard to find and retain employees. There is a lack of skilled labour,” she said.
Ill-equipped facilities and a declining high school attendance rate resulted in a 31.67% matriculation rate for the 2013/14 academic year, down from 34.4% for the previous year. To add to these challenges, there are over 100 languages and 330 townships spread across a diverse landscape, making uniform management and application of curriculum a difficult task. Civil unrest in certain regions can also exacerbate the education gap, with internally displaced persons having little or no access to education, particularly in conflict areas.
Moving forward, progressive steps have been taken to improve the sector’s outlook, such as the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR), the objective of which is to fully understand the current state of education in Myanmar, with a particular focus on the gaps in policy, capacity and financing. In addition to the CESR, the Education Promotion Implementation Committee (EPIC) was formed in late 2013 and is responsible for drafting policies for the implementation of educational reform.
Following recommendations from the CESR and EPIC, the National Education Bill was passed in July 2014. However, the law was short lived, and in August of the same year President U Thein Sein sent the bill back to parliament after protests across Myanmar. After approving 19 of the president’s 25 requested amendments, the bill was once again passed in September 2014, and yet again met with disapproval by student bodies and teacher unions. “It is important to change the mindset of policymakers to ensure the future development of our country’s education system,” Daw Mie Mie Soe Nyunt, managing director of Nexus Myanmar, told OBG.
Much of the concern surrounding the new law is based on the fact that it does not provide schools with enough autonomy, particularly universities, which will be under the centralised control of the National Education Commission. This has led to protests throughout the country, with the biggest lasting four days in downtown Yangon. However, while many reforms have been announced under the new law, the degree of implementation has varied.
A collaborative study by the Myanmar Development Resource Institute’s Centre for Economic and Social Development and The Asia Foundation was released in December 2013 and found that one of the risks of decentralisation was exacerbating existing inequalities. The study discussed both the benefits and risks of increasing outside financial control over the education sector. The paper stated that shifting responsibility for funding from the central government to local or regional levels of administration could have a negative impact on rural communities if not carefully managed, as they do not have access to the same level of funding as urban schools. The study was funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) with data collected through fieldwork carried out in Mon State and the Yangon region.
In an effort to boost access to compulsory education, the MoE announced in September 2014 that $110m would be committed during the 2015/16 fiscal year to the improvement of schools in border regions and remote areas. Dr Khin San Yee, minister of education, stated that part of the funds would be used to set up digital libraries, which will aid educators across the country who struggle with a limited supply of outdated textbooks.
The Yangon University and University of Mandalay have already gone live with e-library services, which will enable staff and students to access 130,000 digital texts, including to widely used academic volumes and reports. The online library has been valued at around $1.5m. The World Bank also approved $100m in funds for educational services in May 2014, $80m of which is credit from the International Development Association and the remaining $20m from the Australian government through the Myanmar Partnership Multi-Donor Trust Fund. The Decentralising Funding to Schools Project will provide further financial aid to more than 100,000 students and support the MoE’s expansion plans. In addition to these funds, the government is receiving support from various players such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and UNICEF, as well as international educational institutions such as Wolverhampton, Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Oxford universities, which have all pledged to assist in developing Myanmar’s education framework.
One of the biggest gaps that the MoE is trying to fill is that of professional teachers. Driven by the UNESCO target to ensure that all students are taught by qualified and professionally trained teachers by 2030, the MoE conducted a study throughout 2013 on the level of instructors’ qualifications. The findings suggested that training for educators had no common standard for competencies and assessment. Speaking about the findings of the report at the Asia-Pacific Regional Education Conference in October 2014, Dr Khin San Yee said, “Quality standards and quality assurance mechanisms need to be strengthened with common core standards and procedures for performance monitoring established … Indeed, teachers are at the centre of Myanmar’s educational philosophy, and we will continue to strive to improve the professional competency of our teachers.”
According to the JICA, one of the main deterrents for students to continue schooling is the quality of instruction that they receive. Following this statement, in mid-2014 the JICA announced the Project for Improvement of Education Colleges, which is worth $24.5m. The agreement was signed in June 2014 and capacity-building initiatives began shortly after. The grant forms part of $500m committed by the organisation to assist in the modernisation of Myanmar’s economy.
Another initiative is being undertaken by independent development organisation VSO International, which is working alongside the British Council, to provide in-depth training for Myanmar’s educators. The groundbreaking project, which is also funded by the DFID, is the first of its kind and will see foreigner education professionals provide two years of in-service instruction to local teacher trainers at Education Colleges. The programmed commenced in August 2014, and the first year will focus on English language teaching, followed by a year of methodology training. Under the project, 1300 local teacher trainers will be taught by 44 professional English teacher trainers, who have been placed at the nation’s Education Colleges.
Myanmar’s once renowned education system is a shadow of its former self. However, after decades of being overlooked, the sector is gradually taking leaps forward. While limited funding under the military junta may have left the system in disarray, much effort is being made to restore the country’s once prestigious educational institutions.
Although the MoE has numerous hurdles to overcome, an increased budget, growing support from the global community and the reopening of Yangon University are all signs of things to come. As more initiatives get under way, the gap between those that receive a quality education and those that do not will be narrowed. Education reform is at the top of government’s policy agenda, and with careful attention given to the application of donor aid and improved tax collection, future generations stand to benefit from an improved curriculum and increased spending on social development.