The newly installed government of the National League for Democracy (NLD) has put education at the heart of its reform agenda, recognising its potential for lifting the country out of poverty. More money is being channelled into the sector as officials seek to build a 21st century education system to help push Myanmar into the ranks of the upper-middle-income nations by 2030.
The vast majority of children in Myanmar attend government-run schools, beginning formal classes each June once they have reached five years of age. Children currently spend five years at primary school, four in lower secondary and two in upper secondary. According to Ministry of Education (MoE) figures, in the 2015/16 school year Myanmar had 45,387 schools catering to 8.85m children. Of these, some 63%, or 28,519 facilities, were primary schools (with 5.18m students) and 14%, or 6224 institutions, were lower secondary schools (enrolling 2.8m students). The country had a total of 322,514 teachers, with a teacher-student ratio of one teacher for every 27 pupils, according to UNESCO figures.
During primary school, which is meant to be compulsory, the curriculum emphasises the basics, such as maths, science and English. In the final two years of secondary school, the subjects of science and technology are conducted in English. In March 2016 Reuters reported that the 2014 census revealed that one in five children between the ages of 10 and 17 – about 1.7m young people – were working instead of attending school. Many families need children to earn an income, and often parents cannot afford the cost of books, uniforms and other school-related fees.
According to UNESCO data, there were 284,278 young children not enrolled in school in 2014, compared with 649,341 in 2010. Thus, it is clear the nation’s net enrolment rates have been improving since the country embarked on its political reforms. At the primary level, the net enrolment rate was 94.5% in 2014, compared with 87.8% in 2010, while at the secondary level the rate was 48.3% in 2014, up from 45.1% four years before.
As well as government schools, children can attend schools operated by and for religious or ethnic groups. Institutions run by Buddhist monks are seen as playing a crucial role in the education system because they cater to the children of families who cannot afford education, particularly those in remote areas. Although often poorly resourced and usually reliant on donations, monastic schools, which fall under the remit of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, are thought to be responsible for the education of between 150,000 and 300,000 children, according to the Philippines-based newspaper Daily Inquirer. Schools operated by ethnic communities serve a similar purpose in a country that has more than 135 ethnic groups and has been embroiled in long-running conflicts with minorities in border areas, some of which continue.
The new government is supportive of recent moves making education more inclusive and encouraging instruction in more local languages. In Mon State, for example, the Mon language has been taught since 2013/14 in 380 schools where the Mon ethnic group form the majority of students, according to a February 2016 report from the Myanmar Times. The UN Children’s Fund, which is leading a language and peace-building initiative across Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand, is also developing a similar programme in Kayin State.
The Myanmar Education Consortium (MEC), with funds from the UK and Australian governments, has $22m to invest in the country’s education system over the next few years, focusing on both ethnic community schools and monastic institutions. The MEC found that 72% of monastic schools’ income came from individual donations. An increasing number of private schools have also been established since 2012, when legislation was passed allowing private institutions to open. Most cater to Myanmar’s upper class, as well as the children of expatriates working in the country.
Spending on education has been rising steadily since the military began to loosen its grip on power, supported by a sharp increase in support from foreign donors. As a percentage of GDP spending on education rose from 0.7% in FY 2011/12 to 2.1% in FY 2013/14. Yet, despite the increase, Myanmar remains well behind its ASEAN neighbours, which spend an average of 3.6% of GDP on education. The NLD is also currently reviewing budget allocations for FY 2016/17, but it has indicated it wants to devote more resources to the sector. Under the National Education Sector Plan (NESP) 2016-20, the policy framework for the reform of the education system, funding for education rose from MMK310bn ($251.8m) in FY 2012/13 to MMK1.4trn ($1.1bn) in 2015/16 and MMK1.5trn ($1.2bn) in FY 2016/17. The government has also said a 5% tax on mobile phones could be directed to education.
This increased spending has allowed the ministry to hire more teachers and expand free education. Some 72,000 “daily wage” teachers have been hired as funds have risen and efforts have been made to improve teachers’ skills, according to the NESP. The government has also been able to invest more in school infrastructure. Between 2010/11 and 2014/15 the MoE built 7616 new schools, with 11,776 classrooms, according to the draft version of the NESP from late 2015. Some 8945 schools were renovated, improving 13,555 classrooms.
Reforming The System
The new government has ambitious plans to reform education from top to bottom. The rote learning of facts is no longer seen as the best way to prepare the country’s young people for the future. “Major shifts are required in the coming years to transform the national education system and ensure that all students progress through the education cycle, achieve quality learning standards, and fulfil their career and lifelong learning goals and aspirations,” the MoE wrote in its introduction to the NESP.
Conceived under the previous government, the NESP is expected to be launched by the end of 2016, with some modifications by the new administration, U Win Aung, a consultant for the government’s Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR), told. The NESP focuses on nine key areas: preschool education; basic education, including improvements in access and inclusion; curriculum; assessment; teacher training and management; alternative educational programmes; technical and vocational education and training (TVET); higher education; and education sector management. The changes made by the new government have put a greater emphasis on improving the quality of compulsory primary education, addressing the problem of out-of-school children, and developing TVET as an alternative to a more academic education, CESR’s U Win Aung told OBG.
Many of the provisions of the NESP were enshrined in the National Education Law (NEL) 2014 and the NEL Amendment 2015. Staring in the 2017/18 academic year, the country will adopt the K-12 structure, extending schooling by two years, and education will also be made free, as stipulated in the NEL. Steps will also be taken to improve not only access to education, but also creating the conditions that will keep children in school. The NESP also notes that drop-out rates remain high during the transition from primary to middle school and from there to high school.
Under the NEL and NESP, the MoE has also promised to decentralise decision making, empower head teachers, school managers and parent-teacher associations, as well as improve accountability across the system between township education officers and schools, and vice versa. It is also committed to introducing mechanisms to track the implementation of reforms, including independent quality audits and dedicated school improvement plans. The education curriculum itself will undergo a revision, emphasising not only problem solving and higher-order thinking skills, but also personal development and employability. The MoE has said content will be reduced to a “manageable level” so that students have the time to understand concepts and complete courses within the academic year. Local curricula will also be developed to support the languages, culture and tradition of all the country’s ethnic groups.
The system of assessment and examination will also be overhauled. The focus will shift to class-based assessments with examinations at the end of the primary (grade 5), lower-secondary (grade 9) and upper-secondary (grade 12) levels. The changes will require modernisation of the Department of Myanmar Examinations at the MoE, as well as the development of IT systems and monitoring mechanisms to set up the exams and track results.
Officials acknowledge the difficulties of implementing such an ambitious plan, which will take many years to have a real impact on the country’s children. Sufficient financial resources and the support of international partners, including foreign governments (the British Council is providing assistance), international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and aid agencies are seen as crucial to the NESP’s success, according to Win Aung. The MoE will also need to improve its administrative and implementation skills to push the ambitious programme through, he added.
“This plan is quite an incredible transformation, if it is implemented,” Lynne Heslop, the British Council’s education director, told OBG. “Usually in countries that make changes to their reforms, they do it bit by bit… But here, Myanmar is transforming the whole system over the next five years.”
Nurturing Creative Thinking
“We have been under authoritarian governance for so many years that many people are well-trained in how to behave,” U Win Aung told OBG. “Asians mostly live in a culture of harmony and respect for superiors, whether teachers or parents, so if we are asking questions or giving our frank opinion, we are breaking the rules. These are deep-rooted cultural practices, but we have to overcome such barriers.”
Myanmar is not the only country in the region that is looking to reform its education system to lessen the emphasis on rote learning and memorisation and to better prepare children for the jobs of the future. Malaysia, which aims to become a high-income country by 2020, has introduced similar initiatives and a comparable reform plan through its Education Blueprint 2013-25. Indonesia is also working to improve the national schooling system by putting a greater emphasis on subjects like science, technology, engineering and maths. Even Singapore, which regularly tops international education rankings, is seeking to move away from high-stakes examinations and to nurture more-well-rounded students.
Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbours have identified the quality of teaching as crucial to the success of their reforms, as has Myanmar, which included reforms for the training and management of teachers in the NEL. The revised system will include a teacher quality assessment system that will reward those who deliver measurable achievements in student learning.
The MoE has also proposed changes to salaries and promotion mechanisms to encourage experienced teachers to remain at primary schools. Currently, promotion means moving up to middle school and high school, leaving the youngest children with the most inexperienced teachers. Officials want to raise standards by creating primary school experts – teachers who have performed well or gained significant experience – to work in that segment. According to a September 2016 report from the Myanmar Times, the MoE’s Department of Basic Education currently employs 369,919 teachers, with starting salaries ranging from MMK155,000 ($126) for a newly qualified primary school teacher to MMK175,000 ($142) for a high school teacher. The department spends about 85% of its budget on teachers’ salaries.
Since 2012 the British Council has been working with the MoE on teacher training, particularly for English-language instruction, providing expatriate teachers, trainers and teaching materials. It has also been working with community and monastic schools to improve English-language instruction there, coaching local staff in the latest techniques, including classroom management, effective presentation and the use of flashcards, songs, games and other interactive teaching methods.
Meanwhile, The Asia Foundation, a San Francisco-based international non-profit has been donating new English-language educational and children’s books to Myanmar. In the past eight years, it has provided nearly 200,000 books to more than 400 educational and research institutions throughout the country. It has also worked with other organisations to publish children’s story books in local languages, and with the Myanmar Library Association is undertaking a pilot project in six high schools to Yangon, Mandalay and Magway to revitalise run-down libraries.
Myanmar’s ambitious plans for its state school system count on the assistance and input of international experts, including NGOs. The NESP anticipates a particular need in the area of non-formal education, helping people find alternative routes to learning and, eventually, work. The MoE estimates some 2.7m people aged between five and 29 years have either never enrolled in school or dropped out of formal education. Some 3.5m adults over the age of 15 are thought to be illiterate.
The NLD committed to addressing the problem in its manifesto and aims to partner with NGOs to deliver alternative education at all levels, from primary to tertiary and adult learning. The programme is designed to give everyone in Myanmar the opportunity to advance, even if the traditional academic route proves inappropriate. However, there will also be opportunities for school-age children to re-join the mainstream system. Myanmar is also looking to foreign investment to expand its network of private schools and aid the recovery of higher education, particularly with alternative education pathways and vocational training.
While most children attend schools under the MoE, private institutions have started to open, though a new, more comprehensive law on private education is awaiting the approval of the Parliament. Catering largely to expatriates and wealthy local families who want their children to have an international, English-language education, there are now 438 private schools with about 100,000 students on their books, according to MoE figures. Official supervision is limited. “There could be some opportunities for international businesspeople to get involved in the education sector,” U Win Aung told OBG.
For example, Dulwich College International has joined forces with Singapore-based investment holding company Yoma Strategic to open two international schools in Yangon. Dulwich has already taken control of the operations of Pun Hlaing International School and will start classes at a purpose-built Star City campus in 2017. The venture has set aside $100m for the school, which will be disbursed in stages by Yoma. The outfit expects to cater to as many as 1400 students aged between two and 18 years once fully operational, with the first phase due to be completed in 2017. The growth in private schools, as in many other parts of the economy, has created competition for staff, pushing up salaries. The fee schedule within the private sector reflects the nature of the teaching staff. “The fees are going to be set largely by the international market,” Fraser White, Dulwich College International’s founder and executive chairman, told local media. “However, we have made a particular commitment here in Myanmar to develop a scholarship scheme so that the best students will be able to access the school.”
Higher education is also a significant part of the civilian government’s educational reforms – a far cry from their military predecessors who sought to undermine higher education by closing institutions and dispersing management across 13 different ministries, including agriculture and transport.
The MoE’s Department of Higher Education controls only 66 of the 163 institutions of higher learning. “In order to sustain economic growth and compete in the global economy, Myanmar’s higher education institutions will be reformed to enable greater knowledge production and to develop highly skilled research centres to support social and economic development,” the NESP stated.
As a University of Oxford graduate, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has gravitated towards the UK for assistance in rehabilitating the education* system. Myanmar’s parliamentarians have visited UK institutions to get an understanding of the British systems, while geoscientists from Oxford and Heriot-Watt’s Institute of Petroleum Engineering have visited Myanmar. According to Kevin Mackenzie, director of the British Council in Myanmar for the four years until July 2016, there has been a drive towards autonomy – a key part of the reforms envisaged under the NESP. Speaking to weekly magazine Times Higher Education in July 2016, he said, “Rectors are more accessible. The new government is open for business and has a better idea of what university autonomy is.”
US universities have also shown a willingness to help. Academics from 10 US institutions visited in 2013 under the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) International Partnership Programme. Arizona State University agreed to look into the possibility of working with schools in Myanmar to offer a joint certificate in religious studies, while Rutgers University has offered financial support to academics that spend short periods lecturing in Myanmar. However, some obstacles remain. For example, Johns Hopkins University pulled out of a proposed project with the University of Yangon in 2015 due to concerns about academic autonomy.
As elsewhere in Myanmar’s education system, reform in the tertiary sector requires systemic change and will take time to achieve. Just 11% of Myanmar’s young people received any kind of higher education in 2013. Places at universities remain limited, meaning that only those who pass the matriculation exam at the very top of their class – usually the top 30% – are accepted, according to figures from City College Yangon. A 2013 IIE report found learning materials, and the courses themselves, were outdated and the training received by the lecturers of doubtful quality.
The University of Yangon, the country’s most prestigious institution, was shut down following the student-led uprising of 1988 and only reopened at the end of 2013. Other institutions were moved to remote campuses further away from urban centres as a way of isolating opposition to military rule. Student unions were also banned.
As it sets about rebuilding the system, the NLD government plans to bring higher education back under the MoE, while also offering more clarity on the obligations and responsibilities that autonomy entails for tertiary institutions. Officials aim to establish a Higher Education Quality Assurance Agency to develop national quality standards and ensure accountability. Regulation will also be key to the success of the emerging private sector too, where most institutions are profit-driven and no legislation yet exists governing the operation of non-profits. Without oversight lenders are unwilling to back such enterprises, so they are often self-funded. “People are looking for quick bucks, and these are long-term investments. We have to be patient,” Deepak Neopane, founder of City College Yangon, which opened in 2013 with the goal of training qualified engineers and is supported by private investors, told OBG.
The college currently has about 100 students working towards a higher national diploma, a pre-degree UK qualification, and the institution is talking to some UK universities about partnerships that would allow students to continue their studies for two more years to gain a degree. Still, Neopane said, “UK universities want some stability and regulations before they jump in.”
As the NLD maps out its plans for upcoming reforms across Myanmar, the benefits of changes to the education system will take many years to be felt. The government’s recognition that education is a crucial part of its long-term goal of creating a more prosperous and inclusive nation is only one component of a multifaceted effort.