A larger supply of highly educated and technically skilled workers is needed if Myanmar is to succeed in fulfilling its economic potential. Achieving this will require systemic reforms and significant investments to meet the growing demands of both businesses and citizens for a quality education system. Raising the standard of education will be key to expanding growth opportunities for the country over the long term.
Traditionally, education mainly took place in monastery schools, though British colonial rule brought with it both secular education and Christian missionary schools. Universities in what was then known as Burma were considered among South-east Asia’s most prestigious, and women were able to access education more easily than they had in the past. In 1948, when the country gained independence from the UK, the expectation was that its excellent education system would continue to provide the foundations for Asia’s best-performing economy. During this post-independence period the government introduced free education in state schools, changed the language of instruction to the national language – but allowed English to be used at the tertiary level – and rolled out new textbooks.
After the 1962 military coup, schools were nationalised and educational standards began to decline overall. The new regime highly centralised the schooling system in the years to 1988, making schools and educational institutions places of political indoctrination. The political hold over the sector only tightened from there: from 1988 to 2000 students and teachers involved in the democratisation movement were targeted and colleges and universities were periodically shut down. According to the UN’s Human Development Index for 1999, a child of school entrance age would on average attend just 7.5 years of schooling. Some universities and colleges began to reopen from 1999, but the government relocated some universities under different ministries and also shortened schooling terms as a strategy to avoid overcrowding institutions. In the following years the sector continued to gradually recover, and by 2005 the number of universities and colleges had grown to reach 156.
The current civilian-led government is prioritising the modernisation of Myanmar’s education system to enhance a range of areas that are in need of attention. For instance, its primary and secondary schools are saddled with the legacy of a rote learning system, poorly trained educators and outdated resources, while the tertiary system is similarly in need of improvements across the board. Even though there is some way to go, the government has made some substantial progress.
The Ministry of Education (MoE) launched the Comprehensive Education Sector Review initiative in late 2012, which assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the national education system over three and a half years. These findings were analysed by designated Education Working Groups, which helped to review and restructure policies. These recommendations formed the foundation for drafting the National Education Law (NEL), its relevant sub-sector laws and the National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) 2016-21. Unveiled in February 2016, the NESP aims to transform the structure and direction of the entire education sector.
Access to Education
There are multiple government ministries charged with regulating different parts of the education system. The MoE and the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement are the main bodies responsible for overseeing early childhood care and development services. This work is assisted by a number of NGOs, including the World Bank Group, which invests in basic social services to provide better education and health services in the country.
The Department of Basic Education within the MoE manages the majority of the country’s basic education schools. In the public basic education system – which is free for all citizens – students formerly received 11 years of schooling, however, the government has begun implementing the K-12 system of schooling as part of the NEL. In the 2015/16 academic year the Department of Basic Education oversaw the country’s 47,400 basic education schools, teaching 9.3m students. Students can also access basic education through private, monastic and community educational institutions, each of which are managed by other entities. The MoE also provides a non-formal primary education equivalency programme, which is designed for children aged 10-14 who have already left the formal education system. In the 2015/16 academic year this programme was implemented in 89 townships, teaching over 11,200 children. Upon completion of the programme, students are eligible to re-enter the formal system and enrol in secondary school.
For adults, the government runs basic literacy summer programmes, which taught around 46,500 adults in 2014. Non-formal education programmes are also helping to improve Myanmar’s relatively high literacy rate, which sat at 93.1% for those aged over 15 in 2015, according to the UN’s Human Development Index.
At the tertiary level, there were over 370 technical and vocational education and training (TVET) centres as of 2015. Myanmar’s higher education institutions (HEIs), meanwhile, educated 225,000 full-time students in the 2015/16 academic year, while 411,000 students were enrolled in long-distance universities.
Dissident groups in regions such as Kachin, Karen and Mon maintain education departments that teach tens of thousands of students. They demand the right to teach their own languages and culture, but their degrees are usually not officially recognised.
Myanmar was ranked 145th out of 188 countries surveyed in the UN’s Human Development Index for 2016. This ranking set the county behind most of its neighbours, with Cambodia at 143rd, Laos at 138th, India at 131st and Thailand at 87th. There are some positives – for instance, 100% of primary school teachers have received formal training – but the system is lagging in a number of other areas.
Children in Myanmar are supposed to attend nine years of schooling, but in practice the average number of years of education received by people aged 25 and older is only 4.7. Although 100% of the primary school-age population was listed as enrolled in some form of education in 2014, the dropout rate was more than 25%. Moreover, the percentage of children that are enrolled drops to 51% at the secondary level and falls further to 14% for the tertiary-aged population.
While basic education is technically free, families are required to pay for books, meals, cleaning fees and teachers’ pensions, and some cannot afford these expenses. Furthermore, tens of thousands of children are sent to work to supplement family incomes instead of attending school. According to UNESCO, in 2010 there were more than 313,000 out-of-school male children and 336,000 out-of-school female children.
Under the former military government, spending on education averaged 1.2% of the total budget, according to World Bank data, though this has improved in the years since. Government funding for education increased by 351% between FY 2011/12 and FY 2015/16. In FY 2014/15 the state allocated MMK300bn ($229.1m) to education, a figure that rose to MMK700bn ($534.7m) in FY 2015/16. This increased considerably in the FY 2016/17 budget – by approximately 85.7% – to reach MMK1.73trn ($1.32bn). However, this level of funding appears set to hold steady in the FY 2017/18 budget, which outlined an education allocation of some MMK1.76trn ($1.34bn). This translates to the sector receiving roughly 8.5% of the total budgetary expenditure.
In recent years, major investments have been made to improve the existing school infrastructure and build new facilities. Between FY 2010/11 and FY 2014/15 the MoE constructed 7620 schools with 11,800 classrooms, and renovated 8950 existing schools and 13,600 classrooms. It is expected that the renovation costs for education facilities over FY 2017/18 will total some MMK4.8bn ($3.7m), while the costs of establishing TVET campuses will amount to MMK2.7bn ($2m).
The last changes to Myanmar’s basic education curriculum were made in 1985. Consequently, content taught across the system is seen as outdated and it is widely agreed that students are not being taught critical-thinking skills.
In 2012 the MoE’s Education Research Bureau began the long process of drawing up a new curriculum. After more than three years of consultations, and with assistance from UNICEF and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a new basic education syllabus called the “KG standard” was introduced for the 2016/17 academic year. Changes to the curricula for middle and high school studies are in the process of being drawn up with the help of the Asian Development Bank.
These changes to the curriculum have come alongside the development of the NEL, the first law of its kind in Myanmar. The proposed law, which was approved in September 2014, has been controversial, mainly because universities would be not be independent from the MoE and the law did not recognise teacher or student unions. Despite this opposition and accompanying student protests, the NEL’s amendments were approved in June 2015. The law has divided basic education into primary, middle and high school, and allows for 12 years of education plus kindergarten. This has helped to bring the local basic education system in line with international standards.
Legislation aimed at reforming TVET schools has also been drafted by the MoE. The draft bill restructures vocational schooling, changes syllabi and promotes human resource development for vocational educators. After the bill has been approved by the Assembly of the Union, a TVET council will be formed with the objective of strengthening international cooperation, in accordance with the NEL. The draft bill states the MoE will chair the TVET council and that its members will be a mix of skilled professionals, including entrepreneurs, technical experts and Cabinet members.
The new legislation will underpin ongoing efforts to raise quality and accessibility in the TVET sector. Switzerland has been helping Myanmar expand its TVET base since 2013, spending $5m per year to run four-year programmes that provide vocational training for employment in the hospitality, electrical, carpentry, sewing and beauty industries. In 2017 between 6000 and 7000 Myanmar youths were scheduled to enrol in the programme’s courses. According to Paul Seger, ambassador of Switzerland in Myanmar, the number of trainees that this programme takes on may increase to some 8000-10,000 young people. “Over the last few years we have trained hundreds and hundreds of young people in Myanmar. Because of these programmes, many get good jobs, good salaries and have a bright professional future,” Seger told local media.
After finishing primary school, students can attend monastic schools, which are often the only form of education that is accessible. Some families choose to send their children to monastic schools for religious or quality reasons, while others attend them due to poverty, conflict or geographical issues. Monastic schools are managed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture and are led by local Sayadaws (Buddhist teachers), with the support of the MoE. Myanmar has nearly 1570 monastic schools that teach approximately 300,000 children and employ 7800 teachers, according to 2016 data from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture.
The ministry also has oversight over religious universities and institutions from various denominations, which are licensed to offer theology degrees.
Recognising the key role teachers play in improving student learning outcomes, the MoE established a Teacher Competency Standards Working Group in 2015 to develop a national Teacher Competency Standards Framework (TCSF). After working on the framework with UNESCO and the Australian government, the group endorsed a final draft in March 2016. The framework organises teacher competency standards under four main areas: knowledge and understanding, skills and practices, growth and development, and values and dispositions. Before finalising the framework, field testing was conducted at a number of basic education schools. In September 2016 some 80 participants from the country’s universities, colleges and the MoE gathered to review and rework the first draft of the TCSF, based on the results of the preliminary field tests. The second version of the draft for the TCSF was published in May 2017.
As a shorter-term solution for some of the existing staffing gaps at schools, the MoE has appointed approximately 72,000 new “daily wage” teachers to increase the number of teachers in every school. These instructors, who have received one month of pre-service training, are then allowed to teach in public primary schools, with the view that they will eventually undertake training to become fully qualified teachers.
Once a beacon of university education in Asia, Myanmar’s HEIs have fallen on hard times and are struggling to regain their former quality and prestige. Decades of military rule have left the country without the human capital required to turn its universities around. A 2013 report from the Institute of International Education found that Myanmar was in need of a higher education system that can “produce students capable of critical thinking and innovation”. It also pointed to the need for more investment to be channelled into the country’s educational infrastructure, such as internet, libraries, teaching and laboratory facilities, as well as “the kind of applied research that will benefit students and industry alike”. In the years since this report was published, public sector-led development and funding has not accelerated quickly enough for some, culminating in university student protests in Mandalay in January 2018.
A muddled approach to the sector’s governance is one stumbling block. In 2015 there were 13 different ministries administering Myanmar’s 169 universities. For example, the MoE oversaw liberal arts and sciences universities, while the Ministry of Health administered medical schools and the Ministry of Science and Technology managed technological universities. Such a diffuse system of administration makes overseeing and implementing reforms time consuming and complex.
This system of governance has been somewhat altered recently. Over the 2015/16 school year the number of ministries managing Myanmar’s HEIs was whittled down to eight. The National League for Democracy (NLD) government ultimately plans to centralise the public HEIs under the MoE, though this has been met with some resistance from the heads of HEIs. Indeed, key lecturers and academics at universities have criticised the persistent lack of autonomy among the country’s HEIs, despite NLD promises that government oversight would be eased.
With little progress made in improving public HEIs, many students leave the country to study abroad if they have the resources to do so. According to UNESCO data, an average of 7200 students left Myanmar each year between 2011 and 2016 to study in foreign countries, with Thailand, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore the most popular destinations. Other common destinations lie further afield, with some 1200-1800 students per year choosing to study in North America or Western Europe. Demand for US education is increasing, with 1194 students from Myanmar studying there in 2017, according to figures from the US Department of Commerce. The number of student visas granted to Myanmar students has continued to increase over the past few years, rising by 9% in 2016.
As the public education sector undertakes reforms and restructuring, private schools have stepped in to meet demand for quality education. The private side of the sector is governed by the 2011 Private School Registration Act. Currently, many private education options are offered by for-profit enterprises, including international schools and foreign curricula programmes, as well as overseas tertiary and vocational partnerships offering joint diplomas in a range of fields, such as engineering and business administration. The number of private schools operating in Myanmar has grown rapidly, from just over 50 in the 2012/13 academic year to 585 in 2016/17, an increase of more than 100 schools per year on average.
There are a number of private schools that teach foreign curricula, targeting the expatriate community and affluent families. These institutions offer internationally accredited courses that are in high demand, but their high tuition costs put them out of reach for most pupils, with fees at these schools sometimes reaching as much as $26,000 per year. In addition to better facilities, teaching aids and extra-curricular activities, private schools offer lower teacher-to-student ratios than government schools, with the average at public schools being 1:23 in the 2016/17 academic year, compared with the average teacher-to-student ratio of 1:17 found at private institutions.
There were 20 international schools operating in Yangon and Mandalay as of 2017, offering programmes from nursery schools to international college preparatory curricula and all levels of schooling in between. While these schools are popular for students looking to improve their proficiency in the English language, students also attend these institutions with the expectation that having an education from an international school will assist them in gaining well-remunerated employment or study opportunities in western HEIs.
Domestically owned and operated private schools are reasonably priced in comparison to international schools, at least for middle-income families. The curricula used by these schools parallels that used in public schools, but more attention is given to English and extra-curricular activities. These schools are an attractive option for Myanmar’s growing middle class. At present, most private schools follow government policy for curricula and exam systems.
International schools, meanwhile, operate outside the control of the MoE, meaning they receive limited government supervision. Some stakeholders have called for a separate law to govern these schools. In 2015 the MoE announced that an international schools law covering taxation and curricula would be released, however, the draft law was sidelined following the strong public opposition to the NEL.
Opening the Sector
At present, private HEIs cannot operate legally in Myanmar, and there is no mechanism by which not-for-profit or non-profit HEIs can register to operate in the country. However, the government is in the process of promulgating bylaws for the NEL, which should provide a means for private HEIs to register and operate. Nonetheless, many for-profit private HEIs operate illegally. The effort to establish the nation’s first reputable private universities was spearheaded by the Institute of International Education’s International Academic Partnership Programme in 2013. This initiative sought to build the capacity of Myanmar’s tertiary institutions through sustainable partnerships with US counterparts.
Along with eight other universities across the country, the American University of Myanmar (AUM) was selected to take part in the programme. HEI coursework at AUM was scheduled to begin in the autumn of 2016, but since it is a non-profit HEI it has not been possible for the university to open courses at this level up to students. In the meantime, AUM has begun offering its American High School Equivalency Programme, which prepares students for US university courses, as well as a study abroad programme.
In addition to the education institutions from the US, there is a growing presence from the UK as well. As of late 2017, Myanmar’s international education market comprised around 35 private training centres offering courses from UK-based educational institutions. These offered classes in a variety of subject areas, including IT, engineering, accounting, tourism, business, finance and marketing management, among others, according to the US Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration (ITA). The ITA found that the UK’s education programme is the current market leader in Myanmar, earning approximately $2bn a year. There are seven private training centres in Yangon offering the UK Higher National Diploma, according to the ITA. Additionally, there are six learning centres that offer bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes from British and European universities.
To capitalise on the potential of its young and education-hungry population, the NLD government is working to rebuild its public education system at every level. As a result, it is gradually moving towards meeting regional and international standards. Passing the appropriate legislation as well as further opening the sector up to new international partnerships and foreign investors will likely be necessary to achieve this, as will continued investment in educational infrastructure and learning resources, particularly in rural and more marginalised regions.
The NLD government has increased the education sector’s budget allocations since it was elected and many important changes are well under way, such as the basic education curriculum reform and rising investment in teacher training. There are still many areas that need improvements, progress on which will require the removal of legislative and administrative barriers. Nevertheless, the US government has classified Myanmar’s education sector as a “best prospect industry sector” for investors. This is one of many promising signs that the system is fast catching up.