Driven by increased public investment and a series of key reforms Myanmar’s education sector has undergone a significant transformation following the transition to democracy that began in 2011. The budget allocation for the sector has risen steadily to be nearly six times the amount it was in FY 2011/12, reaching MMK1.76trn ($1.15bn) in FY 2018/19. Furthermore, liberalisation has resulted in the emergence of a rapidly expanding private school sector. Nevertheless, despite the progress achieved in recent years, further work is required to reform the curriculum, raise teaching standards and adopt education technology (edtech), if the young population is to be equipped with the skills necessary for an international labour market characterised by innovation and rapid technological change.
Structure & Reform
The sector’s substantial reform began with the passing of the National Education Law in 2014, which was subsequently amended in 2015. This legislation increased mandatory basic education to 12 years – bringing Myanmar in line with other ASEAN member states – and prioritised the decentralisation of the sector. These reforms laid the groundwork for further progress under the government’s National Education Strategic Plan 2016-21. This plan targets an increase in enrolment rates, and focuses on revising the curriculum in order to decrease the dependence on rote memorisation and develop the skills students need to meet the changing demands of the global labour market.
Myanmar’s education sector 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. The basic and alternative segments are governed by two subdivisions of the MoE, namely the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Alternative Education (DoAE). Meanwhile, the TVET segment is overseen by the MoE’s Department of TVET (DTVET).
Mandatory basic education spans 12 years, comprising six years of primary education – from kindergarten to fifth grade – four years of middle school and two years of high school. Net primary enrolment rates rose from 96.2% in 2014 to 99.5% in 2017, according to the latest figures from the MoE. However, despite the legal requirement for pupils to complete basic education, the data suggests that the challenge of students dropping out of high school has yet to be effectively addressed. Indeed, the net secondary enrolment rate rose from 49.4% in 2014 to only 59.5% in 2017. As of academic year 2015/16 the total number of pupils in basic education was around 9.26m, distributed across a total of 47,363 schools with 340,955 teachers, according to the latest government figures. In the same year the teacher-to-pupil ratio stood at 1:27 in the public system and 1:15 in the private sector, while in the monastic school segment it was 1:27 Myanmar introduced a new curriculum for first grade students in the 2017/18 academic year. The revised syllabus is being developed with input from over 30 experts from the US, the UK, Ireland, Japan and the Philippines, in collaboration with more than 60 Myanmar academics, and is designed to encourage active learning. The curricula for students in other grade levels will also be progressively revised and modernised, commencing with the second grade As of academic year 2015/16 the total number of pupils in basic education was around 9.26m, distributed across a total of 47,363 schools with 340,955 teachers, according to the latest government figures in the 2018/19 academic year, followed by the third grade in 2019/20, and so forth.
Monastic schools are a major provider of education in Myanmar, and fall under the purview of both the DoAE and the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture. These schools often serve a lower-income cohort – including children who cannot afford the uniforms required at state institutions – and a large proportion of teaching staff are hired on a volunteer basis or in receipt of a very low salary. They follow the national curriculum, but the achievement levels of students in the monastic school system are generally lower than those in the state and private sectors.
The DoAE was established in October 2016 and received around MMK2bn ($1.3m) for FY 2017/18. The department is mandated to facilitate the lifelong learning of children who are in migrant and conflict areas, as well as working children, street children and children with disabilities. The department’s literacy programme – which targets both adults and children – covered all the townships in the Kayah State and the south of Shan State in 2016, providing support to 3500 and 20,000 learners, respectively. Alongside these efforts, UNICEF currently leads the coordination of the education programme for emergency zones at a national and subnational level. In 2018 the agency provided educational materials to approximately 78,000 children and directly supported another 26,000 aged 3-17 to access formal and non-formal basic education.
A number of additional programmes and policies have been implemented to mitigate the impact of natural disasters and regional conflicts – particularly those in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan State. These include the ECCD programme, introduced under the previous government in 2014. The policy framework was designed to support the development of children aged up to eight years old. This focuses on enabling children to become healthy and well nourished, as well as on preparing them to enter school, supporting them through primary school and aiding them in the transition to secondary education. It is designed to support 8m children per year. Building on these achievements to improve the quality of education and support the entrance and retention of students within the education system will be necessary to reduce the country’s dropout rate.
Efforts are also ongoing to improve the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in Myanmar. Currently, students are required to choose either a science or arts track upon entering high school. All students take Myanmar, English and mathematics, but those on a science track also take chemistry, physics and biology, while those with an arts specialisation study geography, history and economics.
Nevertheless, the teaching of specific technology-related subjects remains underdeveloped across the curriculum. In an effort to address these issues, in January 2019 the Myanmar STEM Education Association introduced Hour of Code – a resource provided by the international NGO Code.org dedicated to expanding access to computer programming – in the country’s largest high school, Practising School Yangon Institute of Education.
Students who have completed eighth grade are eligible to attend TVET institutions, although those in urban areas may be required to sit an entrance examination. At the middle and high school level there are 11 government technical institutes and 36 government technical high schools. The segment receives support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Since August 2018 experts from Japan have aided the MoE in developing a new curriculum, renovating facilities, and training teachers and management staff. Two separate grant agreements for the Project for the Development of the Japan-Myanmar Aung San Vocational Training Institute (JMASVTI) have been signed. The first of these, inked in December 2018, allocated JPY165m ($1.5m) to the DoE; and the second, signed in July 2019, designated some JPY2.7bn ($24.6m).
The aim is for the JMASVTI to serve as the government technical institute at the location of the former Aung San Government Technical High School in Insein Township in northern Yangon. The JMASVTI will provide courses in automobile maintenance and industrial electrical engineering. U Aye Myint, director-general of DTVET, told local media in December 2018 that the project will leverage expertise from Japan to produce highly skilled graduates in order to meet the demands of both the domestic and international market. Myanmar’s TVET reform programme is set to receive an additional €10m in funding from Germany, following the signing of an agreement with the German Development Bank in July 2019. The funding will be used to upgrade specified facilities in Mandalay, Taunggyi and Baelin, improve teaching and learning materials, and enable faculty capacity building across the country.
The first private schools were opened in Myanmar in the 2012/13 academic year, following the Private School Registration Law of 2011. The private segment is highly competitive and has been open to 100% foreign ownership since April 2018. Although this has brought economic benefits, some sector stakeholders have raised concerns regarding its potential impact on quality assurance and consistency within the education system.
A Private Education Law was drafted in 2015 to address this issue, with the introduction of stricter requirements for teachers and closer monitoring of curricula and administration. By early December 2019 the law was yet to be implemented. Under the proposed legislation, all schools will be required to register with an administration board.
A national administration board will oversee schools that teach international curricula or employ foreign teachers, as well as universities and TVET institutes that issue masters degrees; all other schools will operate under state and regional boards. Teachers looking to work in the private sector will be mandated to apply for a three-year licence from the appropriate board. Requirements will include a degree in their area of expertise, and either a teaching qualification or five years of teaching experience. In addition, under the proposed legislation, study of the national language will be mandatory for students of Myanmar heritage at international schools and optional for foreign students.
The new legislation is hoped to include the regulation of fees – which have been known to rise without justification – as well as the promotion and advertisement of institutions. While the former should boost trust in the segment, the latter would help ensure students and parents receive accurate information about a school.
Growing international interest in Myanmar’s education sector is forecast to bring opportunities for domestic companies, which are able to offer their local expertise to help overseas investors leverage their capital effectively. Moreover, the perceived reputation of international schools is important for the country’s wider economy, as this may be a factor in determining whether high-level executives from overseas are willing to relocate their families to Myanmar.
It is not only expatriate families that provide demand for international schools; in 2017 Myanmar students accounted for approximately 50% of enrollees at Pun Hlaing school in Hlaing Tharyar Township, a campus of Dulwich College Yangon. Some locals consider an international-style education a gateway to overseas universities, which contributes to the popularity of these institutions – despite the fact that annual fees can be 10-20 times higher than the average per capita GDP, which was recorded at $1571.90 in 2018. For example, annual fees at the Yangon American International School – which first opened in the 2019/20 academic year – range from $7500 for a half day in nursery to $12,000 for pre-kindergarten and $15,500 for the third grade.
One of the key advantages of private education institutions in Myanmar is the opportunity to study internationally recognised courses – although a lack of regulation in the sector means that it is possible for institutions to overstate the extent to which their curriculum is recognised – and the opportunity to build an international network.
The eventual aim for many students in this system is to study abroad. According to the most recent UNESCO data, 8965 students from Myanmar attended overseas institutions in 2017.
Popular destinations include Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan, as well as Australia and the UK. The US is also a sought-after destination, with a total of 1594 Myanmar students at its institutions of all levels in March 2017, based on figures from the US’ student and exchange visitor information system. It is plausible that the number of students seeking a place in the US may increase alongside the opening of Yangon’s American International School.
Additionally, the growing number of high school graduates seeking positions at overseas universities presents an opportunity for providers of bridge programmes that prepare students to study abroad, as well as for consultancies that offer support with applications and interviews for students seeking places at international universities.
The size of the university-aged demographic is growing, leading to an increase in the number of students entering the higher education sector. Enrolment rates rose from 13.9% of the eligible population in 2012 to 16% in 2017, according to the most recent UNESCO figures. As a result, some public university courses are oversubscribed, and those who are able to afford it often turn to the private sector.
The private higher education segment is still subject to a large amount of centralisation, which may slow growth. Two key steps have been taken to remedy this: first, the government has asked private institutions to form an association, which will represent the segment when communicating with the MoE. Such a body already exists for public universities, with the Rectors’ Committee reporting directly to the National Education Policy Commission (NEPC). Second, the NEPC has requested that private institutions submit data on the courses they offer, as an early step in permitting them to offer their own diplomas. The aim is to develop a system based on successful regional and international examples, such as those already in place elsewhere in ASEAN and in the UK, which will permit the autonomy of institutions while helping to maintain standards.
Some of Myanmar’s universities have climbed considerably in global rankings. While scores may remain low by international and regional standards, this nonetheless shows substantial progress. For instance, the University of Yangon climbed from 13,072 in 2016 to 8509 in January 2019 in the World University Rankings devised by UK-based Times Higher Education. Similarly, the University of Mandalay improved its ranking from 20,701 to 12,614 over the same period. These institutions are not only attended by Myanmar nationals: in 2019, 562 international students from 19 countries studied at the University of Yangon, Yangon University of Foreign Languages and the University of Mandalay, according to U Myo Thein Gyi, the minister of education.
Several higher education institutions in Myanmar are operating in partnership with international universities. For example, the University of Yangon is part of the ASEAN Universities’ Network and has signed collaboration agreements with several countries, including South Korea and Japan. Strategy First, a management institute based in Yangon, has partnerships with two UK universities: Oxford Brookes and Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt. Additionally, Myanmar Imperial University offers internationally recognised degree programmes in partnership with the UK’s University of Northampton.
A growing number of students, particularly in the higher education segment, necessitates an increase in the number of teachers. The primary challenge in meeting this requirement is the linguistic barrier. While resources such as textbooks are in English – and international schools may promote teaching in English as a selling point – students often require a degree of learning support in the Myanmar language. Sourcing sufficient human resources may therefore prove a challenge as demand for higher education grows, particularly for foreign entities looking to leverage the liberalisation of the sector. However, this presents an opportunity for local institutions to partner with international organisations. There is also a sizeable market for domestic English language teaching.
In addition, efforts are under way to improve the quality of teaching through professional development, in collaboration with international partners. Australia has provided the MoE with a $84m grant as part of its Decentralisation Funding to Schools Project 2014-21. This initiative not only supports public schools to implement school improvement planning and widen community participation, but also includes a mentoring programme, wherein inexperienced teachers receive guidance and support from more experienced staff. Australia has also provided support to Myanmar’s Phase II STEM programme for pre-service teacher education through a $3m grant and technical support to reform the country’s 25 teacher training colleges, and $20m in financing for the Myanmar Education Quality Improvement Programme, which targets better-informed education policy and financial management.
The edtech segment is beginning to evolve as a result of rising internet and mobile penetration rates and global demand for innovative solutions, with the support of local and international funding. In April 2019 e-learning start-up eSchool announced that it had raised a total of $700,000 from investors, including Myanmar technology firm Blue Tech Venture, and in August 2019 the company received an additional $100,000 from Singapore-based individual investors. Another growing local edtech company is 360ed, which uses technology such as virtual reality and augmented reality to improve and modernise learning and teacher training.
Technology can also be used to overcome challenges in accessibility or staff shortages. For example, the International Language and Business Centre, a private school in Yangon, uses video conferencing to teach several classes from different locations. Against the backdrop of a limited number of teachers who speak the Myanmar language and fluent English, edtech could potentially offer a solution to the growing demand arising from increasing enrolment rates.
With rising enrolment, increased funding and greater openness to foreign investment, Myanmar’s education sector is well positioned to expand. The private segment looks set to benefit from regulatory changes and increased autonomy: foreign-run schools, which enable Myanmar nationals to access international networks, offer particular potential.
Looking ahead, there is scope for edtech to fill resource gaps and for an enhanced STEM offering to upskill the digital workforce. In the short term, improved teaching standards – and regulation to assure this quality, particularly in the private sector – should accelerate progress. Higher standards and a more developed international network will enable the labour force to adapt to evolving market needs and contribute to the country’s economic growth.
Although some schools are likely to face difficulties adapting to the new requirements, which could result in additional costs for families, increased regulation is expected to help alleviate concerns regarding the quality of private educational institutions. This should improve the sector’s overall transparency, add value to students graduating from private schools and encourage greater investment.