Myanmar’s Education System- The Need For Change To Promote Development


Education, or the lack of it, determines the level of human advancement and development of a country, and the onus of providing good education falls on national governments. History bears testimony to the fact that the quality of education is reflected in the success of its populace and the growth of its economy. Inevitably, all underdeveloped countries are found deficient in world-class education.

Myanmar, the erstwhile ‘pariah’ nation, is waking up to the need to improve and ideally, revolutionize its education system. Having once had a highly reputed system and being called the “pride of Southeast Asia”, Myanmar’s education system was used as a role model for other Asian nations. Today, it needs international involvement in education more than anything, and private participation to improve and extend its reach to the outer periphery of the nation. As one of the three least developed economies in Asia, Myanmar needs highly qualified locals to push the country out of its current state of underdevelopment and haphazardly slow growth.

The ground reality today

With a 92% literacy rate, and over 156 institutions of higher education, it is surprising to see the dismal, outdated education system. On 9th May, 2013, Myanmar’s opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi appealed to universities in UK to help in rebuilding Myanmar’s higher education system that has been crumbling consistently under decades of military rule. Her fervent appeal reflects her strong desire to see the education system reinvigorated so that the local youth are able to acquire expertise and knowledge to take the country forward.

Little wonder then, that those who can afford foreign education, move out to neighboring countries, while others try to pursue degree courses available. In Yangon, the country’s commercial capital, hundreds of youngsters are seen working as waiters and waitresses in restaurants after degrees in physics, chemistry, and others, while engineering graduates are content with secretarial jobs in foreign companies setting up offices in Myanmar. One wonders why there is such a strong mismatch between qualification and jobs taken up. A closer scrutiny of capability and potential reveals their hard working habits, but caliber and capability is nowhere near that of engineering graduates from developed or educationally advanced countries. Abundance of low-level training, severe dearth of high quality coaching, no accountability or accreditation, explains this.

The reasons for this mess in education, are not far to seek. The military rule led to decades of civil strife that only saw gross under-investment, decay, and universities were closed for years at a stretch, following student unrest in 1988, opening only intermittently subsequently. English was replaced by Burmese as the medium of instruction and social sciences were largely removed from the curriculum. Justifiably then, English skills are minimal, and restrictions limit learning at all levels.

The number of schools cannot possibly cater to the population, with remote areas seeing one school for five villages, and in border areas, a single school caters to students of 25 villages. This leads to high student-teacher ratios and overcrowded institutions.

Primary schools see high enrolment rates and a high dropout rate of nearly 50% according to UNICEF. The same holds true for secondary schools. There are approximately 7.5 million students at all levels of education, who need to depend on after-school private tuitions to be successful. Corruption makes it impossible for the poorer students to progress and better schools are reserved for influential families. Grade eleven signals completion of high school and students must appear for a university entrance examination to proceed for a university degree for which private school students are not eligible.

Women and education

Women form 50% of the work force in Myanmar, and most schools teachers are women, besides forming the backbone of organizations. Monastic schools are mainly for boys, and lower enrolment of girls in remote villages is common. Poverty also forces girls to be kept at home, which explains a lower female literacy rate of 73% despite the government’s efforts to maintain gender equality through legislation and concerted efforts to eliminate female illiteracy, providing vocational training to women, and encouraging them for higher education through scholarships.

The role of monastic schools and NGOs

Monastic schools have played a major role in educating children especially those from the poorer rung. Though often limited to boys, they have bridged the gap left by state education. Every village may not have a school but surely has a monastery, that takes on the role of education provider, albeit informally. The parallel, secular system provided stretches beyond religious teaching and over 1180 monastic institutions are recognized by the government for providing co-education. Of these, five monastic schools are registered as high schools. A bridging system is also in place to help such children to be absorbed into the government schools. In keeping with the pace of development, these schools have started providing vocational training, developing computer skills, and trying to assist students gear up to face challenges at the work place.

NGOs have been pitching in, to feel the gaping holes left by government inaction in the education field. For instance, AusAID is investing over $80 million spread over four years to promote primary education. DFID is funding UNICEF’s basic education program with a USD 16.4 million grant. USAID has been focusing on education of migrant labor and the displaced workforce in border areas. Out of all the local NGOs, the Myanmar EGRESS has been contributing substantially to enhance educative skills of the youth.

The NGO directory lists 57 NGOs involved in education, which include monastic schools, church-based institutions and Islamic organizations. If self-help groups and smaller voluntary organizations were to be added, the number would more than double.

Private education

Private schools mushroomed in the 1990s and they were free from government regulation and control. They have been set up with the profit motive seeing the huge demand, and are providing primary as well as secondary education. International schools have brought in global standards and summer schools provide English and other courses, and have in a way reduced the pace of mass exodus of good students from the country. In a place where good education implied foreign education, the international schools are also way beyond the reach of most of the locals, with their high school fee structure and culture of plenty.

However, this has created a vast disparity and widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots. There are no private institutions of higher learning at present.

The need of the hour

As the country retraces its steps towards the path of development with a civilian government in place, systematic education, rather the lack of it, has made the government and specifically the President, define the country’s educational goals:

  1. Free primary education to be compulsory.
  2. Enhance the rate of enrollment for basic education.
  3. Improve the quality and capacity of teaching staff.
  4. Provide scholarships, locally and internationally.
  5. Involve private sector in education.

Budgetary outlays have been hiked from 1% to 5.84 % of the annual budget, which though highly insufficient, are somewhat better and reflect the government’s seriousness.

However a lot more needs to be accomplished, like renovation of schools, initiating teacher training programs, provide better books and equipment, attempt focused curriculum development and reintroduce social sciences to enable students to develop critical thinking skills, and change focus from learning by rote in a test-driven system to one of exploration and understanding.

A study of educational best practices to incorporate them into Myanmar’s education system, and seeking international assistance to develop a progressive education system, is critical for the present.

Reason to hope

Myanmar is one of the few growing countries, with some estimates indicating doubling of its GDP in the next five years. Development of the right talent will open avenues for other countries as well. The government has made the development of higher education systems a national priority.

For a country whose people value education so highly, the only way to develop is by giving them what they treasure, and enable them to participate in the country’s development.