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Education Reform: Lessons for the Future

Much has been said of difficulties of finding skilled workers in Myanmar, particularly outside of the big cities, Yangon and Mandalay. Much more has been said about Myanmar’s education system and its failures in addressing shortcomings in academic achievement, student participation or the quality of graduates.

 

The issues

What is known is this: Only 50 percent of children in Myanmar who could attend secondary school do. School is only compulsory for students for five years, after which many drop out or fail to continue their studies, while university education is woefully underfunded and poorly governed. If a student were to complete high school they then could choose to follow their studies in the tertiary sector; however, there they would have to deal with a system whose complexities, shortcomings and geographic dispersal make further study deeply frustrating.

In addition, it’s been indicated that although Myanmar has laws specifying primary education is free, parents are often asked to “contribute” money, either to secure entry to a “better” school or make up shortfalls in funding. Based on feedback from Yangon residents fees can range anywhere from K100,000 ($100) upwards of K2,000,000 ($2,000) per year, high figures in a country where the average monthly wage is about K100,000 and many earn less.

Parents must then make a choice as to the value of education, as opposed to the expense incurred by children being absent from work, especially given a third of all children in the country are employed in some capacity, according to figures from the UN.

Seeing children of school age out almost any day working in teashops or stalls is a common sight throughout Myanmar's cities. Children that might otherwise be in school in another country are not – rather they work to support themselves or their families.

 

Working children earn money that families might otherwise not receive, money that goes to pay for expenses any household might have. If children do not work they “cost” the family money – in addition to the costs that must be paid for school.

In addition to purchasing uniforms, books and general day-to-day expenses of school are the extra “costs” parents must pay for children to attend classes after school — to make up for the shortfalls in curriculum. The cost of “tutors,” many of whom are the very same teachers from school, can range anywhere upwards of K 70,000 per month. Teachers in Myanmar are currently paid anywhere between K90,000 and 100,000 a month.

 

Root cause

The issues with Myanmar’s education system are not new, many of them stemming back to decisions (or lack thereof) decades in the making and structural inequalities in investment between fields. Not all students are equal in the eyes of those who pay the bills.

A 2013 report “Investing in the Future: Rebuilding Higher Education in Myanmar” states that Myanmar’s primary, secondary and tertiary education sector “must contend with a dual challenge of excessive centralisation and the process of decentralisation that is currently underway.” The report identifies 13 different ministries overseeing higher education, of which the Ministry of Education is the most prominent. However the ministry has an additional 10 departments overseeing education and an additional two units overseeing higher education – one for upper and another for lower Myanmar.

The report also found that although there was one education ministry, with two departments overseeing higher education, for a country of more than 60 million people, the education system also suffered from an issue of fragmentation with 12 ministries overseeing operations of universities. The issue of fragmentation is reflected in the far-flung nature of the universities which through government policy were scattered throughout the country, unlike the case in many other countries where tertiary education institutions are clustered in one place.

Almost all of Myanmar’s non-governmental schools were nationalised following the 1962 coup. The system has been structured in this way since at least the 1960s, with some tipping this as a government strategy aimed at averting “large scale student mobilisation and participation in political demonstrations.”

Universities have been shut down at times, sometimes for several years, the most notable example being the closure of Yangon University following demonstrations there in 1962 – followed by the dynamiting of the student union building or the period in the 1990s where universities were closed for three years.

With the fragmentation of the university sector, with many campuses or departments in distant reaches, many students now complete their tertiary schooling remotely. The outcomes of this education, for some, have been compared to be less valuable than the paper the degrees are printed on.

 

Where it’s going

The lack of a highly skilled workforce has not gone unnoticed. Several assessments of Myanmar’s economic outlook have pointed to burgeoning numbers of foreign workers in skills-based sectors as proof of softness in numbers of qualified professionals.

To address this issue several countries and non-governmental organisations have committed to funding projects to improve facilities or standards at various educational institutions. The most recent example, at the time of writing, is Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s visit, where she announced additional funding of $27.8 million to boost services in 43,000 schools and improve teacher training programs.

She said in a statement, “Education is essential to the success of the Myanmar government’s broader reform efforts. Improvements in education will help people develop the skills to take advantage of the expanding economic opportunities.”

Countries such as Japan, India, Singapore and the USA have launched programs which aim to improve education standards.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) recently committed ¥2.5 billion ($24.63 million) to education colleges in Myanmar, to train teachers in basic education. JICA indicated at the time their reason for investment was the poor quality of educators, which deters many from further study.

These new investments, including an increase of budgetary allocations to education and the reopening of Yangon University to undergraduates suggest further changes in government attitudes towards education.

The Myanmar government in the 2012-13 budget increased funding of education to almost $1 billion, almost one percent of the budget. This is compared to the 19 percent – or $16 billion – of the national budget of Thailand, a country of similar size, allocates to education.

In addition to the changes underway in the education system there have also been education investments to service burgeoning populations of expatriates or moneyed local residents, many of whom are distrustful or dissatisfied with indigenous education offerings.

UK-based British Schools Foundation (BSF), the governing body of a worldwide network of British International Schools, celebrated its opening of the British International School Yangon earlier this year and offers a curriculum in line with the “English National Curriculum” and is set to open its doors to admissions later this August.

While the school is a newcomer to Yangon’s expat education market it does not mark a new age of international education. Rather it signals a resurgence in a city once well known for the quality and calibre of its education institutions.

The International School of Yangon, a school closely associated with the American embassy, has been in Yangon since 1955 – but it too has its maximum complement of students. While many of the school’s students come from international backgrounds the single largest student body are Myanmar locals – closely followed by Americans – suggesting strong local demand for a non-government education.

However, demand has outstripped supply in all of Yangon’s international schools for many expat families who now face tuition costs far above previous years.

Stewart Fry, chairman of the British Schools Foundation, at the opening of the British International School said: “We’ve recognised that there is an acute shortage of quality international schooling here. As the need for school places from multinationals and diplomatic missions mounts our initial priority has been to open our first campus as quickly as possible.”

The school will initially only take 100-150 students. “We are working on a purpose built facility to accommodate 1000-plus students. Further down the line as the country develops we will look at needs in other cities,” he said. The fact the school intends to increase intake 10-times from its initial numbers suggests a strong demand for quality school placements.

The British Schools Foundation currently operates ten schools, in nine countries – over three continents.

The arrival of private education institutions sends a pair of signals: first, quality education institutions are finding a place; second, there is a pressing shortage of places for existing – and rapidly expanding – expat communities and local demand.

 

The road ahead

Myanmar’s economic future depends on its ability to leverage not only its commodities – of which there are bountiful, yet largely non-renewable, stocks – but also its capacity to improve the skills of the nation.

Not simply creating a middle class but rather country-wide improvements in all facets of life, from agricultural – a sector in which the vast majority of people work – to mining, manufacturing, service based sectors and the abstract thinking sphere.

In many ways this is the ultimate aim of any developing country, to shift its economic model from one of commodity export, to a value added system, whereby value is created through the leveraging of human capital, knowledge, on a commodity or to provide a wealth creating service. Making something into something else for someone else.

One such realm Myanmar might look to improving is education of its countless farming families, not only in improving literacy but also in improvements to the system and infrastructure of the system.

It should also look to reform its dysfunctional university and skills training sector through a rationalisation of administration – reducing the numbers of ministries and departments responsible for some things while also decentralising education away from central points in Yangon and Mandalay.

Investment must be made in producing education that both meets the needs of Myanmar’s growing economy and industry growth, but also enriches the country’s academic offerings. While it’s all well and good to produce wholly vocational courses, designed to train workers to execute certain sophisticated tasks, such programs lack in their ability to build a “knowledge bedrock” upon which capital of a skilled workforce can be developed. Programs must be designed to teach skills, but place equal importance on building critical thought and creativity.

Without a dramatic increase in human capital over the next several years, Myanmar’s political and economic reforms will have been for nothing as production and exports will diminish.  Increasing human capital in all sectors is vital, especially in agriculture, extractive industries, infrastructure development and the service sector – all of which have fallen due to mismanagement, underinvestment, and illicit trade.

To improve these sectors once again requires concerted action from governmental and non-governmental actors with investment in management practices with the added foundation of education of those who now find themselves unskilled, under employed, or out of work.

Education may be hard, especially for those who have very little experience of formalised education, but there simply comes a time when the fish are gone, the trees have all been cut down and the gem mines run dry. Myanmar’s bountiful commodities risk alienating the country and its people from a future in which these are gone – if skilled capital building does not begin now it won’t be there when the mines are empty, the forests cut down and the rivers and sea fished-out. Rather they need to be managed in a sophisticated way which can only be achieved through general education – while also providing real, viable, alternatives to those who have for so long depended on them.

Education is a means to an end, education is a formalised system of improving the human capital of the system but it does not improve a system by virtue of those within it being acquainted with abstract thinking; to build a new country requires more than that. The recent moves by Japan and Australia in committing money to improving teaching in Myanmar suggest an acknowledgement of some fundamental issues in Myanmar’s education system – its failure to actually educate.

While there are plenty of good teachers there still remains a system-wide issue of education-outcome failures, students going to school each day to find that they can only get ahead by paying more outside the formalised system. Without an improvement to teaching there can be no improvement to skills.

If education creates skills first there must be teachers who teach and pupils who can afford to learn. But before Myanmar moves in this direction other moves must be made. Myanmar can make these moves, all it takes is will.

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