Signs of hope for education in Burma

Until recently, there was not much to speak of regarding higher education in Burma/Myanmar. Years of repressive military rule resulted in a system so neglected and impoverished that, for example, jungle had reclaimed parts of the country’s most respected university, Yangon.

But beginning in 2010, there have been signs of hope. Today, we look at the country’s educational sector and the changes underway that may allow for a rehabilitation of Burma’s higher education system and a rise in student mobility.

Before we delve in, a quick note on etymology: is it Burma or Myanmar? The answer is – practically speaking – both. The military junta that began ruling the country in the 1960s ordered in 1989 that “Burma” be changed to “Myanmar.” But locals use both terms, and usage can reflect whether a person feels the name change was legitimate. Many use the word Burma in casual speech, but Myanmar more formally or when dealing with the government.

A checkered educational history

Before and during British rule (the latter which ran from 1824 to 1948), Burma had developed into one of the most peaceful and literate states in Asia. But Burma’s period as a British colony was also one marked by increasing ethnic tensions. The country gained independence in 1948, and there was both great hope for the country as a whole – it was thought to be on the way to becoming the first Asian Tiger – and intensifying civil war. A military junta took over in 1962, and economic sanctions gutted the economy. Little budget was allocated to maintaining educational standards; while all schools suffered, universities endured particular neglect.

In 1988, students initiated an anti-government protest that ended with the closure of all universities for two years. Even when schools began to open again, students were not allowed to live on campus, due to the government’s fear of more protests and student organisation to disrupt the status quo.

Earlier this year Nobel Peace Prize Winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a leader in the Burmese student protests of 1988 who was then detained for 21 years, said via video to the British Council event on Burmese higher education:

“Our university system has been almost destroyed by half a century of military rule. Campus life ceased to exist several decades ago.”

Sporadic student protests broke out a few times after 1988, and each time there were more closures. When universities were reopened, it was done in a disorganised fashion and with few resources allocated to any sort of reinvigoration. Academic terms were often shortened; teachers inadequately trained; campuses scattered across the country to prevent student gatherings (resulting in high costs of transportation for students and thus low attendance); and curbs on freedom of expression.

Suffice it to say that the Burmese education system has been under severe pressure for decades, and not coincidentally, the country’s economy and society have been impoverished for just as long. However, as of 2010, things have begun to change, as the next section will detail.

As of now, a quick look at the numbers shows:

  • 101 universities, 12 institutes, 9 degree colleges, and 24 colleges, making a total of 146 higher education institutions;
  • 10 technical training schools, 23 nursing training schools, 1 sport academy, and 20 midwifery schools;
  • 4 international schools acknowledged by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and the College Board.

There are numerous international scholarships available to Burmese students who wish to study overseas. The website scholars4dev.com lists 19, and there are also scholarships created specifically for Burmese students.

Additionally, there has been a recent increase in privately funded English language schools, and there are currently three TOEFL testing centres in Yangon.

New politics = new spending and focus on education

As a result of multi-party elections in 2010, Burma is now nominally a constitutional republic. Its foreign relations with the rest of the world have improved so much that leading world powers have eased the economic sanctions they had imposed while Burma was so tightly controlled by the military, and the current president, Thein Sein, recently became the first Burmese head of state to visit Washington, DC, in 47 years.

Along with increased foreign relations – and even foreign investment – there is increased hope for the Burmese economy and the educational and job prospects for young Burmese. Already Burmese education spending has almost tripled from US $340 million in 2011 to US $1 billion in the current budget, though experts say much more is needed.

President Sein has set new policy goals for education and commissioned a comprehensive sector review to come up with recommendations for the rehabilitation of the system. His Minister for Education, Dr Mya Aye, stated during an April seminar at Yangon University:

“We are planning to upgrade Myanmar education in line with ASEAN standards. We are planning to implement a long-term project for education development which will take 20 years.”

The government is starting with the primary and secondary system. Almost 30 policy changes have been announced for the 2013/14 school year. They include:

  • Extending primary and secondary schooling from 11 to 12 years;
  • Improving the transfer rate of students from primary to secondary school, including the provision of more than 11,000 scholarships to aid in the goal;
  • Increasing teacher recruitment and providing them training in child-centred education techniques;
  • Repairing and modernising basic education infrastructure.

A sector review is also underway for the higher education system, with a final report due in 2014. But already, there are positive signs. It looks as though all Burma’s universities will soon be allowed to be autonomous – meaning they will have authority over their curricula and administrative decisions – for the first time in more than half a century.

And, as the next section details, Burma is reaching out to the world for help in reforming higher education and opening it – at least to some degree – to the world.

A hand extended to the rest of the world

The Burmese government is soliciting international assistance for help in starting down a new educational path. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from being detained to heading the Burmese National League for Democracy (NLD) – the opposition party in Burma – which has a strong educational reform mandate. Ms Suu Kyi, during her recent tour of Britain, told British university leaders that:

“We want to change the situation to give our people pride in themselves and to do that we need to strengthen our education system. We need to produce vigorous young people who are capable of meeting the challenges that our country will have to face in the future.”

Ms Suu Kyi explained that the first steps are to make academic institutions independent, to modernise them to a standard consistent with other institutions found in the region, and to recreate campus life, something Burmese students have not known for decades. See a video of Ms Suu Kyi’s speech here.

The international community is responding to the message, and beginning to engage with Burma on education initiatives. For example:

  • Burma plans to send two study groups to the United Kingdom to examine how to revitalise universities, and to get ideas for drawing up a new higher education law.
  • Open Society Foundations is providing grants for scholars to teach at the University of Yangon and the University of Mandalay, and to help Burma build an electronic library database.
  • In January, the US Embassy placed the first Fulbright scholar in nearly three decades at Yangon University.
  • In response to improved diplomatic relations, the IIE (New York-based International Institute of Education) launched the Myanmar Higher Education Initiative, which includes a series of bi-national conference calls to discuss higher education cooperation between the US and Burma, the largest ever US university delegation to the country (in February 2013), and ongoing activities aimed to develop capacity at higher education institutions in Burma.
  • In February, the European Union organised a higher education conference with ministers, university administrators, and foreign academics.
  • Last year India and Burma signed 12 Memoranda of Understanding on matters of mutual concern, including education and information technology.

Any steps that improve education would be beneficial for mobility and affect recruitment patterns, but the case of Burma is even more notable because prolonged conflict has dispersed important members of the population. Stability could draw back some of Burma’s valued diaspora, who number in the millions in Thailand, Malaysia, Britain, Australia, and the United States.

There is ample evidence the world is ready to come to Burma as soon as possible. Despite ongoing violence, Burma registered a very robust increase in visitors last year (a +43% growth rate compared to the Asian average of +5.5% year-on-year in the period between January and September 2012).

And, given the importance of technology to education everywhere these days, it is reassuring to see that the Burmese government has granted the first two licenses to foreign mobile companies to operate in the country (part of its pledge to have 80% wireless coverage in Burma by 2015).

Barriers to overcome

Despite the positive developments underway in Burma, the legacy of educational neglect is formidable. Some of the biggest obstacles include woefully inadequate physical infrastructure and technology. As mentioned earlier, there are no residential universities, and hostels were not allowed to be built near universities. Ms Suu Kyi considers the restoration of campus life to be a key priority for Burmese education, saying that the destruction of campus life is tantamount to “destroying the future of our country.”

Also problematic is the complexity and disorganisation of the education system. The IIE points out that “at the present time, 13 different ministries oversee higher education. The Ministry of Education has 10 different departments for overseeing the country’s education system, but for higher ed it has two specific units, one for northern Myanmar – centred in Mandalay and one for southern Myanmar – operating out of Yangon.

While the system may seem highly centralised, it also is quite fragmented insofar as there are 12 other ministries that oversee and operate universities; each of these universities has a dedicated and strictly regulated curriculum that is more focused on a specific functional or technical expertise and less focused on providing a general liberal arts education.

Indeed, some disciplines or techniques are completely absent (e.g., political science) or very underdeveloped (e.g., journalism studies, sociology, and social science methodologies). The universities in the fields of defense, forestry, and agriculture tend to be better staffed, equipped and funded than most other universities.”

Beyond educational obstacles, there is the fundamental problem of civil unrest. Violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the western Arakan State has spread to central Burma and left hundreds dead, and a 60-year war against the Kachin people in Upper Burma has reached a more aggressive level of military engagement. Lasting stability and security is simply incongruous with these conflicts.

President Sein was a general in the military junta, and served as prime minister under the junta from 2007 to 2011. However, since becoming president, his rhetoric is reformist and he has eased censorship, opened talks with rebels, and allowed activist Suu Kyi to serve in parliament. But it’s perhaps too early to determine just how far democratic reforms will go.

Cautious optimism seems to be the best stance

Between 1988 and 2000, universities in Yangon were closed for 10 out of 12 years. After the year 2000, universities were relocated, and undergraduate programmes were moved to campuses far away from urban areas. Legislation barred students from ethnic areas from attending higher education institutions outside their home. These are but three examples of what Burma’s universities endured, and after years of such mismanagement, coming back from the brink will take time.

Despite political differences, President Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party and Suu Kyi’s NLD both speak about improving education. Compared to the dark days of university closures, guarded optimism now seems appropriate. The new rhetoric represents a radical break from a past in which the government’s main goal was to keep students in check.

At Yangon University, Burma’s oldest, there is a building known as Convocation Hall. On its front is a bronze plaque stating:

“Our Vision: To create an education system that can generate a learning society capable of facing the challenges of the Knowledge Age.”

The plaque was placed decades ago, but today, if the political situation continues to improve and violence retreats, its words could finally come true.



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