Burma has recently announced the first scholarships in 50 years for Burmese students to study abroad. Despite the opening it suggests regarding Burma’s relationship with the wider world, the news of the President’s Scholarship Awards has raised some eyebrows due to the programme’s stringent eligibility requirements and terms.
In this article, we will look at the new scholarships and what they offer to Burmese students in the context of Burma’s ongoing – and some say slow – path to educational reform.
For many years, Burmese students have had to contend with a failing educational system. In a 2013 ICEF Monitor market report, “Signs of hope for education in Burma,” we quoted Nobel Peace Prize Winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as saying, “Our university system has been almost destroyed by half a century of military rule.” Under that regime, it was typical for only 1% or less of the Burmese budget to be spent on education, and some alleged that the military was willfully limiting the Burmese population’s access to education in order to maintain its grip on power.
When current Burmese president Thein Sein took office in 2010 as a result of multi-party elections, there was hope that he would correct the country’s decades-long neglect of education. Soon after the election, the government tripled education spending from US$340 million in 2011 to US$1 billion in its 2013 budget.
Hopes soon diminished, however, as education spending stalled. In 2013, UNICEF called on the Burmese government to boost its spending on education, calling it “strikingly low compared to international standards.” The Irrawaddy news site reports:
“In Burma, education and health care expenditure represent about 2.3% of GDP. In Cambodia and Thailand, social expenditure represents about 5% and 8% of GDP, respectively.”
“Even though social sector spending increased significantly in the fiscal year 2012/13 – when Burma’s government budget stood at about US$7.13 billion – health care makes up just 5.7%, education 11%, and social welfare 0.3% of government spending.”
The 2013 UNICEF study on which The Irrawaddy report was based adds: “As a percentage of GDP, this amounts to 0.76% for health, 1.46% for education and less than 0.01% for social welfare.”
Beyond the question of the level of government investment in education and social services, there are criticisms that the government’s pledge to overhaul the education system is not being upheld.
This summer, a network of education organisations (the National Network for Education Reform, or NNER) rejected a new bill passed by the Burmese Parliament in July, saying the bill does not go far enough in distancing the government’s stance on education from what it was for decades under military law.
In particular, the NNER takes issue with the government’s ideological stance regarding education. The Irrawaddy quotes from the government’s new education bill:
“National education is to cherish, protect and promote the essence of all ethnicities’ languages, literature, culture, arts, traditional customs and historical heritage, and to nurture human resources who have good moral character and who are able to think correctly, and education that helps state development according to the needs of the age.”
Education is not the only area perceived by some to have stalled in Burma, and there are growing concerns about the overall pace of reforms in the country. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has recently called on artists to “show in a visible way that our country is not still on a real path to democracy.”
The new scholarships: open to a select few
And yet, there are the new President’s Award Scholarships. These scholarships – for which applications are due at the end of August – are open to exceptional Burmese students aged 16-30 wanting to study undergraduate courses at foreign universities, and to Burmese students of all ages who are interested in graduate courses abroad.
“It remains unclear how many scholarships will be awarded, which universities recipients will be able to attend, and what the total cost of the programme is,” reports The Myanmar Times. “The scholarships will be awarded by a selection board, although the government has not revealed who will sit on the board.
An official from the Minister for Education’s Office said the scholarships could be awarded to study any subject and will cover the entire cost of a recipient’s tuition fees, as well as accommodation, travel and food expenses.”
There are some constraints pertaining to the scholarships as well:
- Recipients, upon graduation from the foreign universities, must return to work in Burma’s civil service for at least twice as long as they studied or face harsh financial penalties (including a requirement to repay three times the funding they were awarded);
- Eligible students must be Burmese, and their parents must be Burmese;
- Successful applicants must be single for all levels of study, including graduate.
The constraints are thought to be the government’s way of encouraging scholarship recipients to return to Burma once they are done studying abroad, but some are critical of this approach. Dr Tin Maung Than, a research coordinator at the Myanmar Development Resource Institute, told The Myanmar Times: “If I had to arrange it, I would set a policy that gives me a broad spectrum of choice. I would not limit the potential candidates… In my opinion, the level of citizenship of their parents is not a valid concern.”
Beyond the newly announced President’s scholarships, we note there are other scholarships for which Burmese students interested in study abroad can also apply; see a list here.
Reforms could use a boost
There are reports that some Burmese universities have reopened and that, with inflation under control and exports booming, the Burmese economy is poised for better days. But the hope of such reports is always necessarily tempered by the reality that much more needs to be done.
The Institute of International Education (IIE) recently released a paper, “Investing in the Future: Rebuilding Higher Education in Myanmar,” that was based on an “historic” US academic delegation to Burma in 2013. The delegation set out to see what needed to be done to rebuild the country’s higher education capacity, and it found formidable challenges. Some highlights of the paper include:
“There is a very high level of enthusiasm and energy among university administrators, faculty and students to address Myanmar’s pressing needs in higher education. However, the challenges and needs currently exceed the capacity of the political and economic system to respond effectively.
The needs of higher education in Myanmar are extensive, from physical infrastructure and information technology, to the academic curriculum, the upgrading of the quality of faculty, reform higher education administration and governance, and international engagement.”
In the end, the authors concluded that smaller-scale initiatives, particularly in the form of institutional links, may provide important openings, both for the sake of progress today and for better prospects of more substantial collaboration and development in the future. In that sense, the President’s scholarships could also provide a basis for building some initial links between institutions and students in Burma and those abroad. International educators will no doubt continue to follow the selection process as well as the initial flows of outbound students with interest.