EDUCATION IN MYANMAR

EDUCATION IN MYANMAR

Burmese society has traditionally valued and stressed the importance of education. In villages, secular schooling often takes place in monasteries. Secondary and tertiary education take place at government schools. After Burma (Myanmar) achieved independence in 1948 its schools were regarded as among the best in Asia.

Myanmar missed many advances during 50 years of being shut off from the world by the military junta and has been struggling to catch up since an elected government came to power in 2011. Few people in Myanmar know, for example, that a man walked on the moon.

In the early years after independence, Burma had an extensive network of missionary schools that employed foreign teachers that children English and other subjects. In the 1960s, Ne Win decreed that English was the language of colonizers and should no longer be taught in schools. Foreign teachers were kicked out of the country.

Today, Myanmar lags far behind the developed world in terms of educational standards. Once at its zenith in the region, Myanmar today has unqualified teachers, very little resources, and aging materials. Many universities have been built and scattered throughout cities to prevent students from potential unrest. One exiled Burmese editor told Newsweek, “Knowledge in paralyzed. The most highly educated young people are the children of the military elite who in some cases have attended universities in the United States, Japan, Europe and Australia.

Aung San Suu Kyi said, “The education system event at the school level is so terrible because the teachers are so badly paid. There is no proper equipment in the schools. They will put up a show room of computers while there are children who can not even afford textbooks and there are adequate textbooks for all the schools in Burma.”

Education expenditures: 0.8 percent of GDP (2011), country comparison to the world: 172. This one of the lowest rates in the world. Myanmar spends five times more on the military than it does on education and health care combined. In the 1990s, it spent only 28 cents per child on education. Perhaps one reason why government spending on education is so low is that Buddhist monasteries have traditionally educated children.

Literacy (age 15 and over can read and write): total population: 89.9 percent; male: 93.9 percent; female: 86.4 percent (2006 est.). The literacy figures are based on UNESCO Institute of Statistics figures baes on government statistics. There is dispute over the accuracy of the provided literacy rates. In the 1970s Burma was given an award by UNESCO for its literacy campaign. Burma's high literacy rate almost kept the country from getting "least developed country" aid in the 1980s. Burma's high literacy rate of 80 percent is partly due to high regard for literacy by socialism and Buddhism.

History of Education in Myanmar

The education in Myanmar has long been regarded as important and significant. Traditionally, boys were taught at monastery schools, where they would learn Burmese and basic arithmetic skills. In the past, all boys eight to ten years of age would begin attending school in a nearby Buddhist monastery, where they would learn about Buddhism and be taught to read and write. Those schools gradually gave way to public schools, but many young men continue to receive some education in monasteries. Under that system, few women were educated; their education took place mainly at home as they learned how to perform domestic tasks.

Modern education began under King Mindon (1853–1878), who built a school for an Anglican missionary. British colonial rule caused a shift towards a Westernised education system. Christian missionary schools in Yangon, Mandalay and other major cities served as preparatory schools for the upper classes. During this period Burmese universities were thought to be the most prestigious in Southeast Asia.

Under the British, secular education spread and the country achieved a relatively high level of education. During British colonial rule, educational access for women improved tremendously. In the pre-colonial era, male education was emphasized in the traditional Buddhist monastic education system. The number of female students enrolled in school rose 61 percent (by 45,000 students) from 1911-1921, and another 82 percent (100,000 students) from 1921 to 1931 with expansion of the colonial and private education system, primarily in the form of all-girls schools. This was mirrored by an increase in female employment. From 1921 to 1931, there was a 33 percent increase in employment of women in public administration, law, medicine (96 percent increase), education (64 percent increase), and journalism sectors. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In the 1950s, Burma was one of the richest countries in Asia. It had a high literacy rate. When Burma gained independence in 1948, the government sought to create a literate and educated population, and Burma was believed to be on its way to become the first Asian Tiger in the region. However, 1962 coup d'etat isolated and impoverished Burma. All schools were nationalized and educational standards began to fall.Burmese replaced English as the medium of instruction at Burmese universities in 1965, with the passing of the New University Education Law a year earlier. This led to a rapid decline in English proficiency among the Burmese. English was reintroduced as a medium of instruction in 1982. In 1977, the 2 year regional college system was introduced by the Burmese government, as a way to disperse college students until they were about to graduate (the third and fourth years were spent at a traditional university), a system that was ended in 1981. +

Due to students' protest of 8888 Uprising, all universities were closed around Burma for 2 years. Since 1990s, new structure of education system was weak as government faced crisis to universities' clash and set up a 6th months term for an academic year. The SPDC government arranged irregular commencement dates for universities and colleges, however, students were still in que and clash/ Another series of students' strike in 1996 and 1998 resulted in another 3 years of closure. After the re-opening of universities and colleges in 1999, the government scattered universities in different regions. The relocation of certain universities were made under relative ministries. New system had been made that the university term was shortened by one year, providing a bachelor degree for just three year course. However, improvement were rapidly made despite the early disturbances. In 2005, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially announced that Burma education was reaching an international standard and the government had fully entitled to 156 universities and colleges in Myanmar. +

Myanmar Education System

According to Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "Every school-age child in school" and "education for all" are the mottoes which guide Myanmar's educational efforts. In order to catch up with the information age all high schools and even primary schools are being equipped with computers to help students become familiar with electronic media. A complementary approach in education is to develop a healthy moral mind in a healthy active body. Schools train pupils in moral and social behaviour. As a further support toward this goal monastic schools have been revied. [Source: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Myanmar ++]

Number of Primary Schools: 39,305; Number of Middle Schools: 3,871; Number of High Schools: 1,737; Number of Universities and Colleges - 151. State Expenditure - 31,997.44 (millions in Kyat). [++ Statistics from 1997-1998]

The education system of Myanmar is operated by the Ministry of Education. Lower Secondary and Upper Secondary Schools in Burma are under the Department of Basic Education. Universities and professional institutes from upper Myanmar and lower Myanmar are run by two separate entities, the Departments of Higher Learning 1 and 2, whose offices are based in Mandalay and Yangon respectively. The education system is based on the United Kingdom's system, due to nearly a century of British presence in Myanmar. Nearly all schools are government-operated, but recently, there has been an increase in privately funded schools (which specialise in English). Schooling is compulsory until the end of elementary school. [Source: myanmarventure.com ]

Thu Hein Kyaw of Accent Learning wrote: “There are still many challenges in Myanmar to have a better educational environment. When United Nations Millennium Declaration set eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000, every country has to ensure that children everywhere will be able to complete a full course of primary education by 2015. As Myanmar is a member of the international community, it is obliged to fulfill this MDG goal. Meanwhile, the Myanmar population is growing gradually each year and as a consequence we could expect that there would be more children in primary schools. In order to meet this MDG goal, full access to and the quality of primary education in Myanmar, there will be more demand on expenditure for education from the State budget, training and recruitment of teachers, a better education standard, the number of schools and its facilities. [Source: Thu Hein Kyaw, Accent Learning, ELTO Intake]

Problems with the Myanmar Education System

According to Arohana, Thabyay Education Network: “Despite the high value placed on education in Myanmar culture, the state education system has long been in decline, suffering from a critical lack of resources and skills. Education, particularly higher education, is often perceived as a potential threat by the authorities who exercise strict control over education institutions. Investment in this sector is accorded a low priority by the government. Teachers in state education institutions commonly earn around US$20-30 per month, leading to a lack of motivation, difficulties in recruiting quality teaching staff, and encouraging teachers to prioritize paid private tuition over their school jobs. [Source: Arohana, Thabyay Education Network <>]

“Due to the lack of investment, schools often charge students a range of unofficial fees. Many families, particularly those in poorer rural areas, cannot afford to pay these fees and so are forced to withdraw their children from education. According to UNESCO figures, the average adult in Burma has received only 2.8 years of schooling, and only 36.5 percent of eligible students enroll in secondary education. Today two-thirds to three-quarters of children drop out of elementary school before the fifth grade.

“Corruption is common throughout the state education system; good exam results can be acquired with money and influence. Consequently, state-accredited education has lost much of its credibility in society. Most curricula and learning materials in the Myanmar state education system are desperately out of date and have little practical application to the current context. Graduates lack the necessary practical and analytical skills to tackle Myanmar’s immediate humanitarian crisis, and the chronic political, social and economic woes that have blighted the country for two generations. <>

“Universities are kept on a particularly tight leash. Campuses in Rangoon and Mandalay were forced to relocate to isolated locations far from city centers due to security concerns. Campuses are under close surveillance and universities have been forced to close for periods of up to four years. The Myanmar government has discouraged large concentrations of students on campuses, and the development of student networks, by making it illegal for students of one university to enter the campus of another. The government has also prioritized the expansion of distance education programs, where students spend only a few days a year on campus. Although there are a small number of universities that offer courses considered to be of some quality, most tertiary education in Myanmar is viewed simply as a rubber stamp rather than a preparation for effective participation in society. <>

According to the U.S. Department of State: ““The government continued to discriminate against minority religious groups, restricting educational activities, proselytizing, and restoration or construction of churches and mosques. Some Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several Islamic madrassahs. However, a representative of the Islamic community reported the closure of Islamic madrassahs operating as ad-hoc mosques in Thaketa township. Some Christian schools did not register with the Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC), a group representing 14 Christian denominations, but were able to conduct affairs without government interference. [Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 ^]

Preschools and Primary Education in Myanmar

Primary education is officially compulsory. It lasts five years, and to continue onto secondary school, students must pass a comprehensive examination of basic subjects. Preschools are opened for children over 2 years of age and they are in extensive care or public systems. Kindergarten starts from the age of 5 (not younger than 4 Years and 8 months at the time of school's commencement date).

Thu Hein Kyaw of Accent Learning wrote: “Myanmar’s population is about 60 million and the number of primary school students in 2011 was around 5.2 million, approximately 8 percent of total population. In Myanmar the government compulsory primary education policy consists of Grade One to Five. Grade One to Three is called the lower primary level. The children in this level learn the subjects of Myanmar and English languages, Mathematics and Science. Grade Four to Five is called the upper primary level. The children in this level also learn Geography and History in addition to those subjects of lower level. According to the revised primary curriculum started from 2001, natural science, moral and civics, painting and music, physical education and school activities are added. [Source: Thu Hein Kyaw, Accent Learning, ELTO Intake <<]

“The Myanmar government aims to enable every individual to acquire basic education. Every child from the age of five attends a primary school. Every child who is eligible is being encouraged to attend. However school enrollment rate has not reached 100 percent yet. According to 2011 statistics, the enrolment rate was around 85 percent but the completion rate was just over 81 percent. Furthermore, to promote greater access to and the quality of Basic Education, the Thirty-Year Long-Term Basic Education Development Plan (2001-02 FY to 2030-31 FY) is being implemented in Myanmar. <<

In order to have a better education environment, not only public schools but also private and religious-run schools are playing in an active role. According to 2010 statistics, the literacy rate in Myanmar has 92 percent which is higher than some South East Asian countries. However, there are still some challenges. <<

Types of Primary Schools in Myanmar

Thu Hein Kyaw of Accent Learning wrote: “There are three types of schools in Myanmar that offer primary education: public schools, private schools and religious-run schools. The number of State-run schools called public schools is over 41,000 in the whole country. As the land area of Myanmar is just over 677,000 sq km, the farthest distance from home to school is about 2 kilometers on average. At this moment, there are about 185,000 primary school teachers and as a result the overall teacher-student ratio is 1:29. [Source: Thu Hein Kyaw, Accent Learning, ELTO Intake <<]

In the private sector, this type of education was accepted from 1948 to 1962. But private institutions were eliminated in the Socialist era between 1962 and 1988. Again since 1990s, those schools have developed. In 2011, the Private School Law was promulgated to enhance the private participation in education sector. Accordingly, 20 private schools so far have been approved to open among the 67 which had sought permission from the Ministry of Education. As a popular private school, Myanmar International School Yangon offers the highest possible standard of education through a broad and balanced curriculum.

In Myanmar, religious-run schools still have a significant role in its education system. These schools play an important part in terms of access to education. They offer free education and especially target orphans or children from poor families who cannot afford to pursue formal education. They follow the official primary curriculum. These schools supervised by the Buddhist monks are very significant. In 1946, the Buddhists started a monastic education project with the aim of opening more monastic schools in remote regions. It was finally formalized in 1992 with permission from the government. There are now more than 1400 monastic schools in 250 townships through Myanmar. The primary students in those schools numbered over 160,000 by the year of 2005-06.

School Life and Curriculum in Myanmar

School life expectancy (primary to tertiary education): total: 9 years (2007). Children in primary education: 85 percent. The school year starts on June 1. Level/Standard and Typical age: Preschool: Pre-Kindergarten 4–5; Elementary school: Kindergarten 5–6; Standard 1 6–7; Standard 2 7–8; Standard 3 8–9; Standard 4 9–10; Middle school: Standard 5 10–11; Standard 6 11–12; Standard 7 12–13; Standard 8 13–14; High school: Standard 9 14–15; Standard 10 15–16;

In the mid 2000s, teachers were paid the equivalent of $8 a month, doctors, $15. A bag of rice can eat up two thirds of teacher’s monthly pension. Even today, schools are so underfunded that donations from parents are sought to buy desks and chalkboards. With schools often closed and in such poor condition parents that can afford it send their kids to private after-school schools that offer computer and English classes.

Throughout Myanmar there is a shortage of good schools. Small private schools have long waiting lists or charge tuition fees much higher than what most people can afford. When the U.S. Information Service began offering classes in the late 1990s, fistfights broke out among those anxious to get in.

According to Arohana, Thabyay Education Network: “Throughout the education system, there is prevailing culture of rote-learning which discourages the development of analytical thinking. Students are considered as vessels to be filled with pre-ordained ‘knowledge’ which they must learn by heart. There is little or no emphasis on understanding the information being committed to memory, or being able to practically apply it. The curriculum is scrutinized by the military regime, and it often is forbidden to teach in languages other than Burmese. [Source: Arohana, Thabyay Education Network]

According to the U.S. Department of State: ““Buddhist doctrine remains part of the state-mandated curriculum in all government-run elementary schools. Students at these schools can opt out of instruction in Buddhism and sometimes do, but all are required to recite a Buddhist prayer daily. Some schools or teachers may allow Muslim students to leave the classroom during this recitation, but there does not appear to be a centrally mandated exemption for non-Buddhist students [Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 ^]

School uniforms are mandatory throughout public schools in Burma, from kindergarten until the 10th standard. From kindergarten to the 4th standard, the compulsory boy uniform is a white shirt and green pants, which can be short or long. Shoes and Burmese sandals may be worn. The girl uniform is similar, consisting of a white shirt and a skirt or pants. From 5th standard until matriculation, traditional Burmese attire is considered appropriate school uniform. The boy uniform is a white shirt (with a Mandarin collar or uncollared) and a green sarong called a paso, along with Burmese sandals. For girls, a traditional Burmese blouse (either the yinzi, with a front opening, or the yin hpon, with a side opening) and a green sarong called a htamein are worn, along with Burmese sandals. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Secondary Education and High Schools in Myanmar

Secondary education is divided into middle schools (standards 6 - 8), and upon passing the Basic Education Standard VIII Examination, students continue onto high schools, which cover standards 9 -10. At the end of standard 10, students must pass the Basic Education Standard 10 Examination (matriculation exam) in order to receive their diplomas. Students who do pass the matriculation examination receive either Diploma A or Diploma B. Those with Diploma A are allowed to continue their educations at university. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Secondary schools are usually combined, containing both middle and high schools. Children of military personnel and those with military connections are often given easier access to the more prestigious secondary schools. There is much corruption in educational equality. But in both primary and secondary schools, the system is "no-failure education system". Only at the end of the high schools or at the entrance of the college/university, the system is changed. +

High schools students choose one of 2 tracks upon entering high school: science or arts. All high school students take Myanmar, English, and mathematics. However, Science-specialized students also take 3 additional subjects: chemistry, physics and biology as part of their coursework, while arts-specialized students take geography, history and economics. These routes also determine what matriculation subject exams they are administered and what tertiary schools they can apply to. +

At the end of Standard 10, students take the University Entrance Examination , commonly referred to as the matriculation exam in English, administered by the Myanmar Board of Examinations annually in mid-March. High marks in a subject garner a distinction known as gondu . Students who achieve distinctions in five or more subjects (or a combined total of approximately 500/600) are generally guaranteed placement in one of Myanmar's medical universities, the most selective of universities. Test score results are released at testing sites throughout the country in June. Since 2007, Mon State has had the highest matriculation pass rates in the country. +

Students who attend international English-language schools or other private schools are not eligible to sit for the matriculation exam, nor are they allowed to enroll in Burmese universities. Instead, they typically study overseas, at destinations such as Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, United Kingdom and the United States. In 2010, 695 Burmese international students studied in the United States, particularly in private liberal arts colleges.

Universities and Higher Education in Myanmar

There are forty-five universities and colleges and 154 technical and vocational schools. In 2004, the Myanmar government said that between 1989 and 2004 the number of colleges and universities increased from 32 to 154 with student enrollment rising from 120,000 to 890,000.

Most of Myanmar’s universities and colleges are under the control of the Ministry of Education. The university school year is less than six months. The new university semester begins in mid June. The school year ends in October.

Post-secondary education (typical ages). University;: 1) B.Sc./B.A. (16-20); 2) M.B.B.S. (16-22); 3) Master's (20-22); 4) Ph.D. (22+). Many students attend universities in other countries such as Singapore and Thailand for a Master's degree.

Major universities include the University of Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon Arts and Sciences University, founded in 1920), Yangon Technical University, University of Yangon and the University of Mandalay. Military academies, engineering schools and medical schools in many cases remained open even while the other universities were They offer the most modern and up-to-date facilities. Students attending these universities are often not allowed to speak freely, to write freely or to publish freely.

Problems with Universities in Myanmar

Often times only the well-connected and elite get into universities. Some students get into university by paying teachers for good grades and good test scores. The pay for professors sometimes is so low they have been forced to take jobs sewing clothes on the streets to make ends meet. After they graduate there are few jobs for university graduates. There are stories of graduates with degrees in physics or chemistry cleaning toilets or working as prostitutes at Five-Star hotels

There has been a steady erosion of higher education since 1962. After the civil unrest in 1988, during which many students were involved in antigovernment activities, there were widespread closures of universities and colleges. Since that time there has been a repeated cycle of opening and closing the universities and colleges that has made serious study virtually impossible. The universities and colleges were closed in 1996, and only a few were reopened in 2000.

Universities have been closed about two thirds of the time between 1988—when they were closed after anti-government demonstrations left hundreds dead and were regarded as breeding grounds for dissent—and 2003. They were only open 30 months between 1988 and 2000 and shut down completely between 1996, when there was another round of demonstrations, and 2000. In 2003, universities were closed after Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest as a precaution against unrest. They were reopened shortly afterwards.

These university have produced an uneducated generation with ho hope for the future. People who want to be school teachers can't even get training. When universities have reopened, to avoid trouble, classes have often been scheduled at locations away from the campuses. In some cases students study in classrooms set up near military bases far out in the countryside or students that once studied in Rangoon study in Mandalay or Prome.

Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Since 1988, the government has treated universities not as sources of higher education crucial to the country's development, but as potential threats to its rule. So the generals have reduced college campuses to facades. A typical university student in Myanmar takes classes by correspondence, never enters a library and attends class only for 10 days of cramming before exams. Kit Young, an American volunteer who teaches at the music school, has asked university students what they do with themselves on an ordinary day, and usually the reply is: "Sleep," she said. "Or they go out to tea shops with friends. They may go for some private tuition. There are exams only once a year -- and no classes." It's frustrating for young people desperate to get ahead in a stagnating economy dominated by the generals and their cronies. And that's the way the government likes things -- it doesn't need intelligent people asking too many questions. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, January 30, 2008 **]

History of University Education in Burma-Myanmar

Burmese replaced English as the medium of instruction at Burmese universities in 1965, with the passing of the New University Education Law a year earlier. This led to a rapid decline in English proficiency among the Burmese. English was reintroduced as a medium of instruction in 1982. In 1977, the 2 year regional college system was introduced by the Burmese government, as a way to disperse college students until they were about to graduate (the third and fourth years were spent at a traditional university), a system that was ended in 1981. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Due to students' protest of 8888 Uprising, all universities were closed around Burma for two years. Since 1990s, new structure of education system was weak as government faced crisis to universities' clash and set up a 6th months term for an academic year. The military government arranged irregular commencement dates for universities and colleges. Another series of students' strike in 1996 and 1998 resulted in another three years of closure.

After the re-opening of universities and colleges in 1999, the government scattered universities in different regions. The relocation of certain universities were made under relative ministries. New system had been made that the university term was shortened by one year, providing a bachelor degree for just three year course. However, improvement were rapidly made despite the early disturbances. In 2005, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially announced that Burma education was reaching an international standard and the government had fully entitled to 156 universities and colleges in Myanmar.

Myanmar Universities, Political Activism and Government Control

Salai Bawi Lian of the Chin Human Rights Organization wrote: “The military regime in Burma has violated the right to education by closing universities and colleges in the country for about 9 years within the past 16 years because the military regime views students as a threat to their dictatorial rule as students are the only vocal group that have been standing fearlessly against the military regime.” [Source: Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director, Chin Human Rights Organization, April 2005]

Universities have traditionally been hotbeds of education since the British colonial era. Under Myanmar’s military regime, in many cases, only students who studied technical subjects and promised to stay out of politics were welcome.

According to Arohana, Thabyay Education Network: “Universities are kept on a particularly tight leash. Campuses in Rangoon and Mandalay were forced to relocate to isolated locations far from city centers due to security concerns. Campuses are under close surveillance and universities have been forced to close for periods of up to four years. The Myanmar government has discouraged large concentrations of students on campuses, and the development of student networks, by making it illegal for students of one university to enter the campus of another. The government has also prioritized the expansion of distance education programs, where students spend only a few days a year on campus. Although there are a small number of universities that offer courses considered to be of some quality, most tertiary education in Myanmar is viewed simply as a rubber stamp rather than a preparation for effective participation in society. [Source: Arohana, Thabyay Education Network]

See Protests and Demonstrations.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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