Myanmar has opened itself to the world at seemingly lightning speed. During the past year, rapid changes have resulted in the suspension of economic sanctions and the first visit to Myanmar by a U.S. president. President Thein Sein’s government has released hundreds of political prisoners, eased restrictions on the press and freedom of assembly and brokered cease-fires with many of the nation’s ethnic insurgencies. After years of house arrest, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to the parliament, which is playing an active role in the country’s governance.
Myanmar currently must contend with a dual challenge of excessive centralization and the processes of decentralization that is currently underway – particularly in the education sector. At the present time, 13 different ministries oversee higher education, the Ministry of Education overseeing the majority. The Ministry has 10 different departments for overseeing the country’s education system, but for higher education it has two specific units, one for northern Myanmar – centered in Mandalay and one for southern Myanmar – operating out of Yangon.
While the system may seem highly centralized, it also is quite fragmented 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 defence, forestry and agriculture tend to be better staffed, equipped and funded than most other universities. The geographic distribution of these universities reflects considerations of equity and access rather than the availability of infrastructure, faculty, etc. In addition, many
universities have been scattered across the country to constrain large scale student mobilization and participation in political demonstrations against the government. Interestingly, each of the major states in Myanmar has at least three universities within its locality.
This leads to further fragmentation as the cost of operating these various units is fairly high and the availability of adequate resources is very limited. As a result, many universities suffer from inadequate budgets as well as a shortage of qualified faculty and administrative personnel. Students, faculty and universities themselves suffer from a lack of autonomy and choice. All decisions regarding a student’s choice of field of study or university are derived from performance on the national achievement test, administered upon completion of secondary school and depending on geographic location. Similarly, access to international fellowships and exchange opportunities have been strictly regulated from the central ministries.
It seems that the capacity in the country to absorb training and new approaches to education and research may be limited at this time. This is due in part to the highly centralized, top-down nature of the educational system but also due to a certain amount of “assessment and training fatigue” created by the intense interest in Myanmar from outsiders. There is little coordination among foreign assistance, although there is some effort to become more coherent through various coordinating bodies organizing international donors and NGOs. A law is currently under consideration to allow the establishment of private institutions with degree granting authority. This seems to be intended primarily for foreign entities wishing to establish a base in Myanmar, and will likely include minimal financial investment pre-requisites. Basic infrastructure – from electric power, to internet access, to educational research and learning facilities – is uneven and undependable. We can expect significant improvements in online access within the next 12-24 months through foreign investment, but at this time access to international resources and information is very limited.
Importance of Leadership and Entrepreneurship
Despite the challenges of centralization and bureaucratic rigidity noted above, Myanmar’s civil society and educational sectors also highlight the importance of individual leadership, personality and entrepreneurship. Ministries and universities exhibit considerable variation in the degree of openness to change and internationalization. In part this appears to be determined by the relative willingness and ability of the senior ministry leadership to lead and implement reforms.
In general, there is an interest in reform and greater international connections, driven in part by a desire to reclaim the historical high standing of Myanmar’s educational system in the region. A hunger for external information and technical support is evident everywhere and at all levels of institutional and civil society hierarchies.
Today, however, modernizing the higher education system in Myanmar will require more than just upgrading buildings, classrooms, and related physical infrastructure. The more pressing need is to re-establish across the spectrum of higher education organizations a new type of totally integrated living-learning academic experience that generates fertile discourse and critical academic engagement outside as well as inside the typical academic classroom.
This is a critical juncture for engaging with Myanmar. Higher education organizations can be a catalyst in bringing funders together with educators and government entities to make sure that investment is made where it can do the most good in preparing the future workforce and supporting economic development. There is no doubt that the awakening that has taken place in Myanmar is a welcome sight for those who have watched from afar while Myanmar’s universities deteriorated due to explicit neglect and political heavy-handedness. Nonetheless, while it remains quite clear that Myanmar’s universities are embarking on a path that eventually will prove rewarding and yield promising results, they too must remain focused on bringing about high priority, critically needed incremental changes and proceed ahead at a moderate versus an accelerated pace to ensure continued political support for the current reforms taking place. It is incumbent on the international education community to respect the need for such a deliberate choice and to proceed ahead accordingly.
Japan and India are among the countries at the forefront of this effort. “We are ready to help,” said Hiroto Arakawa, Vice-President the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), at the WorldEconomic Forum on East Asia in Myanmar.
JICA is signing an agreement with Myanmar to extend US$ 500 million in aid for ‘quick-fix type power projects’ in the Yangon area and education and other development programmes among the country’s ethnic groups. Japan will also provide loans to build infrastructure in a new special economic zone in Myanmar and open a vocational training centre in August.
For its part, India is helping set up the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology in Mandalay, patterned after the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology system, which has produced some of the world’s top engineers and scientists. “The first batch of students will be admitted in September this year,” said Subramanian Ramadorai, Vice-Chairman, Tata Consultancy Services, India. The school will train thousands of IT specialists in four or five years.
Since mid-2012, Australia has helped to deliver textbooks to 700,000 school children and improved access to early childhood development for 140,000 boys and girls. This has helped lift the standards of education by training 32,000 teachers and 7,400 school administrators.
Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala II, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Ayala Corporation, Philippines, noted that his country is in a similar situation as Myanmar in terms of its young population. The youth must be equipped with thinking and creative skills and expertise, not rote learning, he said. Giving the example of the US$ 15 billion business process outsourcing (BPO) industry in the Philippines, he urged harnessing the private sector to help develop new sectors and create jobs. “Business can help create new models with academia,” he said.
In the case of the BPO sector, the private sector formed an industry association and leveraged the combined influence of its members to persuade schools to equip students with computer skills and fluency in English, which are essential for BPO work. Today, nearly 800,000 jobs have been created in the new industry, staffed mostly by young people.
As Myanmar embarks on socio-economic transformations, education must play a critical role in promoting inclusive growth and poverty reduction. This will help Myanmar meet rapidly evolving labor market needs, rebalance and equip the economy to modernize and move into higher value-added sectors, and successfully enter regional and global markets.
The Burmese language (myanma bhasa) is the official language of Myanmar. Burmese is the native language of the Bamar and related sub-ethnic groups of the Bamar, as well as that of some ethnic minorities in Burma like the Mon. Burmese is spoken by 32 million as a first language and as a second language by 10 million, particularly ethnic minorities in Myanmar and those in neighboring countries. (Although the constitution officially recognizes the English name of the language as the Myanmar language, most English speakers continue to refer to the language as Burmese.)