The story of the education system in Myanmar is closely interweaved with the political situation.
Historically, Myanmar had a high quality education system
Traditionally, children were taught at monasteries, and later following British colonization, there was a shift towards a westernized public school system. After the independence, the public schools started reaching all parts of Myanmar.
After the independence, Myanmar was admired for its very high standards regarding education and its high level of literacy, compared to other Asian countries. In the 1940’s and the 1950’s, the country had one of the highest literacy rates in Asia. This led to the expectation that Burma was to become the fastest growing economy in the area.
Regarding higher education, the Burmese universities were for a long time perceived as the most prestigious in South-East Asia. Indeed, in the 1950’s, Burma was one of the richest countries in the area and the government was willing to invest in education in order to create a literate and educated population.
Education under the military government
Education as a threat to power
The state of education dramatically shifted with the 1962 coup that marked the beginning of decades of military dictatorship.
All schools were nationalized and the curriculum came under close scrutiny. With the economy in decline, education was no longer a priority and the educational standards which were praised for so long, dramatically dropped.
The abysmal state of the economy took a toll on education. Investments in education were no longer the government’s priority and teachers were so badly paid that it became hard to recruit qualified and motivated staff. Moreover, it made it difficult to maintain the gratuity of the schools: students were charged with unofficial fees to study which led to high drop-out rates, especially in rural and/or poor areas. Corruption was widespread and state-accredited education lost all credibility.
Higher education in Myanmar also suffered as a consequence of this radical shift in the country. Although the lack of investment also affected universities, the atmosphere of mistrust was probably what affected students the most. In fact, students always used to be at the forefront of all protests, even before the Junta took power, so the government was considering universities and its traditional political agitation as a threat to their power. Yet, in spite of the often violent repression, students were not deterred. Several students-led protests were brutally suppressed by the government and many universities were closed for years due to political agitation. All teachings became closely monitored and altered by the government.
The 8888 movement
The military was indeed not wrong in considering the students as a threat to the regime. In 1988, they almost took the government down. In August of 1988, students led massive protests in favor of democracy, which culminated in a massive march on August 8th. This time would soon be remembered as the “democracy summer”, or the 8888 movement. As the support and frequency of these protests increased, they started representing a real threat to the government. It is during those protests that Aung San Suu Kyi was approached by democracy activists and asked to join the movement. She emerged as an icon and created the National League for Democracy (NLD), until she was later placed under house arrest (See article Overview).
In order to shut down the protests, the government fired into the crowd, and although they admit only to 350 deaths, it is no secret that the death toll is more likely to be in the thousands. Following those events, the universities were closed for 2 years. This movement did however lead to the resignation of long-running dictator Ne Win after 26 years in power. It also led to the 1990 elections, which were largely won by the NLD, even though the military didn’t hand over the power until 2010.
In 2013, for the first time, the government allowed the celebration of the 88 uprising. Before this date, it was strictly forbidden and was only celebrated by people residing in exile.
In 1996, other protests led to the universities being closed again for 3 years.
All throughout this period, universities were considered the enemy of the state. As a consequence of the quality of the teachings dramatically dropping and the universities being completely shut down for several years, the result today is a “lost generation”(See Thazyne’s interview). During this period, many chose to send their children abroad to study.
The state of education now
The lack of financing means that schools are very poorly equipped and the educational material is mostly outdated (See Hla Hla Win’s interview). In recent years the budget for education skyrocketed, but as it is coming from such a low base it still remains one of the lowest in the world.
Even though school is supposed to be free, parents still have to pay an informal fee, which can be quite high for the poorest families, who also have to pay for transportation fees, uniforms and other school supplies. In addition to the poor state of the education system, only 5 years of education are compulsory in Myanmar, so most students drop out after that.
There is a near universal enrollment at the primary level, and the gender parity is attained, as well as in second level education. A surprising fact is that more girls are actually enrolled in tertiary education, but very few students, male or female, make it to that point: according to UNESCO, 34,5% of girls will complete high school while 25.7% of boys will.
It is also important to note that there are important disparities regarding schools, such as number of children per class and quality of the material, which differ between rural and urban areas, and between states.
Since many students drop out after primary school, only a handful will make it to university. In order to enroll, they need to pay very high fees, and can’t even chose their preferred subject as they are assigned to a university based on their score in their matriculation exam.
Indeed, at the end of high school, all students must pass a matriculation exam, depending on the grades obtained in that exam, they can enter certain universities. What’s striking about Myanmar’s enrolment system is that the marks required to enter the university are different whether the student is male or female. Each university sets its requirement marks, and many of them are setting higher entrance grades for females than for males. This applies mostly for medical schools, engineering and technology schools. Still, for medical schools for example, the requirements are higher for girls and yet the majority of students are female. This system aims at balancing the number of males and females so that it is quite equal given that girls are more likely to score higher marks.
There is slightly more girls entering university than boys, and the higher we go in the educational system, the more girls we find: for example, girls make up 65.2% of undergraduate students, 80.5% of master students and 80.8% of PhD candidates, but nearly none come from a poor and/or rural background.
There might be 80% of PhD candidates who are females, but they represent 80% of a very small number, as most women don’t finish high school. So, even if this fact needs to be underlined, it doesn’t mean that it translates in the labor market: there is greater unemployment among women than men, and few of them manage to climb the social ladder.
Facts and details – Education in Myanmar – Last updated May 2014 – http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Myanmar/sub5_5f/entry-3117.html
The Irrawaddy – Burma’s sexist school requirements hurt women – and society – Khin Hnin Soe – September 7th, 2014 – https://www.irrawaddy.com/specials/women/burmas-sexist-school-requirements-hurt-women-society.html – Rangoon University, a History of Protests – Yen Saning – December 9th, 2013 – https://www.irrawaddy.com/photo-essay/rangoon-university-history-protest.html
Oxford Burma Alliance – Education in Burma – http://www.oxfordburmaalliance.org/education-in-burma.html
UN Women – Gender Equality and Women’s rights in Myanmar – A Situation Analysis – 2016 – http://mm.one.un.org/content/dam/unct/myanmar/docs/unct_mm_UNWomen_Report_Gender%20Situation%20Analysis.pdf
Al Jazeera – As Myanmar reopens, so does its universities – Hereward Holland – January 10th, 2014 – https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/01/as-myanmar-reopens-so-does-universities-201418104157420377.html
Myanmar Times – Back in session – Wa Lone and Sandar Lwin – May 26th, 2014 – https://www.mmtimes.com/special-features/182-education-2014/10494-back-in-session.html – “8888 uprising” remembered in Yangon – Shoon Naing and Lun Min Mang – August 9th, 2016 – https://www.mmtimes.com/national-news/yangon/21836-8888-uprising-remembered-in-yangon.html – Despite progress, Myanmar Women still at disadvantage – Pauline Chiou – January 12th, 2014 – https://www.mmtimes.com/business/9219-editorial-despite-progress-myanmar-women-still-at-a-disadvantage.html
Huffington Post – Burma’s 8888: A Movement That Lives on – Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen – October 8th, 2013 – https://www.huffingtonpost.com/nehginpao-kipgen/burmas-8888_b_3723013.html?guccounter=1
The Asia Foundation – Gender (in)equality in the governance of Myanmar: past, present and potential strategies for change – Paul Minoletti – April 2016 – https://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/MM-Gender-Paper_EN.pdf