Myanmar education system
Education has traditionally always been of great importance in Myanmar society. This can be explained, among other things, by Buddhist religious practices in which ignorance is cited as a major cause of human suffering and the rebirth associated with it.
Even though the acquisition of knowledge was of a religious nature at the time and was geared towards the study of Buddhist texts and the correct practice of religion, reading and writing were an integral part of early childhood education. In many places, this provided monastic schools, where children were taught for free.
During the colonial period, secular schools were established throughout the country. The aim of these was not first and foremost to impart religious knowledge and the teachings of Buddha, but to teach secular subjects such as geography, accounting and the English language. These schools served primarily to educate people who could take over the tasks of the colonial administrative apparatus. The first missionary school was built in 1870. The British had first tried to use the monastic school system, but this failed because of the monks’ resistance.
By the beginning of the 19th century, however, Christian missionary schools had already been established throughout the country with the permission of former king. Christian religious communities still live in parts of Myanmar today, especially in the more remote rural border regions.
After Myanmar’s independence in 1948, a brief phase of parliamentary democracy was followed by a military coup in 1962, and the subsequent military dictatorship ruled the country for the next decades according to socialist principles. This also had an impact on the education system. In the 1960s, all private schools and universities were nationalized and thus under central control. On the one hand, education was a government priority: Progress in providing access to primary education for all and reducing illiteracy rates even received international recognition: In 1972, UNESCO awarded the government the Mohammed Reza Pahlavi Prize, donated by the Iranian government.
On the other hand, politicizing students were a thorn in the government’s eyes. After the student uprising of 1988, which was critical of the government and bloodily crushed, universities were closed for years. And similar to other dictatorships, leading intellectuals were locked up in prisons or had to leave the country. The consequences of this, as well as the years of isolation of the country on the educational system, are still having an impact today.
With the gradual political and economic opening of Myanmar since 2011, urgently needed educational reforms are now being tackled and funding gaps closed. In the years 2011 to 2016, public spending on the education system increased by 316%.
“Building a modern developed nation through education”: “With education to a modern developed society” is one of the guiding principles of the current government.
Myanmar’s education system is currently in a state of transition: With the National Strategic Plan for Education (2016-2021), the Burmese government has identified 9 areas that it wants to change in the long term. One of the key points is the increase in the number of school years from 11 to 12. With this alignment with international standards, it will be easier for Myanmar young adults to apply for university studies abroad. The second strategic plan (2021-2026) is currently in progress and will be presented in early 2022.
Studying in Myanmar is only allowed to those who pass a matriculation exam – and that is only about 40% every year. During the annual examination period, life in the cities comes to a noticeable standstill – so great is the pressure and the expectations for this exam which will determine the future. Although the education system lags behind in comparison to other Asian countries, the quality of educational institutions is steadily improving, and the effects of the reforms are being felt.
Fortunately, university costs in Myanmar are rather low compared to other countries – but still too high for many. An even greater hurdle, however, is the rising cost of living in the cities, such as Yangon. For many who do not have relatives in the city where they can stay, life there is increasingly unaffordable. But those who want to study usually have to go to one of the larger cities. This is a great challenge, especially for people from remote regions of Myanmar. One strategy of the Burmese government is to build more student accommodation – because only a few of the students enrolled can get a place here.
Unlike in many countries, Myanmar has hardly any government support or assistance programs. Even private student loans are almost impossible to get, for someone without assets – and if with horrendous interest rates.
And so, the circle closes: without money no access to education, without education no chance for a good job and better life prospects. Higher education, however, can be the key to escaping poverty and enabling individuals to lead productive lives.