‘I Consider Nothing to Have Changed’

By Thu Zar 20 November 2014

The Union Parliament passed the National Education Law on Sep 30, amidst strident opposition from student unions and education professionals.

The National Network for Education Reform, a policy forum for scholars and educators, was founded in January 2013. It has held discussions and sought public feedback on the state of Burma’s education system across the country, was consulted by the government during the initial drafting of the education bill, and has been vocal in its criticism of the final law approved by Parliament.

Dr Thein Lwin, a spokesman for NNER, recently sat down with The Irrawaddy to discuss the current state of Burma’s education system, the shortcomings of the National Education Law, and possibilities for meaningful reform of the sector.

Question: Do you see any substantial change to Burma’s education system at the moment, compared to the socialist government and the military years?

Answer: The Socialist Programme Party centralized the education system and so did the military regime that took power in 1988. And the education system remains centralized in the time of President Thein Sein. There is only nominal change and the tightness of the grip remains unchanged. [The government’s] control over the curriculum and teachers remain the same. So, I consider nothing to have changed.

Q: What do you think of the government’s actions during the reform process?

A: I remember something by cartoonist Ba Gyan. In one of his cartoon strips, a house is robbed, the house owner is tied and his belongs are taken away. In the second picture, police arrive and ask the house owner who says: “It is you who robbed me the other day and it is again you who investigates the case today in police uniform. What can I do?” It is those very people who destroyed the education system in the past and it is again those very people who are saying now they are reforming the education sector. So, I’d like to say it is like Ba Gyan’s cartoon.

Q: What changes do you think should be made to Burma’s current education system?

A: We need a complete shakeup of the education system. The entire education system must be democratic. A new education policy should be adopted with the input of teachers, students, members of the public and academics.

It is not reasonable that all parts of the country have to learn from the same school textbooks, either at the basic or higher education levels. The curriculum must be tailored to meet the specific requirements of different places. There must be freedom of syllabus.

There must be freedom to appoint teachers and learn languages both at basic and higher education levels. There should be academic freedom. Teachers must be provided with training in capacity building, and the examination system must also be overhauled.

Q: What do you think is the ideal framework for establishing academic freedom?

A: It should be democratic and inclusive. Students and teachers must be able to take part in decision-making at various levels. The education system should not be developed and deployed according to orders from someone above. There must be inclusion in every stage of decision-making. If universities want to reform, it should be reform brought about by faculty members and the government should not interfere.

Q: What fundamentals do you think are necessary to reflect the country’s ethnic diversity?

A: It is mainly an issue of language. Students in ethnic regions are not happy at school and quit early because they are only taught in Burmese. As a result, they have no knowledge of mathematics and science.

We have suggested to the government that the curriculum should be taught in local languages in ethnic regions. We have studied and held workshops to establish the benefits of teaching in local languages as well as Burmese and English. The government has not taken these steps yet.

Q: Why doesn’t the NNER engage more fully with government representatives from the education sector?

A: We met government representatives several times while the National Education Bill was being discussed. When the critical discussions were held in Naypyidaw, we were invited at first, and then we were left out. Since then, we have stopped engaging with government representatives. We represent public opinion. The fact that we are excluded means the government will not take public input and will do what they want.

Q: What do you think of the National Education Law passed by the Union Assembly?

A: There will be no change at all, as the education law incorporates the same old restrictions. It is not in compliance with democratic norms and human rights. It also does not provide freedom. Therefore, I’d say this law will not bear fruits.

Not only the education law—the farmland law, media law, labour law, and association law are also repressive. It is clear that the government wants to have its fingers in every pie.

Q: Do you think the allotted budget for the education sector is sufficient?

A: The budget is not sufficient at all. The international norm set by United Nations is that a country’s education budget must be 20 percent of its total budget. Under the previous government, education received only 1 percent of total budget; now it is about 4 percent. It is still not enough.

I do not see the increased budget being used to improve teaching effectiveness. I do not see classrooms being expanded and the introduction of more teaching aid. The education budget has increased, but it is not being used effectively.

Q: What are the hurdles to future education reform?

A: The only hurdle is centralization. Only when that hurdle is cleared, an education system that satisfies the aspirations of the people can be implemented.