Migrant Children Eyeing Burma’s Universities on the Rise

By Nyein Nyein 10 December 2013

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Efforts to integrate the children of migrant worker from Burma into the country’s higher education system are bearing fruit, with a threefold increase in the number of Burmese students in Thailand slated to take a 2014 matriculation exam that was administered for the first time earlier this year.

The Burmese migrant students, who will complete high school in March 2014, will travel back to their home country to take the test, which is required for enrollment in Burma’s higher education institutions.

Around 150 students have registered to sit the examination, which will take place in March at a high school in Karen State’s Myawaddy, according to Aye Aye Thet, head of the Science and Technology Training Center in Mae Sot, Thailand. “The students are now in a study camp at Hsa Thoo Lay school [a migrant school in Mae Sot], and this year is the second time students will take the test.”

As a result of discussions with the state-level government last year, the Karen State chief minister agreed in September 2012 to allow migrant students to sit the exam at the public school in Myawaddy, which now serves as a potential bridge back into the Burmese education system for thousands of children whose parents work in Thailand.

“It is a good opportunity for those students who have had few opportunities for higher education,” said Thein Naing, an education researcher who is working on curriculum development for migrant schools in Thailand.

He told The Irrawaddy on Monday that “despite the government’s imposition of a policy to let the migrant children continue studying at schools in Burma, policy orders have not yet been received at some schools. There are still difficulties in the inner areas of the country.”

“It is OK in the border towns such as in Myawaddy,” Thein Naing added.

Thein Naing, the secretary of the Migrant Education Integration Initiative (MEII) formed six months ago, works on curriculum development for migrant schools in Thailand. There is currently no standardization across the curricula of the various migrant schools, and the MEII is working to bring consistency to what Burmese children at these schools are taught.

Migrant schools have been operating in Thailand for more than a decade, fulfilling a critical need for education among the children of Burmese migrant workers, who are estimated to number some 3 million in Thailand.

For years, the schools were not officially recognized by the governments of either Burma or Thailand. The provincial government in the Thai border province of Tak began recognizing some of the schools in 2008, but that recognition came with mandatory Thai touches, such as a requirement that all school buildings include a portrait of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

In Tak, there are 74 migrant schools, providing education for around 13,000 children of Burmese migrant workers.

Thein Naing said the Burmese government needed to do a better job of recognizing the legitimacy of the curricula taught at migrant schools in order to facilitate a return of young university aspirants to Burma.

The vast majority of graduates from high school-level equivalent programs at migrant schools end their studies at that point, because no government recognizes the migrant schools’ certificates, but Thein Naing said that “a few graduates continue studying in non-formal education settings.”

In March 2013, following completion of the 2012-13 academic year, 56 students sat the matriculation exam at Myawaddy’s No. 1 Basic Education High School.

Eight out of the 56 passed the examination and some of them have continued on to higher education at universities in Sagaing, Karen State’s Hpa-an and a government technological college in Burma, said Aye Aye Thet.

Last year, “we had little time to prepare the students, as plans to administer the exam began in October 2012 and the students sat the exam in March 2013, so the results were not high,” she said.

This year, teachers have been preparing students since the beginning of the academic year, and they hope to see improved test scores as a result.

On Monday, seven Burmese teachers from Mandalay traveled to Mae Sot, a Thai border town, to meet with the students preparing for next year’s exam. More than 100 students from five migrant schools in Mae Sot benefitted from a week of lectures by the Burmese teachers.

In the coming years, the number of students registering for Burma’s matriculation exam could further swell.

“There are around 350 students studying at 15 high school-level migrant schools across the border,” Thein Naing said, referring to information gathered from just three Thai towns.