National Education Bill Passes Parliament, Heads to President

By Yen Saning 31 July 2014

RANGOON — Burma’s Union Parliament passed a National Education Bill during a legislative session on Wednesday, bringing the nation’s derelict schooling system one step closer to an overhaul.

The bill will be sent to President Thein Sein for review and will become law with his signature. The president may also choose to send the bill back to Parliament with suggested changes.

Separate versions of the legislation were passed by the Upper House and Lower House earlier this month, and lawmakers reconciled 69 differences between the two bills this week.

Khine Maung Myint, a member of Parliament’s Education Upgrading Committee, said the bill was passed after incorporating suggestions made by the joint bill committee of Parliament’s Upper and Lower houses. A discussion of the bill by Union Parliament lawmakers on Wednesday did not yield any further changes to the legislation.

The newly approved National Education Bill is a master-plan that will touch on many aspects of Burma’s education system, according to Mya Oo, secretary of the Education Upgrading Committee.

“We can call this a mother-law,” Mya Oo said, adding that Burma’s education minister would later submit follow-up legislation dealing with specific sectors of the national education system.

The bill passed Wednesday includes policies on the implementation of formal and informal education, and spans the schooling spectrum, from early childhood through primary, secondary and higher education levels.

The bill would purportedly allow greater autonomy to higher education institutions, which are currently under the authority of the Higher Education Department. Burma’s former military regime consolidated control of the country’s universities, viewed as hotbeds of dissent against the government.

However, the extent of universities’ future autonomy remains unclear, as the bill calls for the creation of a Higher Education Coordinating Committee, which would be responsible for “negotiating issues related to higher education with suitable persons.” It would be housed under the National Education Commission, also a yet-to-be formed product of the bill that would be chaired by a Union-level official from the executive branch. The commission, with a broad mandate to implement “national education goals and basic education policies,” would include members of the cabinet, Parliament and academics.

The bill has also included a policy to implement vocational schooling programs for youths who drop out of school before completing their basic education, according to Mya Oo, who is also a former director general of Upper Burma’s Higher Education Department.

“We have the problem of lots of [students] having degrees but being jobless. Any education system aims to prepare students, to guarantee them future jobs. In this law, we have planned for vocational schools from primary, secondary and higher education level,” he said.

The bill would increase schooling at the primary and secondary levels to 12 years in total, from the current 10 years. Students would have greater opportunity to attend the college or university of their choice, with higher education institutions offering entrance exams to gain admittance. Under the current system, students’ matriculation exam scores determine what university they are eligible to attend.

Implementation of the law could begin before the end of the year, depending on whether the president decides to return the legislation to Parliament with suggestions.

However, Mya Oo said the changes and benefits of the new education legislation would not be seen immediately, and would take time to implement. He added that the bill, if passed into law, would give education practitioners “peace of mind,” bringing continuity to a system that was otherwise subject to changes as education ministers came and went.

The bill has been widely criticized since it was made public, including by the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), a network of civil society groups. Students from Sagaing and Mandalay divisions have also staged protests against it.