Why Education Reform is so Important for Myanmar
By Brandon Aung Moe 4 May 2017
I was born in the small town of Kanyutkwin in Bago Division, Myanmar. I left the country in 2005 to further my education in Singapore. When I came back to Yangon to work as a research officer at Consult-Myanmar, a Myanmar-based research and consultancy firm, I noticed that the streets were more crowded, the traffic was worse, there were more high-rises in the downtown area and Yangon was teeming with foreigners. But I realized that some aspects of the country have never really changed. The persistence of poor quality education is one of them, leaving profound impacts on the development of Myanmar – both as a society and as an economy.
Although US sanctions were lifted on Oct. 7, 2016, Myanmar’s economy is still struggling to take off. Foreign investment for the year ending on March 31, 2017 is predicted to be 30 percent lower than that of the previous fiscal year. Foreign investment is still largely focused on extractive industries such as oil and gas. A concrete plan for diversification is nowhere to be seen.
After almost 50 years of economic mismanagement and under-investment, Myanmar’s infrastructure is creaking alone under the load of a growing population and increased foreign investment in factories and real estate – all of which demand even more power and a sound infrastructure.
Most of these problems in infrastructure and investment can be traced to one single root – quality of education. All of the private schools, language centers and vocational schools that were contacted by Consult-Myanmar for our research on education responded with the unequivocal answer that the current education system is no longer adequate to support the growth of Myanmar into an industrialized economy and cannot be relied upon to reduce Myanmar’s dependence on the export of natural resources which are being depleted every day.
The previous government did try to tackle the problem by embarking on education reforms such as allowing private schools to operate. But, more needs to be done and Myanmar cannot afford to drag and delay the implementation of comprehensive reforms in the education sector.
Notwithstanding some entrenched problems, Myanmar, as a latecomer, can leapfrog in education just as it did in telecommunications. The fact that mobile phone penetration jumped from a mere 7 percent at the end of 2013 to 90 percent at the end of 2016 and that 4G is widely available in Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw – in such a brief time – is nothing short of breath-taking, even if it was achieved mainly as a result of foreign investment and talent brought in by multinational telecommunications firms like Telenor and Ooredoo.
Where education is concerned, Myanmar need not look far for inspiration. Among Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbors, Singapore and Vietnam provide encouraging examples. Even though Singapore topped the PISA 2015 (Program for International Student Assessment) in all subjects, Vietnam was the surprise. As a lower-middle income country, its performance was expected to be in the same league as Indonesia, Kosovo, Moldova and Tunisia, as PISA performance is correlated to GDP per capita and how affluent the country is. However, Vietnam surprised everyone by coming ahead of advanced countries like Germany and Switzerland in science and ahead of the US in science and math.
Professor Paul Glewwe from the University of Minnesota found that the parents of the Vietnamese students taking part in the exam had a much lower educational background and less wealth than their peers in other countries. “The 10 percent of the most disadvantaged children in Vietnam – and they grow up in very poor households – those children do better than the average American child,” OECD Education Director Andreas Schleicher said, as cited by CNN. Vietnam shows that one does not need a developed economy to have a quality education, he said.
What many researchers found was that there were certain commonalities in the education systems of Singapore and Vietnam. One of them is curriculum. Their curricula are focused on both academic as well as practical skills. In other words, they are designed for students to gain deep understanding and knowledge of core theoretical concepts as well as the ability to apply them in real life situations. As a result, students love to inquire, learn and apply their knowledge.
Myanmar’s curriculum, on the other hand, is outdated and disconnected. Take high school math for example. Each chapter is treated as entirely separate from another and questions do not test students’ ability to use various concepts from different chapters to solve real-life problems.
English is the language of science and technology. It is also the language of the Internet. If you have a good command of English and a good Internet connection, you can educate yourself by using free education websites like Khan Academy, Coursera and so on. Google search and the worldwide web have allowed students to move away from mere memorization to focusing on query, learning, collaboration and application. However, the teaching of English in Myanmar schools leaves much to be desired.
To gauge the level of English literacy among Myanmar’s working youth, I surveyed job applicants at Consult-Myanmar in February. Ten out of 11 shortlisted applicants had attended at least one English course and were able to produce certificates of completion. They were also asked, before sitting for a simple English test, to rate their English language ability – only 1 chose ‘basic’; 6 ‘fair’; 3 ‘good’; and 1 ‘excellent’. The test results are not encouraging in spite of the candidates’ modest confidence. None of them was able to get a perfect score, even though the comprehension passage was fairly easy. They all stumbled over open-ended writing, being unable to write more than three to four sentences, not to mention that those sentences were full of grammatical mistakes.
I have always been skeptical of the quality of most private English courses in Myanmar that sprang up amid lack of government regulation of private schools and language centers. The test results reinforce my hypothesis that most Myanmar youths’ command of English is still basic despite what they say about how good their English is and how many external courses they take.
In addition, Vietnam and Singapore have also focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) in their push for industrialization and modernization and continue to do so. It is no different for Myanmar. Only STEM skills can push the country towards industrialization, modernization and improvements in the standard of living over a period of time. Qualified engineers must build all of the new towns, Special Economic Zones, power stations, bridges and roads that Myanmar desperately needs. Starved of a curriculum that can produce STEM-strong engineers, the country will not be able to build the foundation for economic growth.
Myanmar currently does not have this sort of curriculum. For example, my friend, a civil engineer graduate from a Myanmar university, was offered the position of site engineer in Singapore by a Japanese construction firm about three years ago. His joy of landing an overseas job was short-lived as he soon came to realize that the brick building techniques he learned in the Myanmar university cannot be applied to the steel structures that grace modern cities.
In my interview with Neelam Bhusal, the co-founder of Impact Skill Development Centre, which offers a variety of high quality English courses, she agreed that Myanmar needed to upgrade its provision of STEM skills. Only then will the country be able to rely upon its own skilled workforce needed in finance, construction, scientific research and many other job sectors as the economy grows, she said.
It is also to be noted that qualified and committed educators are to a good curriculum as wheels are to an engine. Well-trained teachers and a great curriculum are never mutually exclusive. In the case of Vietnam’s education reforms, the government regularly offers overseas scholarships to promising teachers who later return to assist in imparting knowledge and skills necessary to raise the standard of education in the country.
Myanmar should do likewise by asking for teaching scholarships from friendly countries supportive of reforms. The tendency of government scholars to not return home from overseas tenure can be resolved by a bond system which make the parents or guardians the guarantor. It is, after all, for the good of the country and not too stringent a term to ask. Most importantly, returning scholars must commit by going to rural areas and under-performing schools and working hard to close the gap between the ‘elite’ schools and the ‘poor’ man’s schools. That is the most towering achievement of both Singapore and Vietnam, where neighborhood or rural schools perform just as well as elite schools. One is a democratic country and the other is a socialist country. But, there is one thing that they agree upon: their education systems must serve the rich and the poor alike and provide everyone the same level of quality education, regardless of their class or religion.
Lastly, education reforms also entail educating the public – especially the poor – to change attitudes towards education. Phung Xuan Hua, Vietnam’s education minister, has said: “Vietnamese parents can sacrifice everything, sell their houses and land just to give their children an education.” I don’t doubt that many middle and lower-middle class families in Myanmar can do the same. But, the same attitude must seep in to the poor class.
But now, some poor families in Myanmar ask their children to work as indentured labor and collect in advance from business owners about six months of the child’s salary. As a result, children are seen as an economic unit that must be put to work to support families. Consequently, child labor is rampant. Scenes of kids working days and nights at the tea shops that dot the country are not uncommon. This is a practice that must be stopped and children must be enrolled in school. Otherwise, Myanmar will have a group of uneducated, unskilled workers who are not employable in the offices and factories of the future.
Even if all these suggested reforms are implemented, the country will not reap maximal benefits unless it addresses the problem of low morale and work ethics of its citizens. Thailand’s Institute for Promotion of Teaching and Science and Technology found that the work ethic of Vietnamese teachers is admirable. They rarely take time off. Whereas in Myanmar, citizens are still upset over the reduction of the New Year holidays from 10 to 5 days even though the total number of public holidays remains at 28 days a year, which is already one of the highest in the world.
Under the previous regime, the government provided the people with more holidays along with cheap liquor and cigarettes. Myanmar should now be more circumspect and improve morale slowly by weaning its citizens off those cheap drugs. Myanmar needs to look at how it can improve its citizens’ work ethic so that its workforce becomes more productive. It can become a mecca for manufacturers globally, only if endemic problem of low motivation to work hard is addressed.
In conclusion, Myanmar is at an inflection point after 50 years of a downward slide; it has the opportunity to turn its education and economy around with a government that is elected by the people. There will not be any shortcut or silver bullet that will make everything better overnight. However, what the educational success of Vietnam and Singapore has shown is that with a well-designed curriculum, qualified and committed teachers, self-sacrificing parents and industrious teachers and students alike, significant improvements can happen in Myanmar’s education sector, thereby paving the way for an economic miracle many Myanmar citizens are waiting for.
Brandon Aung Moe was born in Myanmar and educated in Singapore. He is an engineering graduate from the National University of Singapore. The above article is part of a research project on education reform in Myanmar that Brandon was involved with during his time at Consult-Myanmar Co Ltd in Yangon.
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.