Guest Column

Education Reform: Towards an Inclusive Approach

By Khin Hnin Soe 28 February 2015

In Burma, one thing people from all walks of life have in common is a desire for education reform. We saw a glimmer of hope after representatives from the government, parliament, the National Network for Education Reform and students held preliminary discussions. But going forward, will our hopes become a reality?

Many people have expressed differing views about the 11 proposed amendments to the National Education Law currently under discussion. Some misinterpretations of the bill have also surfaced, leading to unnecessary confusion.

At the heart of all this, it is most important to objectively analyze the importance of the proposed amendments, using examples from other countries, so that informed decisions can be made during final discussions.

Recently, Johns Hopkins University pulled the pin on its international relations and comparative politics program, housed under the International Center of Excellence at Rangoon University, due to a lack of academic freedom. This is an example of a tertiary institution putting great emphasis on autonomy—a principle included in current discussions on the controversial education bill.

If we look at other countries in the region, we can see varying levels of autonomy in the university sector. In Thailand, universities are divided into three categories: autonomous public, public and private. However, academic administration is autonomous under all three categories. The only difference between autonomous and non-autonomous institutions is in terms of personnel and financial administration.

In Singapore, not only higher education institutions, including the four public universities, but also some secondary schools enjoy a certain level of autonomy. In Singapore’s universities, autonomy is present in areas such as university governance, student admission, intake planning and human resources.

Given these regional examples, it seems logical that education institutions in Burma should be given a certain level of autonomy to enable them to respond quickly and creatively to the challenges and opportunities in this dynamic sector.

Of course, with autonomy comes accountability.

The examples of Thailand and Singapore reveal that autonomy cannot be applied with a “blanket approach” for all institutions. Some may be more ready than others. It is vital to carefully set criteria assessing the readiness of an institution to embrace autonomous status, and the timeline to guide them towards it.

Step by step procedures need to be in place for allowing autonomy. In Singapore, universities and secondary schools enjoy autonomous status only after they have been under a centralized system for a certain period of time. Before this, they worked closely with the Ministry of Education to set up governing bodies such as a university council to prepare them for autonomous university governance.

Another important factor to analyze is government spending on education. Of course, it would be ideal if 20 percent of the country’s national budget was spent on education, as proposed by students and education advocates.

Spending on education and health in Burma has long been neglected, eclipsed by funds for defense. But we have to carefully consider whether this 20 percent target is realistic within the time period, what kind of incremental increase would take place from the current budget percentage and how to effectively utilize the allocated funds.

It is equally important to focus on quality rather than quantity. Some countries that allocate a higher percentage of GDP for education have not always fared as well in international rankings as those with lower allocations. Increasing the education budget alone does not necessarily equate to success. A detailed and realistic plan, an implementation committee, and monitoring and evaluation procedures need to be put in place.

The Singaporean government has recently announced their 2015 budget that includes government grants, study awards and fellowship schemes for its citizens—to encourage lifelong learning and the building of skills in sectors needed for the country’s development. Such budget allocation is one example that we can learn to apply in Burma.

The existing National Education Law has been criticized for not involving teachers and students in the drafting process. It is a valid criticism as students and teachers are the key stakeholders of any education system. In the case of Finland, they approached education reform from the bottom-up, soliciting the involvement of teachers and students from a range of schools.

Such a bottom-up approach may take time but the government needs to demonstrate a sincere commitment to institute education reforms that will benefit its citizens, through an inclusive process.

Finnish Ambassador to Thailand, Kirsti Westphalen, said in an interview with the Bangkok Post that reform in Finland’s education sector took a number of years. It was important to really analyze what was needed and determine what would best produce results, she said.

If Burma’s government really hopes to see the country develop, there is no doubt that education is one area in which they should invest. However, any kind of reform needs sincerity and strong commitment, not just superficial or populist policy-making.

Is the government ready to prove that they are truly committed to bringing change in education so that Burma can again stand tall in terms of human capacity in the international community? Actions speak louder than words and only time will tell.

Khin Hnin Soe is the principal of the Myanmar Metropolitan College. She can be reached at [email protected]