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Myanmar Education Reform: Balancing Private and Public Partnerships

hesb-10-13-myanmar education reform-featured image

International investment into Myanmar’s higher education sector emerged alongside the country’s broader liberalisation that followed the elections of 2010. Between 2010 and 2020, Myanmar opened up its economy to foreign investment, adopted liberal democratic institutions, and embarked on a path of socio-economic reform that surprised observers and citizens alike.


In 2012, the Myanmar government announced a co-ordinated strategy for improving capacity and infrastructural needs. Education reform was identified as a critical component of the country’s future development, a long-term vision that sought to align Myanmar’s human capacity needs with its economic and political reforms.


That vision was first articulated in 2012 as the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR), a collaboration involving the government of Myanmar, the Asian Development Bank, UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank, several national development agencies, and private philanthropy aid organisations. The CESR aimed to provide stakeholders with a rapid assessment report, recommendations for reform, and the establishment of a sector-wide costed education plan.

1 Ministry of Education, The Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, “National Education Strategic Plan 2016-21”, 2016.

Education reform was identified as a critical component of the country's future development, a long-term vision that sought to align Myanmar's human capacity needs with its economic and political reforms.

The resulting plan, the National Education Strategic Plan 2016–2021 (NESP I) provides a comprehensive overview of Myanmar’s education sector: background and context, recent education policies, key challenges of the current system, a description of key education sub-sectors, financing information, and an implementation plan. NESP I identified nine transformational area requiring reform, including higher education.

 

The report identified four major challenges facing higher education that will shape education reform in the next decade. They include:

 

1) replacing the current model of centralised governance with a more corporate model that focuses on performance, accountability and autonomy;

2) improving the quality of the curriculum, learning environments, and research/teaching processes;

3) ensuring that Myanmar’s higher education is affordable and accessible; and

4) improving the research capacity of higher education in Myanmar.


The following discussion surveys the immediate and long-term trends in Myanmar’s higher education sector within the context of the central government’s broader attempt to transform the country’s economy, governance structures, and social contract with its many communities. It suggests that while promoting autonomy for institutes of higher learning will align education reform with the broader liberalisation of the country, developing state capacity in the education sector will ensure that the country’s educational transformation is sustainable in the decades to come.


Immediate Context
The February 2021 enactment of Emergency Law by the military has raised questions about existing plans to restructure and increase investment in the education system. In 2020, 16 universities were granted autonomy, giving them greater administrative space to shape their curricula and operations in dialogue with the communities they serve. Official statements by the military indicate that no changes will be made to domestic and foreign policy, a sign that coping with COVID-19 and distance learning will remain a priority.


COVID-19 caused a nationwide closure of higher education institutions that resulted in the interruption of examinations, the halting of admissions processes, the postponement of teacher training, and the attempted shift to distance learning. The lack of access to required equipment and reliable internet made it difficult for students to engage effectively with online learning tools while the lack of teacher training in distance learning and suitable learning materials rendered these temporary measures inadequate. Policy in the next year will focus on a two-phased system: the first constitutes the “response” phase that will ensure education continuity while schools remain closed.


With COVID-19 still in play for the foreseeable future, the immediate priority for the Department of Higher Education is to ensure education continuity through the development of distance learning materials, infrastructure, and creating alternative administrative processes to manage examinations, assessments and admissions. Long-term measures for the COVID-19 recovery phase will focus on the well-being of returning students, developing management protocols for the resumption of face to face learning, assessing student progress, and reassessing the efficacy of content and learning approaches. Developing customised platforms to provide training for the trainers will likely be drawn from regional and international partners.


Given the fluid nature of the public health situation, autonomous institutes of higher education will still require continued government support and co-ordination in order to align local needs with broader national priorities.


Long-term Context
Uncertainty about Myanmar’s political future once again raises questions about whether or not education reform will be achievable if the situation escalates into broader social disorder. Protests by various groups within the education sector also amplifies the possibility that universities and other institutions of higher learning might be temporarily closed.


If higher education reform continues to move forward, it will be framed by three strategies. It will focus on: 1) strengthening education governance and management capacity; 2) improving the quality and relevance of higher education; and 3) expanding equitable access to higher education.

Myanmar is attempting to reform its economic, political, and social institutions after 70 years of civil war and 30 years of a command economy that did not yield a strong foundation from which to build a 21st century education system.

These three strategies will be supported by customised and complementary programmes to achieve the desired shifts in the higher education sector. Strengthening education governance will be a five-component programme to establish institutional capacity, while a six-component programme will support measures to improve relevance and quality of higher education. A third programme focusing on enhancing equitable access to higher education will compose of two components that will focus on good teaching, healthy learning environments, and student-support programmes.
Myanmar is attempting to reform its economic, political and social institutions after 70 years of civil war and 30 years of a command economy that did not yield a strong foundation from which to build a 21st century education system. The ambitious aims to rejuvenate higher education — in all of its forms — must be tempered by the reality that the current Myanmar state is barely a decade old, struggles with limited capacity, and occupies a marginal presence in much of the country.


Given the reinstatement of sanctions by the United States, foreign donors and international agencies may hesitate to continue working with the Myanmar government. Stakeholders should ensure that education reform continues — regardless of who is in government — by investing in both private and public programmes as Myanmar continues its shaky and complicated multi-sector transformation in the decades to come.

MAITRII AUNG-THWIN

Maitrii Aung-Thwin is Associate Professor of Myanmar/Southeast Asian History and Convener of the Comparative Asian Studies PhD Programme at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He is also Deputy Director of the Asia Research Institute (ARI) at the NUS.

APRIL 2021 | ISSUE 10

State of the Region: The Commemorative 10th Issue

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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