Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is the largest mainland Southeast Asian country with a population of 54.5 million in 2020.1 It is a constitutional republic with a diverse population of 135 ethnic groups, 68% of which consist of Burmese and six other large groups. Myanmar was historically integrated into the British Raj and remained a British colony until 1948. For decades, it was ruled by the military junta that centralised all the country’s institutions under national control.2 During much of this period, Myanmar was subject to international sanctions that weakened its economic growth and hindered its integration with the global economy. Government regulation and student strikes in the late 1990s also led to extended periods of closure for Myanmar’s universities, which suffered from decades of under-investment.3 When the HEIs reopened in 1999, many universities were relocated outside of Yangon to other regions of the country. In 2011, however, Myanmar underwent a dramatic change, introducing democratic and economic reforms, which symbolised a new “opening” of Myanmar. Myanmar is now a fast-growing economy with a GDP of USD76 billion.4
Myanmar’s higher education system has been characterised by a high degree of government control, with different ministries managing different institutions.
The 1973 University Education Law categorised universities as either arts, sciences or technical institutions, all of which were managed by the Ministry of Education (MOE) or other government ministries. However, recent reforms have decreased the number of ministries managing HEIs from 13 in 2013 to eight in 2016, and the MOE and Ministry of Science and Technology have merged to jointly manage a larger number of HEIs.5 The size of Myanmar’s higher education sector has also expanded rapidly, with only five universities in the 1930s to 174 in 2018.6 Historically, HEI management by the Department of Higher Education of the MOE was geographically administered differently in Upper and Lower Myanmar, but this was consolidated into a single department in 2015. All HEIs in Myanmar are public, as the government does not officially recognise private institutions. However, poor funding, low quality and a stronger demand for English-medium education has fuelled demand for private institutions. Myanmar’s outstanding number of students enrolled in distance learning programmes — roughly two-thirds of enrolled students — is a distinct feature of its higher education system and an important historical tradition for the country since the 1970s.7 From 2011 onward, Myanmar’s overall enrolment expanded significantly: in 2015 there were 225,718 students enrolled in normal programmes and 411,164 in distance learning programmes; total enrolment (including students in distance learning programmes) increased to 771,321 in 2017 from 659,510 in 2011.8 Another noteworthy feature is the substantial number of women graduating from Myanmar’s universities at undergraduate and postgraduate levels: roughly 59% of university graduates in Myanmar are women.9 Myanmar also boasts some of the lowest tuition fees for public universities in the region, with some institutions covering full tuition charges in exchange for treating students as employees who contribute to their operations.
In 2011, the government formed a National Education Committee (NEC) to co-ordinate the national education system, with higher education as a sub-sector. All HEIs have since been required to have their own management committee, which must include two members from the ministry that oversees the institution. The 2014 National Education Law saw the start of new changes in Myanmar’s university system and would in theory move towards institutional autonomy and the establishment of new quality controls. It also aimed to sync Myanmar’s standard number of years of pre-university schooling with other ASEAN members to facilitate regional integration. However, changes brought on by the new National Education Law were met with controversy and student protests, as the new law did not support the teaching of ethnic minority languages in universities, prevented the formation of student and teacher unions, and did not give the much anticipated full autonomy to universities.
Trend Towards Autonomy
In late 2015, the MOE released the National Education Strategic Plan 2016-2021 (NESP I), the latest education policy document that encompasses nine transformational shifts, two of which pertain to higher education and TVET institutions. The Ministry’s goals for higher education include strengthening governance and management capacities, which entail the establishment of a National Institute for Higher Education Development (NIHED) and conducting systematic overseas study tours for university rectors and administrators to gain exposure to quality practices abroad. Establishing ties with foreign institutions is also seen as a means of enhancing quality and addressing the demand for English in higher education. Most importantly, NESP I aims to meet the long-term goal of institutional autonomy for universities — a shift from a government-run to a “government-guided” model, giving them the ability to self-govern, independently develop curricula and conduct research. In addition to encouraging universities to build systems of qualifications to link with the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework, Myanmar universities have also been allowed to establish memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with overseas institutions to promote collaborative research. Funding has also been allotted to a new President’s Scholarship Program, allowing Myanmar students to study overseas, although the programme has since been discontinued. As a goal of the NESP is equitable access, the MOE has pledged to provide affordable accommodation for students, which remains a “key obstacle” to access for poorer students, and promote student support programmes, allowing low-income students to apply for financial support. So far, the government has carried out some of their policy objectives, declaring 16 of Myanmar’s universities fully autonomous in September 2020.10
Regarding budgeting, the Department of Higher Education received 17% of the MOE’s budget of USD1.32 billion in 2018.11 Despite an increase from 11.28% in 2017, the MOE’s budget for higher education has trended lower as it composed over 19% in 2011 though the overall education budget has steadily increased. As tuition fees remain relatively low, university funding is almost entirely dependent on the MOE’s budget allotment. Widespread bureaucratisation and the centralised structure of university governance do not allow universities to diversify their sources of revenue. Furthermore, government funding for universities is spread out across the eight different ministries that manage different HEIs. As per the goals laid out by the NESP, the MOE planned to allot approximately USD568.5 million to the higher education sector from 2016 to 2021.12
Funded by the European Union’s Erasmus+ Programme, the CHINLONE Project (short for Connective Higher education Institutions for a New Leadership on National Education) was launched in 2017 to modernise and internationalise Myanmar’s higher education system and help it transition into the knowledge economy. This three-year project (2017-2020) was a collaborative effort between three European universities (University of Bologna, University of Granada and University of Uppsala), a European university association, the Myanmar MOE and five Myanmar universities (Dagon University, University of Mandalay, University of Yangon, Yangon University of Economics, and Yezin Agricultural University). This project entailed special training for Myanmar universities’ academic and administrative faculty to design “student-centred” curricula, establishing or strengthening universities’ international relations offices to integrate Myanmar HEIs into global networks and particularly exposing them to European practices. CHINLONE project coordinators also provided a list of key policy recommendations for Myanmar policymakers, including providing stronger financial and academic support for teachers (ensuring they obtain PhDs, increased salaries and improved working conditions), fostering more inclusive, dynamic campus cultures, and creating incentives for faculty to conduct publishable academic research.
Zane Kheir recently graduated with a PhD in Comparative Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.
Worldometer, “Myanmar Population (Live)”, accessed January 25, 2021, https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/myanmar-population/.
Roger Y. Chao, “Higher Education Systems and Institutions, Myanmar”, in The International Encyclopedia of Higher Education Systems and Institutions, eds. Pedro Nuno Teixeira and Jung-Cheol Shin et al. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2020).
Marie Lall, “Education”, in Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Myanmar, First Edition, eds. Adam Simpson, Nicholas Farrelly, and Ian Holliday (London: Taylor and Francis, 2018), 268–278.
World Bank, “GDP (Current US$) — Myanmar”, accessed January 25, 2021, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?locations=MM.
Ministry of Education Myanmar, National Education Strategic Plan (2016–21) (Naypyidaw: Ministry of Education Myanmar, 2016).
CHINLONE, “Myanmar Higher Education Reform: Which Way Forward?”, 2018, https://gdc.unicef.org/resource/myanmars-higher-education-reform-which-way-forward.
The breakdown between normal programmes and distance learning for 2011 and 2017 figures are not available.
Department of Population, The 2014 Myanmar Population and Housing Census: Thematic Report on Education — Census Volume 4-H (Naw Pyi Taw: Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population, 2017).
Thet Zin Soe, “16 Myanmar Universities Declared Autonomous,” Myanmar Times, September 3, 2020, https://www.mmtimes.com/news/16-myanmar-universities-declared-autonomous.html.
Ministry of Planning and Finance Myanmar, “Myanmar 2018 Education Budget Brief,” 2018.
Ibid., 236 (converted to USD)