By PISA Program Assistant, Jinhyang Kang
Myanmar once had the best education system in Southeast Asia. However, due to the decades of military rule that suppressed academic and intellectual freedom, the quality of education has decreased significantly. As Myanmar undergoes a political, social, and economic transformation under a new democratic civil government, education has an important role to play. Myanmar’s current education system has three components: Primary, Secondary, and Higher education. We will focus mainly on primary and secondary education in Part 1 and will discuss higher education in Part 2.
[Poor, yet Expensive]
Officially Myanmar’s primary education is compulsory. It is a five year curriculum and there is a comprehensive exam to pass in order to go to secondary school. Since tuition is free, it is reasonable to picture crowded schools full of children taking classes and running around the school yards. However, the reality is quite different. Even though public primary school tuition is funded by the state, there are extra expenses to cover including uniforms and books, which many families simply cannot afford. In addition, due to Myanmar’s overwhelming poverty, 20% of 10 to 17 year olds are engaged in child labor to support their families. These one in five children are working as domestic servants, servers at teashops and factory workers in the garment industry. School attendance after primary school drops precipitously as well. Beginning with Secondary school, families now have to worry about children’s tuitions, uniforms and books, as well as transportation to school as there are very few secondary schools in town and they are usually miles away from villages. This poor, yet expensive education system in Myanmar has failed to keep children in school and keep them out of the labor market. Along with the Myanmar’s poor education system, poverty devalues the long-term effects of education and pushes every child from their home to the labor market for an immediate, yet short-term cash return.
[Still a Hope, but Not Enough]
Even though many children cannot afford education from state-run schools, some children receive free education through the Buddhist monastic schools. Monastic schools in Myanmar have a long history and tradition of involvement in state affairs as well as people’s lives. Now, they are taking on the added responsibility of improving the quality of education by providing the non-religious national curriculum to children. Unlike the state-run schools, the monastic schools accept underprivileged and disadvantaged children and provide a free or low cost education as well as food. Since the cost of education is the main challenge for parents in sending their children to school these monastic schools are often the greatest hope for the children. According to Monastic Education Development Group, the monastic school system in Myanmar operates over 1,700 schools catering to over 300,000 children currently. It is undeniable that these monastic schools are playing an important role in educating Myanmar’s future generations, yet they receive very little funding from the state. Monastic schools mainly operate with very limited resources from international organizations and NGOs. Due to these insufficient resources, there is a lack of teaching facilities, learning materials, and certified teachers. In fact, many of the teachers at monastic schools do not possess a teaching certificate and are usually volunteers. Monastic schools play a vital role in providing education for children in Myanmar, yet the quality of the education and facilities still needs help.
[Bitter at First, but Sweet Later]
As the often quoted, Maimonides once said, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Viewing education as a long-term investment will produce, in the end, a lot more fish. Even though poverty reinforces a doubt in the value of education, a shift in mindset and beginning to see the importance and long-term value of education is critical. The beginning process of investing and fixing the current education system will be challenging and somewhat of a bitter pill to swallow, yet the outcome will be sweet and rewarding as education is crucial in reducing poverty and generating growth not only for the individuals, but also for communities and the whole nation.