Education Reform to support Myanmar’s Industrialization Strategy

I was born in the town of Kanyutkwin in Bago Division, Myanmar in 1990. I left the country in 2005 to further my education in Singapore. When I came back to Yangon for work early this year, I noticed that the streets are more crowded; the traffic are worse; there are more high-rise in the downtown areas; and it is crawling with foreigners. But I realized some aspects of the country have never really changed. The quality of education is one of them.

Some entrenched problems still exist despite some educational reforms such as allowing private schools to operate.

Although the US sanction was lifted on 7th October, 2016 by the outgoing Obama administration, Myanmar’s economy is still struggling to take off. Foreign investment for the year ending on March 31 2017 is predicted to be 30% lower than that of the previous financial year. Foreign investment is still largely focused on extractive industry such as oil and gas. Concrete plan for diversification is nowhere to be seen. This summer we are starting to see rolling blackouts again as the Yangon Electricity Supply Corporation struggles to crank out more power from its decrepit generators.

After almost 50 years of economic mismanagement and under-investment, Myanmar’s infrastructure is creaking along under the load of a growing population and increased foreign investment in factories and real estate – all of which demand even more power. Similarly the current education system is no longer adequate to support the growth of Myanmar into an industrialized economy and to reduce its dependence on the export of natural resources which are depleting every day.

However being a latecomer, Myanmar can leapfrog in education just like what she did in telecommunications. The fact that mobile penetration jumped from a mere 7% from end 2013 to 90% by end 2016 and 4G network is widely available in Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw – in so short a time is short of breath-taking, even if it was achieved mainly by foreign investment and foreign talents brought in by multinational telecommunications firms like Telenor and Ooredoo. In this new telecom landscape even the somnambulant ex-monopoly MPT has learned to be customer-oriented and user-friendly after taking on a new partner – Japan’s KDDI. Even MPT can change for the better – so there is hope after all!

Where education is concern, Myanmar need not look far for inspirations.

Among Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbours – Singapore and Vietnam show encouraging examples. Even though Singapore topped the PISA 2015 (Programme for International Student Assessment) in all subject areas – Vietnam was the surprise. As a lower-middle income country, its performance is expected to be in the same league as Indonesia, Kosovo, Moldova and Tunisia as PISA performance is correlated to GDP per capital 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 U.S. in science and math!

Professor Paul Gleww from the University of Minnesota found that the parents of the Vietnamese students taking part in the exam also have much lower educational background and less wealth then their peers in other countries.1

“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 Schleicher said, as cited by CNN.1

Vietnam shows that one does not need a well-developed economy to have a quality education, he said.1

What many researchers found was that there were certain commonalities in the education system of Singapore and Vietnam.

One of them is curriculum. Their curricula are focused and designed for students to gain deep understandings and knowledge of core concepts as well as ability to apply them in real-life situations. As a result, students love to inquire, learn and apply.

Myanmar’s curriculum, on the other hand, is outdated and disconnected. Take high school maths for example. Each chapter is treated as entirely different from another. Questions do not test students’ ability to use various concepts from different chapters to solve a real life problem.

China learned that modernisation of economy and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) subjects are inextricably linked. Countries like Vietnam and Singapore are focusing on STEM as well in their push for industrialization and modernization. It is no different for Myanmar. Only STEM skills can push the country towards industrialisation, modernization and improvements in the standard of living of its people over a period of time. All the new towns, Special Economic Zones, power stations, bridges and roads that Myanmar plan to build – all need to be built by qualified engineers. Starved of a curriculum that can produce STEM-strong engineers, the country won’t be able to build the foundation for economic growth.

Myanmar’s current education system does not allow this. For example, my Myanmar friend who is a civil engineer was offered a position of site engineer in Singapore by a Japanese construction firm about 3 years ago. His joy of landing an overseas job that pay good salary was short-lived as he soon came to realize brick buildings techniques he learned in the university in Myanmar cannot be applied to steel structures which is prevalent in most modern cities.

Currently a good private education is expensive and is the purview of only the rich. Most poor families send their children to government schools but lament in the fact that the children will graduate with no marketable skills and a degree that no employer recognizes.

Under the previous regime the government can only provide the people with more holidays and cheap liquor and cigarettes. However, as a democratic country, Myanmar needs to be more circumspect and slowly wean it citizens away itself from these cheap drugs and improve the morale.

Thailand’s Institute for Promotion of Teaching and Science and Technology found that work ethic of Vietnamese teachers is admirable. They rarely take time off.2

Whereas in Myanmar, citizens are still upset over reduction of New Year holidays from 10 to 5 days even though total number of public holidays remains at 28 days a year – which is one of the highest in the world. Myanmar need to re-look at how it can improve its work ethics so that its industries are productive as its workers are hardworking, reliable and skillful. It can become a mecca for manufacturers globally, only if these are addressed.

Phung Xuan Hua, Vietnam’s education minister, said “Vietnamese parents can sacrifice everything, sell their houses and land just to give their children an education.” 1

In Myanmar, many poor families ask their children to work as indentured labour and collect the 6 months or 1 year salary of the child in advance from the business owner. As a result children are seen as an economic unit that must be put to work to support their family. Consequently, child labour is rampant. Scenes of kids working days and nights at teashops that dot the countries are not uncommon. This is a practice that must stop and children must be put into school. Otherwise, Myanmar will have a vicious poverty cycle and a constant group of uneducated unskilled workers that are not employable in the office and factories of the future.

Lastly, education reforms also entail providing better teachers. Vietnam 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 consider asking for teaching scholarships from friendly countries supportive of her reforms. The tendency of government scholars not returning home from overseas tenure can be resolved by a bond system which make the parents or guardians the guarantor. As this is for the good of the country and it is not too stringent a term to ask. Most importantly, returning graduates must be willing to be assigned to rural areas and under-performing schools to close the gap between the ‘better’ schools and the ‘poor’ man’s schools. After all, this is the most important achievement of both Singapore and Vietnam: where neighbourhood or rural schools perform just as well as elite schools in the big cities. One is a democratic country and the other is a communist country – but there is one thing that they agree upon – their education system must serve the rich and the poor alike and enable everyone regardless of their class or religion the same level of quality education. – that’s how a country progresses.

Myanmar is at an inflexion point after 50 years of downward slide – it has the opportunity to turn its economy around with a government that is elected by the people. There will not be any short cut or silver bullet that will overnight make everything better. However, what the Vietnam and Singapore’s success with education has shown is that with political will; committed and self-sacrificing parents; well trained and committed teachers; and industrious students, miracles do happen on a daily basis in neighbouring ASEAN countries.

 

Author: Brandon Aung Moe

Brandon 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 during his time at Consult-Myanmar Co Ltd in Yangon.

 

Footnote:

1 from University of Minnesota’s article “Income vs. Education: Experts puzzled by science, math scores of Vietnamese students

2 from Bangkok Post’s article “Thai education fails the test while Singapore and Vietnam excel. Why?

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