Overhauling Myanmar’s Education System

In addition to political reforms, Burma’s government is preparing to overhaul its public school system. Last year, the Ministry of Education began a two-year review to identify the main problem areas and come up with some possible solutions. The study is being led by a government body known as the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR), in collaboration with a number of development partners, and it could potentially lead to major changes, such as a revision of outdated curricula, bigger discretionary budgets for schools, new and improved textbooks, and classes taught in ethnic minority languages.

Pushing this process forward in Rangoon is Julian Watson, an independent education consultant who was appointed to coordinate between the Burma government and international development partners in the CESR. He comes to Burma, also known as Myanmar, with prior experience as a consultant in more than 20 countries, including several in Southeast Asia. In this interview, he explains how the CESR works and shares a surprising discovery from the process, while also breaking down a big issue in higher education and revealing some ways that Burma’s schools might benefit down the road.

Question: What is the Comprehensive Education Sector Review?

Answer: The CESR was set up by the government in response to the fact that there was a large number of development partners, or agencies, who wanted to help Myanmar education. The government created the CESR and staffed it, and then its first task was to do a quick report on what is happening, where everything is, in education across the board from kindergarten, including early child development, right through to universities.

The donors decided to help the government with the sectors in which they were particularly interested. And that turned out to be six sectors: policy, law, management and finance of education; basic education, which includes early childhood development, primary education, lower secondary school and curriculum; non-formal education; teacher education; technical and vocational education and training, or TVET; and higher education. So, for instance, ADB [the Asian Development Bank] supports what it calls post-basic education. Unicef [the UN agency for children] supports basic education. There are more than 20 DPs [development partners] in all.

The CESR really isn’t a program funded by donors in the way that many programs are funded by NGOs and larger institutions. It is a government institution, the CESR, and it is part of the research department of the Ministry of Education. Much of what the CESR does is try to match the interests of the development partners with the interests of the government. It’s balancing the interests of both sides—it’s trying to get a rational debate that suits both sides, and at the same time takes the country as a whole on the path of deciding what it wants to do.

Q: Can you explain how the review works? I understand there are three phases.

A: Phase 1 was a quick look at what’s going on—what’s happening, where the gaps are, what the problems are—to make some recommendations. In Phase 2, the development partners have come in and decided to look deeper into particular parts of the whole picture. There are a lot of big questions—for example, the universities want to be independent from the Ministry of Education, and that may or may not be a good thing—and these questions are being looked at in in-depth reports. Those reports will be gathered into a Phase 2 document, and that document will set out some of the options, backed by annexes of research. In January and February, all of these options should be open for discussion, not just among stakeholders, but also with school administrators and parents. And then there are massive cost implications. At the end of Phase 3, which is scheduled for the end of June to catch the government’s budget cycle, there should be a costed education sector development plan.

Q: Any surprises so far?

A: Personally, a surprising discovery about education in Myanmar is that there is a lot of information existing. If you go to a school in the middle of nowhere and ask them how many children are registered, how many children came to school this week, and how many will likely not come back, or have dropped out completely, the schools generally know the answer. But they write it down in a book and they don’t send it to the district education office, which doesn’t send it up [to higher levels]. Information, as a result of past government, is, in my experience, available but extremely difficult to collect. And one of the things that is certainly being recommended is developing education management information systems that allow this information to flow.

Q: You mentioned that education reform will require legal reform. What education laws are currently on the table in Parliament?

A: A recommendation of the CESR rapid assessment report was that there should be an overarching education law that would take in the Constitution, Myanmar’s obligations as a member of Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] and its commitment to a number of international covenants. Such a comprehensive education law would cover all sectors and provide updated objectives and purposes relevant to the current priorities of the government and society, but so far it has not been drafted.

As far as I know, there are four laws in progress that have been introduced to Pyithu Hluttaw [the Lower House of Parliament] on basic and university education as well as examination and education research laws. But there’s no law on vocational education, and there’s no law or even sub-law on qualifications, to determine what examinations mean and to standardize attainment. … Out of the CESR process, I think first you need to have an umbrella education law—what’s the point of education, what are we trying to do, where are we going? And then you can fit the other laws underneath.

Q: Higher education is a sensitive subject in Myanmar. Some people want universities to be autonomous from the government, which would be a major change. Can you explain this issue?

A: The debate is whether universities should be under the Ministry of Education. Historically, universities have been places where there has been opposition to the government, so I think hitherto the government has treated them very carefully, with a tendency to try to hang on to control of them, maybe in a way that doesn’t make logical sense.

In the nature of the Burmese government structure, universities are very specialized. You have a marine university; you have a military medical university. Some are reluctant to come under the Ministry of Education’s overall control because they see themselves as better aligned to other ministries. Is it sensible to put an agricultural university under the Ministry of Education, or is it more sensible to put that under the Ministry of Agriculture? What matters is the value of the degree attained. There is a great need for quality assessment—how good is the qualification you have when you come out?

Q: Which international donors are involved in higher education reform?

A: At this stage, the Asian Development Bank is really taking the lead in the CESR. The Open Society Institute, which is [George] Soros’ foundation, is also involved, as is AusAID, the British Council and Unesco [the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization]. … The one not at the table is USAID, because it doesn’t fund government work. As part of its mandate, it works through NGOs, and therefore it’s not at the CESR table. Having said that, somebody from the American embassy does come to the development partner meetings and is welcome—there’s no hostility about that.

Q: What is an example of how schools could potentially benefit from the CESR?

A: The government already has a grant system for schools, whereby schools get a per capita grant, but it’s an average of $100 per school. It’s a good system, but it’s underfunded, and at the moment there are too many restrictions on how schools can use the grant—they can spend it on repairs and very few other things. Out of this [CESR] process, I think—although I don’t know—that a recommendation may come to put down a great deal more money for what other countries such as Cambodia and Laos call discretionary budgets for schools, and at the same time to broaden the scope of what it can be used for.

Q: The CESR is a review of the government’s public school system. But in ethnic minority states, there are also entirely separate school systems that were established by ethnic education departments, sometimes under the guidance of ethnic rebel groups. How are they included?

A: The intention is that they should be included in the debate after Phase 2. They’re certainly not being held out in any way. … Most of them will talk to the CESR—we like to talk to them—but some don’t wish to, and there’s nothing one can do about that. But their views are wanted, to be integrated into the debate, and not just on issues of language, but on many issues. [Some ethnic education groups are pushing for public schools to offer classes in ethnic minority languages, instead of teaching solely in Myanmar language.] Maybe one thing that might come out of this debate would be to increase the government system of school grants, and this may be a way to allow much more flexibility to individual states to decide on how they want to do education. I’d be very surprised if a core education curriculum did not come out of this process, but there might well be things that one state wants to do [with schools] that another state doesn’t.

Q: Do you know what percentage of the whole national budget goes to education right now?

A: No, I don’t think anybody knows for sure. There may be a statistic but I would question its accuracy. What I do know is that the amount of money that parents are putting into the education system is massively high compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. It’s because previous Myanmar governments didn’t put money into education in the past, so Myanmar parents are carrying a really high burden of costs, and that’s dangerous because it creates a risk that the poor will give up paying for education because they cannot afford to do so.

Q: Any last thing you’d like to add?

A: Don’t forget that policy, law, management and finance are a very important part—developing or strengthening institutions at the district level and down the chain that can handle money, organize teacher training and make decisions about the distribution of books. When people write about education, there’s a great tendency to write about the classroom and the child, and yes, of course that’s the be-all and end-all, but even if you have all these plans for doing good things, unless those district and regional education offices can manage, organize, motivate and handle the money, the system falls apart. … If you haven’t got that, nothing else will happen.


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