Private school is not so cool

When Poe Poe passed her matriculation exam (the Burmese equivalent of an A-level) she did not score the grades she hoped for. And this was a disaster for her. Why? It meant her dream of becoming a doctor was out of reach.

In Myanmar, results obtained at this milestone exam dictates to which university a student can apply. There is no way to circumvent this. There is no entry test students could take – only the matriculation exam. It is seldom related to what people are interested in or rarely reflects the skills which will be needed in higher education. But never mind.

This is a bad system, and as every bad system it has bad consequences. In Myanmar, they come in the form of bogus private universities, thriving on student’s dashed hopes.

While she was agonising over her failure, Poe Poe saw an advertisement for a private school promising to make a doctor out of her regardless of her matriculation exam results. That sounded too good to be true, but she made an appointment.

Upon arrival she realised courses cost an arm and a leg. A simple five-month class cost K2.5 million, a bachelor course of three to four years can reach up to K100 million – around 250 times more expensive than a traditional med school.

Worse still, she quickly realised that the pricy diplomas would not have allowed her to practice in Myanmar’s hospitals. Instead of paying a lot with no guarantee over result, she decided to change her dream: she went on to study business management.

Myanmar’s archaic selection system for higher education provoked a surge in private institutions – all of them are expensive, not all of them are good.

Private schools used to have a very good reputation. Before the 1962 coup, they were run by religious institutions and were a legacy of the colonial era. Still, they were recognised as good. But they only concerned primary education. After Ne Win’s power grab, private schools were shut down. In 1990, they reappeared as businesses. It has not changed since.

Today, things aren’t clear. Even experts have difficulties agreeing whether private schools are better than public ones, says Daw Thu Thu Mar, the secretary for the National Network for Education Reform, an association of education professionals and experts and a pressure group once close to the ruling National League for Democracy party. Parents find it difficult to sort out which institution is bad, and which one is good. A fancy website and an affordable price often do the trick.

If private schools were all bad, choice would be simple. But they are not. Thiri Paing always wanted to study economics and business but her matriculation exam result prevented her from doing so. She took botany, but as job opportunities were scarce in the field, she decided to go back to school and enroll in a private university. She graduated in business management from a private university and now works as a foreign education consultant. She credits the university for developing her critical thinking and presentation skills.

The choice has drastic financial consequence. Ko Hein Htet Ko looked into both private and public education to become an engineer. The public school course costs K30,000. The private one K3,000,000.

Private universities are often joint ventures with western or Asian countries, explained U Kyaw Htwe, an MP from Yangon Region. The problem, he says, is that not all are actually linked to universities abroad.

One way to solve the issue would be for the state to certify them, but the National Accreditation and Quality Assurance Committee, a body in charge of updating the certification system, does not take into consideration private education. As such, there is no proper vetting process or set standards for private schools affiliated with foreign universities. That opens the door for fraud.

Ko Maung Maung thinks the IT bachelor degree he had from a private university was a rip-off. He paid around K15,000,000 for a three years class but he did not learn much. The university was supposedly partnered up with a UK one. He doubts the claim. Myanmar is in the midst of a technological revolution and IT jobs are on the rise, but he does not have the skills required for them. He works as a translator for now.

Even though some private universities are partners with foreign universities, some of their staff and method remain very Myanmar.

Facebook users often joke that private universities simply recruit teachers from public universities.

A student who attended private university classes says that she did not even have exams. She only needed to submit two assignments per month. Her teacher seemed more concerned about her succeeding her assignments than learning.

“The teacher would show the answer of the questions on the board since she worried we would make mistakes.” That’s understandable: private university need to have high success rate to show for in order to attract more students.

Poe Poe’s chance is that her diploma will allow her to go to the UK. But not everybody has the means to go and live abroad.

The law of the jungle

Private education services were once concentrated in Yangon and Mandalay. Today they can also be found in Nay Pyi Taw, Pathein, Monywa, Taunggyi and Mawlamyine. There are over 100 private schools opened across the country, but without any legal framework.

In Myanmar, there is no law regulating higher education sector and no license given out by the Ministry of Education. Virtually everybody can set up a university, says U Zaw Min Tun, the founder of Tip Top Education, a consultancy helping parents to find their way through the higher education maze. In fact, all it takes is a stamp from the Myanmar Investment Commission.

Myanmar is currently drafting a Higher Education Law. A framework National Education Law was adopted in September 2014 and amended again in June 2015. Later, the education ministry drafted sector laws such as the Basic Education Law, Higher Education Law, Technical and Vocational Education and Training Law and Private School Education Law. These pieces of legislation haven’t entered the parliament, but the draft raises a few eyebrows. Critics say that the issue of private universities is not tackled properly. In fact, it is ignored.

For now, parents and students rely on unofficial ranking and services like the one offered by Tip Top Education. If they fall victim to a fake university, they have little avenue for appeal, says U Kyaw Moe Tun, founder of the Parami Institute, a non-profit offering leadership classes. “If someone finds out that a university is unaccredited there is no mechanism to report it,” he adds.

Private universities flourish in a legal vacuum in Myanmar. Until proper regulations are set in place, caution is advised for those choosing this tempting solution.

Public or private? For Ko Maung Maung, who obtained an IT degree which did not teach him actual IT skills, the answer is simple. “If you can, then go abroad. Do not study here.”

Some of the student names used in the story have been changed.


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