5 Minutes To Read

On the Rote to Nowhere: Approaching Myanmar’s Education Reform (Part II)

5 Minutes To Read

Based on her observations, Madeline Luke explores potential improvements to Myanmar’s education.

This is Part Two of a five-part series by Monash University students from a two-week study tour to Myanmar. Read Parts I, III, IV, and V here.

In July 2018, nineteen Criminology students from Monash University travelled to Myanmar on a two-week study tour, sponsored by the New Colombo Plan Mobility Grant. This was the first Monash study tour to Myanmar and the first study tour to Myanmar with a focus on crime and criminal justice. Students engaged with a number of representatives from government, non-government, INGOs, universities and other agencies, as well as individuals including young activists and journalists, all working within Myanmar’s law enforcement and criminal justice sector. Through this learning experience, students developed and deepened their knowledge and understanding of the complexities behind Myanmar’s human rights, political, diplomatic, education agendas and how they intersect.  

“We agree to everything, except for that part,” a Myanmar university student said, pointing to the final section of our Model United Nations resolution that addressed human rights in the country.

“You don’t want an independent investigation into what’s happening in Rakhine state?” I clarified.

“We don’t want other countries doing that.”

At that point I longed to remind them that whilst Myanmar may not agree with international interference, the country they were representing – France – may feel differently. I wanted to assure them that even if they didn’t agree with France’s perspective, it was a pretend game where they weren’t supposed to act as themselves.

However, I didn’t say that, because it would not undo over a decade of being taught that Myanmar’s affairs are its own, instead of questioning whether they should be. During our trip, we heard from other Myanmar people that questioning was not encouraged in schools overall, and even punished. The result was young citizens who held more national pride than I expected to see in somebody my own age, not daring to consider any idea that threatened it.

When I reflected on the interaction later, I acknowledged the hypocrisy of my initial thoughts. During the game, I had been in the privileged position of representing a country whose views were close to my own. How could I be disappointed in the Myanmar students for struggling to keep an open mind on an issue that directly impacted them, when I hadn’t even had to try?

Many contributors to Myanmar’s isolation from the world have eased in recent years, causing new perspectives to become available to citizens. Media censorship legislation was relaxed somewhat following the 2010 election, leading to less government oversight before publication. Access to technology has also become widespread due to an emerging affordability, with Myanmar’s mobile market growing the fourth-most rapidly in 2014. Furthermore, aided by the introduction of e-visas in 2014, there has been a significant increase in foreign visitors. The next step is developing the skills that Myanmar people need to critically analyse and weigh these perspectives against their own, currently something that the education system does not value.

I don’t want to dismiss the current abilities of Myanmar people. I only question whether their capabilities may be stifled by the conformity that the education system has reinforced, making envisioning realistic, radical change difficult.

Myanmar officials are aware that they need to improve their education system, moving it away from rote learning and towards critical analysis. They are in the process of implementing the National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) to “reform the entire education sector over the next five years”, which includes establishing equal access to basic education, quality preschool and alternative education programmes. We joined members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Education Network as they outlined their vision for the future, determined to retrain all their teachers and for Myanmar’s education to rival others’ worldwide.

While the goal was admirable, the process was unclear. The NLD didn’t reveal how they planned to retrain all their teachers, especially as they have a severe shortage of them. Currently in need of an additional 10,000 teachers each year, they only receive 1,200. It appeared as a significant yet downplayed roadblock, given the “crucial role to be played by teachers” in the NESP. Furthermore, the goal of reforming the entire system in only five years struck me as unrealistic, even if all the resources were available to them. The only time I saw locals eager for external assistance was when they encouraged all nineteen of us to come back and work as teachers after graduating. Due to the Rohingya crisis, Myanmar’s international reputation has made receiving the scale of support they need unlikely.

Responding to the specific needs within Myanmar is vital to consider during the reform. Currently, there is high demand for those with vocational training, including teachers. Providing this in schools would open up more employment opportunities for Myanmar people, which NESP already acknowledges in its goal to “improve … vocational education and training”.

Representing this goal in practice is Sanon Restaurant, located in Bagan. The restaurant aims to “train disadvantaged youth in hospitality and English [and] find them employment”, with the intention of preparing them to work in the rapidly growing tourism industry. I spoke to the current English teacher, who is from Australia, and asked whether she wanted to extend her working contract. Her answer was a firm no. Her purpose wasn’t to teach English to Sanon workers indefinitely, but to be a stand-in while a local was receiving English-teacher training, so Sanon would ultimately sustain itself without international assistance.

I believe that Sanon is an excellent example of how external support should be used to establish a foundation for Myanmar educators to expand upon, and not be used as a consistent resource. If experienced educators trained those working in universities, or key members of school staff, the knowledge would become more widespread and utilised, somewhat making up for the shortage of trained teachers. As a proud and inward-looking country, Myanmar must maintain its autonomy by having its own citizens lead the way for a more stable education system, so that it may reflect the unique cultural needs of the country.

In this effort, Myanmar needs to draw on the skills of the capable and analytical minds they already have, which could offset current structural issues such as funding. The Parami Institute of Liberal Arts, located in Yangon, is more alike to international higher education than traditional Myanmar schooling, as their focus is on critical analysis. At the beginning of each intake, the institute undertakes significant work with students to teach them how to avoid plagiarism, as memorising and repeating somebody else’s work had previously been the expectation for them. Being encouraged to consider multiple sources and perspectives when building arguments for their assessments equips students with the media literacy that is crucial to scrutinise the plethora of information now available to them through technology. A feature wall in the classroom showed that graduates tend to proceed well in their careers, either studying internationally or working in roles such as bank managers as their skillset is recognised. Using Parami Institute graduates to guide educational reform means relying less on international bodies, establishing a sustainable solution. The graduates could analyse education proposals against their own effective schooling experiences, establishing more realistic goals than the current ambitious reform.

Ultimately, improving the schooling system isn’t only for education’s sake – its current shortcomings have made other gains in Myanmar difficult to achieve. When we visited UNAIDS, the representative spoke highly of teaching citizens about AIDS prevention measures. However, they had no indication of the current level of health education in schools and did not appear to be researching it. Furthermore, they were unable to outline what their ideal health education program would be, in either the method of delivery or the content covered. With properly trained and experienced educators, they would be able to assess the situation, consider effective strategies and implement a successful program – something that I suspect many other bodies in Myanmar would also benefit from doing.

Myanmar recognises their need for change. If external assistance is used, it may lead the way for greater international cooperation, perhaps improving the stability of conflict regions. But achieving this – and anything else – will be impossible for Myanmar if it does not also draw on the capable minds it is already beginning to produce.

Madeline Luke is a Bachelor of Education/Criminology student from Monash University, Australia.