On September 26, Sunday, 30 youth leaders of Myanmar gathered to attend the Social Good Summit organized by United Nations Development Programme in partnership with United Nations Volunteers and United Nations Population Fund at the Chatrium Hotel in Yangon. The main focus of the summit was to educate the youth about the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that has been adopted by world leaders on September 25th at the United Nationals General Assembly.
The Sustainable Development Goals are the new set of Goals to be adopted by the UN, which builds on the existing Millennium Development goal and the agenda aims to end extreme poverty, ensure quality education, fight inequality and injustice, and take action to combat climate change by 2030.
During the discussion session, where the youth were asked to brainstorm how to help advocate SDGs in their community and which goal mattered the most for Myanmar, only one goal was loud and clear. Quality Education. It is the one goal all the youth in the CSOs and NGOs stressed. Why is the current education system a major concern?
Background on Myanmar’s Education System
The current schooling system (informally) involves spending six long hours in school attending classes each day and an additional two to three hours of private classes a week. Yet, despite their hunger for education, the public school system falls flat in its provision of useful real world skills.
After school private tuition classes are conducted by the head teacher where the teacher reviews the work done in class, helps with the home-works and most of the times, give the students hints on what the exam is going to be about.
The education system has little or no critical thinking element and is purely “parrot” based system. Children are asked to recite and re-write everything that is taught without a single mistake. Although children may find alternative ways to answer the same question, penalizing in exams normally discourages independent thinking and creative techniques.
Next, questioning is discouraged. While in many parts of the world, students are encouraged to question to improve their understanding, in Myanmar, questioning means something else. Questioning the teacher implies that you are suspicious of what she is teaching and therefore, a sign of disrespect. People who question are normally punished either by harsh scolding or by bringing their confidence down for a “stupid” question they asked.
Higher education/University is yet another story. Many students take a course in distance education. Distance education sounds interesting and appealing to many students since 10-20 days of lectures and private tuition classes is all they need to be able to pass the exam each year. As might be expected, students are required to submit assignments well before the exams and before the 10 intensive days of lecture. One might wonder how the students manage to complete such assignments. Well, they also seem to have a smart solution for it. Throughout Myanmar, the University Assignments for every degree is done by two producers: Mahar and Nyein The only task left for the student is to copy exactly what is written in these books in a very nice handwriting. Plagiarism? Who cares?
“Due to the bad education system in Myanmar, it is difficult to access the ability of students by the degrees they have done. Instead, we look at what extra qualifications they have done such as LCCI etc.” complained an employer. One student on the other hand raised his concern: “Because most students can pay to pass their exams or by not knowing much, there is no credibility to our degree. Even if we want to try hard to be different, we don’t have any motivation because no one will recognize our degree.”
Why is a good education system even important for Myanmar?
After decades of economic stagnation, isolation and being under an oppressed regime, the country lack researchers, analysts and economists who could help the country build good institutions and essential economic policies to bring the country right on track in terms of development. With some subjects are regarded “superior” to another; many students tend to specialize in scientific such as medicine and engineering. Not to mention the “open” discriminative system of choosing students for doing these degrees as you need more marks in your matriculation exam to do degrees such as engineering and medicine if you are a women.
As the ASEAN Economic Community comes into action this year, calling for a single market and a single production base, there will not only be a free flow of goods, services and investments but also a free flow of skilled labour. Skilled labour in Myanmar is already a rare commodity. As the economy grows further, it is possible that, Myanmar will have an influx of skilled labour as the demand outstrips the supply. A rise in youth unemployment amongst the Burmese youth is a fear.
Good education produces good doctors, good institutions, good job opportunities and many more. Getting back to the SDGs, with improvements in quality education alone, a lot of goals could be achieved automatically.
A lot of teachers in the public schools have little training especially in the rural areas. Due to lack of sufficient teachers in the area, teachers who have not completed high school normally are obliged to volunteer for the development of their community. Yet, there is only so much they could contribute to. It is therefore essential to stress that, to achieve the goals of Quality Education, it is important to have qualified teachers. Most importantly, a centralized pool of qualified teacher is necessary to ensure qualified teachers make it to the remote/rural schools across Myanmar.
Quality Education comes at a cost. Public school teachers are still paid very low compared to their private school counterparts. To attract better quality teachers, the salary gap should be reduced. In addition, by paying a higher salary, practices such as making it compulsory for students to attend private tuition classes by teaching less in class, could be eliminated.
Lessons can be learnt from practices by other ASEAN economies. Fastest growing economy like Vietnam is focused on improving people’s general knowledge and building quality human resources. The country’s school system emphasizes minimum standards and gives special attention to remote/rural regions. This is essential. Yet, in the case of Vietnam, the importance of Education comes with parallel improvement in it’s economic conditions. Education was therefore a luxury and a ticket out of the vicious cycle of poverty as the country demands more skilled labour.
In Myanmar, many still question, “How good is the education system for our children to even spend time learning?”. Unless Myanmar finds an appropriate answer these questions, it will be hard to bring up an educated generation of Myanmar.