With the National League for Democracy, or NLD, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, winning nearly 80% of seats in the national election held on 8 November, and two former rectors of major universities elected to parliament, the prospects of education reform are high but it is still unclear where the priorities will lie.
According to the country’s constitution, a law can be enacted if more than 50% of legislators back it in parliament. The NLD is in a position to push through legislation and a new NLD-led government could implement it freely.
As Myanmar “steps into the dawn of democracy”, educational reforms will be part of it, said U Naing Ngwe Thein, vice-chair of Mon National Party and a retired director of the Ministry of Education.
Knowledgeable people from the education sector will be in the soon-to-be-formed new parliament. If the new government includes those who will really make educational reforms, it could start to improve Myanmar education, he said.
Among newly-elected MPs are Aung Thu, a former rector of Yangon University representing the NLD, and Maung Thin, a former rector of Mandalay University representing the Union Solidarity and Development Party or USDP, the current ruling party. Both have been closely involved in education reform.
NLD’s Aung Thu said it would only be clear what should be done in the education sector after the current situation was properly assessed. “We can only say in detail [what is required] after we have completed our source analysis,” he told University World News.
Aung Thu only took up his post as rector of Yangon University in 2014 – a time of major change when the university readmitted students after being closed down by the military regime in the mid-1990s following student protests. He said new laws relating to the different education levels were needed after some provisions in the National Education Law that some students have objected to have been amended.
During his tenure as rector, Aung Thu was involved in drawing up the National Education Law and Higher Education bills that later sparked protests around the country. He retired from the post this July – he says reluctantly – on reaching the statutory age for retirement, before standing for parliament.
USDP’s Maung Thin was the ruling party’s major victor amid a sea of NLD wins. He won in Meiktila – where communal violence broke out in 2013 between Buddhists and Muslims leaving many dead – where he had also been rector of Meiktila University, before moving to Mandalay University.
Maung Thin was directly involved in drafting the National Education Law. “Though the National Education Law has been enacted, there is a lot we need to do. A Basic Education Law, Vocational Education Law, Teachers’ Training Law, Private Education Law and University Education Law have yet to be enacted,” he told University World News.
Primary education should be given special consideration because the numbers dropping out of school without finishing primary education is too high, he believes.
“Enrolment at primary level last year was 5.3 million but the numbers of students reaching middle school level is 2.7 million; nearly 50% have disappeared. We call it education waste,” he said, adding the numbers needed to be reduced.
The Mon Party’s U Naing Ngwe Thein also stressed that the numbers of children who do not complete primary school is shockingly high, especially in ethnic minority regions. He served for 40 years in Kayin, Kachin and Mon States, populated by minority groups.
Myanmar’s education system had deteriorated at all levels from primary education to university education. Systematic reforms were needed at all levels at the same time. “Generally speaking, we shouldn’t be focusing on a particular level. I think it is important to be able to raise all levels together,” Aung Thu said.
Aung Thu said in order to assess the country’s education needs he had tried to establish a population research centre at Yangon University while serving as rector. Countries such as Australia have solid data on the economy of all regions in the country and what is needed in each. More than 40 faculty members have been sent to Australia since mid-2014 to do this type of analysis, he said.
He said the main education reform challenges, out of the many substantial challenges Myanmar was facing, was an insufficient education budget as the country’s economy is not strong enough. Myanmar’s education budget is the lowest in Southeast Asia.
An increase in the overall education budget was a significant demand of students protesting in 2014 and earlier this year against the National Education Law.