As Myanmar shifts away from agriculture and towards a more services-based economy, its graduates should be integral to the transition. But instead they find themselves frequently unemployable, products of an ineffective and underfunded system. Three times as many medical graduates who qualify each year are thought to be unemployed, and this pattern repeats itself across sectors.
Responsibility for the sector lies with 13 government ministries, each of which is at liberty to follow its own agenda. Teaching is by rote, with little opportunity for students to gain either practical skills or the capacity for critical thinking. Research is considered extremely low priority by the government and, until recently, has been actively discouraged—only around US$25,000 was spent on research in 2009-10. Libraries and laboratories are under-resourced, and employers are unable to shape courses to meet the requirements of industry. Decisions on everything from budgets to course content are made centrally, with the constitution prohibiting greater autonomy for individual institutions.
Just about 10% of the population pursue higher education, the majority of them women, as Burmese men often take earlier employment rather than continue to study. However, a preference for men in professional roles still prevails, leaving female graduates at a further disadvantage in finding employment.
Although universities are spread evenly throughout the country, this reflects a desire to prevent high concentrations of students in one place rather than equity of access. Building new institutions, rather than supporting existing ones, has long been government habit.
Since the onset of democracy in Myanmar in 2011, education has been central to the country’s political reform process. Speaking to parliament that year, the president, Thein Sein, pledged to improve teaching, nurture talent and increase engagement between educational institutions and the private sector. The largest development initiative currently under way in the country, the Comprehensive Education Sector Review, aims to provide a full assessment of the state of education. However, given that a national election looms in 2015, politics threatens to hinder rather than hasten reform, as political parties compete to position themselves as the saviour of the sector, at the expense of genuine progress.
As Myanmar opens up to international engagement, the opportunity for an overhaul of the system is greater than ever before. Higher education reform is both a government priority and a political football. But, as Myanmar changes direction, its students are a resource it cannot afford to waste.
Guerrero, C. Higher education case studies - Myanmar. Economist Intelligence Unit, London, UK (2014) 16 pp.