8: Evolving Education in Myanmar: the interplay of state, business and the community

Marie Lall[1]

Table of Contents

The issue of private-sector involvement—a global phenomenon
Education in Myanmar — past and present
The state of education today: some different perspectives
Private education in Myanmar
Primary and secondary supplementary schools
International schools, pre-collegiate programs and higher education
Outside Yangon in an ethnic minority area: the case in Mitkyina
Appendix 8.1 Structure of educational institutions in Myanmar
Appendix 8.2 Examples of private schools in Yangon
1. Horizon International Education Centre
2. International Language and Business Centre (ILBC)
3. Summit International Learning Centre
4. Nelson International Education Centre
5. Ayeyarwady Media Service


Historically, education has been seen as a tool of human-capital creation, especially in developing countries. The development theorists’ case for compulsory education is based primarily on the link between mass education and economic growth (rates of return from education) as well as on the link between female education, fertility rates and public health. In short, the better educated a population, the healthier the population will be and the better developed the country will become. The role of the State has always been central in delivering education and the prime role of the state education system is to underpin the fulfilment of broader societal development goals. These goals could predominantly be economic, political, social or cultural, determined by the national, regional and international contexts. There is, therefore, an obvious need to adjust the content of education in a given context to changing societal conditions and needs over time. Underpinning the role of the State in education is the acceptance, since the end of World War II, of education internationally as a public good and the idea that the State has a responsibility towards its citizens in providing at least a basic level of education for all.

In today’s globalising world, however, there is a shift away from perceiving education as a public good, as the private sector is increasingly involved in delivering education services (Ball 2007). Education reform, often pushed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank-sponsored structural reform programs in developing countries, is not necessarily focused on poverty reduction and universal access, but on making education a business like any other. The key World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement for this purpose is the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which incorporates the aim of unleashing progressive liberalisation of trade in services, including public services such as education. The WTO ‘education agenda’ is to facilitate the penetration of education services by corporate capital. Education services are to be progressively commercialised, privatised and capitalised (Rikowski 2002, 2008). The WTO’s view is that trade and investment liberalisation leads to more competition, greater market efficiency and so, necessarily, to a higher standard of living. Development, it is often argued, can be achieved most efficiently and effectively through private-sector involvement. The trend therefore is for increased privatisation/commercialisation of education, reducing state responsibility vis-à-vis its citizens.

In practice, however, standards of living for many countries in the developing world (with the exception of China) have declined absolutely or relatively (compared with the richer developed nations) in recent years (Chen and Ravallion 2007). The education issues that have emerged in developing countries due to globalisation are access to education and the digital divide, the commodification of education through privatisation, ‘brain drain’ and the threat to the autonomy of nations for educational systems. While increasing private-sector involvement and privatisation is creating a two-track society within countries, it is increasingly also creating a greater divide between richer and poorer nations. Both these problematic trends weaken the State. Against this backdrop, how should we view private education and private-sector involvement in education in cases where the State is already weak and not capable of providing adequate education? This chapter tries to address the problematic issue of private education with regard to Myanmar, a country in which state education does not cover minimum societal needs and in which civil society (Lorch 2007) and private businesses have had to develop roles as alternatives.

The case of Myanmar is particularly interesting, as the standard of state education has declined markedly in the past few decades. At independence, Myanmar had the highest literacy rate in its own language across the former British Empire (Cheesman 2003). For many years, the level of education was one of the highest in Asia, prompting other Asian countries to see Myanmar as an example. Decades of under-investment and civil strife, however, resulted in the slow and steady decay of the state education system across the country. Despite the fact that school buildings continued to be built in cities and in villages during the socialist era, teacher education and teacher pay deteriorated markedly. The system has never recovered, and today Myanmar is facing an education crisis in its cities and in rural and tribal areas.

In many areas, monastic schools have increasingly come to underpin the state education system for the very poor. In tribal areas such as Kachin State, church organisations have played a similar, if slightly different role. With the advent of a small but increasingly affluent middle class, however, parents search for a third way to educate their children. Some of the very rich have sent their children to international/diplomatic schools or overseas, however, the middle classes do not have the means to follow suit. Consequently, in urban centres, a large number of unofficial schools in the private sector has sprung up teaching principally English and often other subjects as well. This is offered in addition to the state system, which remains compulsory. The cities, but Yangon in particular, are experiencing an increase in the development of edu-business. As a result, unlike in other developed and developing countries, the privatisation of education in Myanmar represents not so much a threat to the strengthening of a national education system, but an alternative for the small but growing middle class in the cities. This inevitably leads to a greater gulf between the urban elite and the wider, much poorer and often rural population. While the increased privatisation in most developing countries is to be deplored and increased marketisation is to be resisted by the government and parents, the case of Myanmar shows, however, that in this particular case private provision is one of civil society’s responses to a state that no longer provides the minimum education needed by its citizens. This chapter will discuss how the private-sector schools are carving out a new space between state education and civil society/community organisations.

This chapter is based on a number of interviews and observations conducted during seven trips to Myanmar between 2005 and 2007. Most of the research was conducted in Yangon, but there was a field trip to Mitkyina (Kachin State) and the author also spent some time in Mandalay. A research assistant was employed to translate Burmese texts (newspapers and policy documents) and to collect data from the private schools in Yangon.[2] The chapter discusses the interplay of the state and the private sectors and how these are creating a new dynamic in the education world of Myanmar. It will do so in the general context of increased privatisation in developing countries, arguing, however, that in Myanmar the increased private-sector involvement is not ‘used’ by the State to reduce state education. The chapter will also discuss the effects of such private involvement, which, as elsewhere, is increasing the divide between the emerging middle class and the broader and poorer population, who have no alternative to the state system.

[1] I would like to thank my Burmese research assistant, Thiri Zaw, who helped collect primary and secondary data in Yangon for this research project.

[2] There is very little material on education in Myanmar available and this chapter reflects the paucity of resources in that it cannot often cite other research. A lot of what has been documented here stems from the interviews conducted in the field and informal conversations with Myanmar citizens—some but not all of whom were education specialists.