Private education in Myanmar

In the immediate post-independence period from 1948 to 1962, private and state education were accepted in basic and higher education. During the socialist era between 1962 and 1988, however, private institutions were eliminated and the State dominated. According to the Myanmar Government web site (<>):

[T]hough the private sector has not yet formally been granted a status of setting up Universities with privileges to confer degrees, it has increasingly played an important role in the education market in consonance with the adoption of market mechanisms in the country’s economy. The Private Tuition Law of 1964 permits setting up of private schools to teach single subjects per se. Permission is not granted to set up private schools to teach the full curriculum.

Private schools, which emerged since the 1990s, have developed as businesses and are not necessarily regulated by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education in fact expects all Myanmar children to be registered in state schools. Private provision is accepted only over and above state education, with the exception of international schools. Policy as to what can or cannot be taught in private schools seems to have been developed in the past few years as such provision has increased. In fact, such policies seem to change quite arbitrarily and without much warning. The larger schools that operate as registered businesses are less affected than the smaller community-based outfits, which do not have the same kind of recognised business status.

Today, private schools have sprung up at pre-elementary, elementary, secondary and higher-education levels to cater to the popular demands of the market in English language, computing, accounting and business-related training. Some of them offer a wider curriculum, some focus on only a few subjects. Officially, private schools are not allowed to operate as an alternative to the state system—although there are a few that have a special status, such as the Yangon International School and the Diplomatic School in Yangon. These private organisations—sometimes calling themselves schools and sometimes education centres—are also engaged in preparing students for examinations held by overseas universities and professional institutes. Some schools are founded as a business company and some as a service company. Many insist on a low profile and many whom the research team wanted to interview refused to speak on the record. Only a few, such as the ones detailed in the Appendix (but not limited to these), will advertise widely and are accepted in some form and to some degree by the government. This is the case largely because children of government officials attend these schools.

The quality of the teaching and curriculum content varies from institution to institution and cannot be verified. The representative of the Summit International Centre, who was interviewed, said: ‘Abroad they have organisations to control the private schools’ quality. So private schools must try to meet the requirement of the standard of this organisation. We should also have an organisation like this here.’

There is also a distinction between private schools that act as supplementary schools at the primary and secondary levels and the post-secondary-level schools that prepare students for study abroad. A third category is international schools, such as the International, the Australian and the Diplomatic School in Yangon. Supplementary schools are the most common as children are expected to attend state schools. In fact, the State tries to regulate these schools by limiting the number of subjects they can teach.

Primary and secondary supplementary schools

On the author’s first field trip to Yangon, for a conference in January 2005, I met a businessman who had set up a school that was teaching in English. The school was at the primary level only and was meant as a supplement to regular state-school attendance, teaching after official classes had ended. The school was located in the businessman’s house in a residential area in central Yangon. It emerged during the next few meetings with other education specialists that such schools were common, but there were no official data about how many there were and what they taught. Interviews revealed that many taught only English, but an increasing number of schools offered a broader curriculum, some even employing English-speaking foreigners on an unofficial basis. A visit about six months later revealed that there had been a ‘crackdown’ on such schools and that they were now allowed to teach only English and computing/information technology (IT). The government was also trying to regulate this new market by dictating what fees the providers could charge, aligning them with the (very low) salaries teachers received in state schools. It emerged from interviews that, especially in secondary supplementary schools, under the heading ‘English’ a number of social sciences such as history was being taught, and that IT also meant maths and science. In this way, a fuller curriculum could be maintained. Official fees, of course, could be supplemented through black-market cash payments. A further closure of schools took place in May 2006, leaving only the elite schools that had direct support from the government (Burma Digest 2006). According to anecdotal evidence, however, between 2007 and 2008 large numbers of private schools seem to have reopened. Interviews across a number of schools with teachers, parents and principals revealed that the most important aspect of an expansion of the private-school system would be a change in government regulation, allowing for the full curriculum to be taught. Across the board, it was felt that what was needed most was clarification of the status of private education provision and clear directives on who was allowed to do what. The regulation was enforced mostly by school closures on an ad hoc basis. Apart from the elite schools operating as large businesses, there seems to be no dialogue between the stakeholders and any of the relevant ministries.

Despite the tight regulation on curriculum content, fees and teacher salaries, some larger consortiums have managed to set up private schools and education centres around the country. The International Language and Business Centre (ILBC) is such a venture and caters to a wide age group of students of English and other subjects. It is perceived as one of the most popular education institutions by the middle-class parents who were interviewed as a part of the research (Box 8.1).

Box 8.1

ILBC new class opens in Taunggyi and Lashio (Shan States)

According to the Managing Director, the International Language and Business Centre (ILBC), which has [the] most branches of private schools across the country and is based in Yangon, opened new branches in two cities Taunggyi and Lashio in the Shan States. They will accept pre school students up to GCE ‘O’ for summer course[s] and for regular classes. ILBC is the first one among the private schools in Yangon and has three branches in Yangon in Bahan, Tarmwe and Thingangyun with a total of 450 students.

Khit Myanmar Weekly, 17 March 2006, vol. 3, no. 25, p. 3.

Some private schools also operate with the help of volunteers. According to an article by Mara Khine (2006), a school named ‘Growing Together’ and teaching in English opened in Tharkayta Township, a suburban area of Yangon. It is run by Ma Khine Zar, who has a Masters degree in international relations, with the help of a Swedish ex-medical student and four volunteers. The school caters to pre-elementary children and all students are aged from three to five years. Khine Zar said the reason why they opened the school was so that children could learn English early. At the time the article was published, they had 30 students. It was not clear from the article if the school levied fees.

Beyond ILBC—a business venture—and pre-elementary schools staffed by volunteers, there are also summer schools that run like a business. An example is the Summit International Learning Centre in Yangon (Box 8.2). According to Ni Ni Myint (2008), it is schools like these that have encouraged parents to turn to education as a means of creating a brighter future for their children.

Box 8.2

English for skills priority summer school open

The Summit International Learning Centre in Yangon will open a summer school from March 6 to May 26, 2006 said the principal of this centre. The school will train English for skills using 50 per cent school time. Moreover, it will arrange mental maths, science & a social period. The summer courses are taken from International Courses which are specially made for summer class. The school will give original test books (not copied in Myanmar). There will be three separate classes for age groups between 4 to 12. There will be a school bus for the students. The school times are from 9 to 2:30. After the summer class, it will open for regular classes.

Khit Myanmar Weekly, 3 March 2006, vol. 3, no. 23, p. 2.

The Myanmar Marketing Research and Development (MMRD) publication called The Edge is a comprehensive listing of all educational institutions in Yangon, covering general education, language training, professional training and vocational training. Looking at the 2002 and 2007 versions, one can see a slight increase in institutional numbers (detailed in parenthesis in the following: 2002/2007). In the section entitled ‘General education’, the subheadings are ‘Day care’ (61/68), ‘Kindergarten’ (17/19), ‘Pre-school’ (89/100), ‘Primary’ (18/16), ‘Secondary’ (11—for 2007 only), ‘International schools’ (11/12) and ‘GCE’O’/SAT’ (22). The total number in 2007 is 216 in Yangon alone. Other subheadings are ‘Basic education schools’ and ‘Universities’ and ‘colleges’ (these last categories are the government institutions).

It is clear from the listings that most private institutions cater to the pre-primary age (which includes pre-school and kindergarten), nevertheless offering a variety of subjects such as Myanmar, English, maths and general knowledge as well as singing, playing and drawing. In certain cases, other languages such as Mandarin are also on offer. The day-care centres/kindergartens cater to those aged from three to five, but some offer their services from the age of one. The prices (for 2002) ranged from about 500–30 000 kyat a month. The older the children, the greater the variety of subjects taught (including IT, geography, history, science, arts, physical education, and so on) and the more expensive they are. The Montessori Children’s House seemed at the time to be the most expensive pre-primary option, at 45 000 kyat a month. Today, the fees are much higher, with the Summit International Learning Centre’s fee set at 75 000 kyat a month (Myint 2008). The parents, teacher and principals interviewed all accepted the fact that the private sector was available only to the upper echelons of society and some families in the middle classes who were prepared to spend between 25 and 50 per cent of their household income on fees. The representative of the Summit International Language Centre said in an interview that the school was offering its services at a reasonable price and tried to arrange lower fees for poorer parents (‘Our school is sharing and caring’). The various interviews also revealed that parents chose schools on the basis of reputation and whether they employed foreign teachers. They saw the advantages for their children based mainly on the proficiency of English acquired in such schools as well as an education system more closely related to the exams needed to study abroad.

International schools, pre-collegiate programs and higher education

Aside from supplementary schools, there are other private education facilities. They are either international schools catering to the expatriate community and to some very rich Myanmar families or they are pre-collegiate and higher-education programs that help their students leave Myanmar to study abroad. The surge in the international education market started in Yangon in 1997, as middle-class parents wanted opportunities for their children to study abroad. Local entrepreneurs took risks by competing for contracts with overseas universities and colleges and by establishing private schools geared towards children who wanted to study overseas.

Winston Set Aung, a visiting lecturer in the Management Business Administration program at the Institute of Economics, quoted in a Myanmar Times article, said there were qualified schools affiliated with famous overseas universities and colleges and unqualified schools that had linked up with unknown foreign universities:

It is very easy to make a profit this way, so that’s why many private schools try to work as brokers with overseas schools. [However] let the buyer beware. With more regulation for private schools, parents will see a better value for their money, and unqualified schools will surely lose out. (Zaw 2005)

There are also private schools in Myanmar that teach the American or the British curriculum and offer international qualifications. These schools start accepting students at pre-kindergarten level and those who follow the American curriculum usually need to study up to grade 12. As for the schools that follow the British curriculum, they prepare students to be able to sit for GCSE exams after the completion of matriculation, which is offered by the British Council Exams Unit. According to an article in Khit Myanmar Weekly (2006), more and more Myanmar students enter the Cambridge University exam every year. In 2006, there were 30 students aged between nine and 13 who passed the exam. According to the British Council (< background-burma.htm>), however, which is keen to market British higher education, the Myanmar Government does not encourage international education promoted by the private-education sector:

Education authorities assume that the [growth of the] private sector harms the image of state education and instead of improving their system they discourage the growth of the private sector. A few investors from the private education sector establish joint ventures with the Ministry of Education and only these ventures are free to promote their business under the umbrella of the education ministry.

The issue is particularly important in the higher-education sector, which used to be a beacon of excellence in Asia. Today, there are 156 higher-education institutions in Myanmar, of which 64 institutions are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education (MoE) and 92 are under 11 other ministries and the Civil Service Selection and Training Board. All the higher-education institutions are state financed. After finishing their matriculation, most students will go to state universities or colleges for further studies. They do so at a comparatively young age, as they finish school at the age of 16.

Due to the declining quality of the state education system, students and parents crave better qualifications and study opportunities abroad. This is, however, an option only for the rich and upper classes, who can afford to send their children abroad.

Although inflation in this country has been increasing year after year, wealthier parents have tried their best to enable their children to possess internationally recognised certificates. Middle class parents often make very considerable sacrifices to invest in their children’s future. (<>)

The main market for international qualifications and preparation for these courses exists principally in Yangon. Quite a number of education agents there represent a range of study destinations in Singapore, Malaysia, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. There is, however, no official agent association to regulate these agencies. Increasingly, institutions from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand have become competitors for UK and US qualifications. Most of their customers are those who have their UK or US student visas rejected or those who cannot afford the high cost of study options in the United Kingdom or the United States.

Recently, the Myanmar press seems to be more prepared to report about Myanmar students who pursue their studies abroad. The March 2008 special edition of the Myanmar Times focusing on education had a number of articles about studying abroad and also featured interviews with students based in Singapore. In fact, according to Winston Set Aung, the research director at the Asia Development Research Institute, Singapore is now the preferred destination. He said that students going abroad to further their education should not be viewed as a brain drain on Myanmar:

They will get international higher education experiences and good connections, which will be of benefit to our own country one day. Millions of Japanese and Chinese students have left their home countries to pursue higher education abroad. Today Japan and China are developing thanks to the combined strengths of their local graduates and those educated in the foreign countries. (Winston Set Aung cited in Kyaw 2008)

Australian universities also seem to be popular and the Yangon Institute for University Studies (YIUS) pre-university level studies centre has helped more than 30 students join Australian higher-education institutions (Thit 2008). They are not alone. Over the years, an increasing number of local professional training centres/institutions has come into the market, offering preparatory courses for UK/US exams and professional qualifications to thousands of students. The pre-collegiate program, based at the Diplomatic School in Yangon, is one such program. The program is organised by an American couple resident in Yangon cooperating with Myanmar teachers. The aims of the program as stated in the 2006–07 handbook are to help students develop their academic abilities so that they can gain acceptance to and possibly a scholarship from an American college or university or other English-speaking universities in the United Kingdom, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Singapore or the Philippines. The program promises to help with visa applications, prepare the student for life in a Western college environment and help with the planning of a career back in Myanmar. To this end, Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) training is included as well as a curriculum encompassing comparative philosophy and literature, modern world history, environmental biology, comparative life cycles and literature in the English language.

Others who might not be able to pay for such courses rely on private tuition. This, however, can be problematic, as the summary of an article from Living Colour Magazine describes (Box 8.3).

Box 8.3

Private subject tuition are [sic] investigated

Private subject tuition has been investigated in the 2006–2007 school year. This was announced on May 9, 2006 by No.3 Basic Education Department under [the] Ministry of Education. The township chief education officer is to instruct those who are providing tuition to apply to get permission to open the tuition class. The Township chief education officer has to report the tuition classes which are eligible within the rules and regulations of the above department. The officer also has to report the illegible tuition classes. If some problems occur and if he does not report them, he has to take responsible [sic] for all problems. The teachers from these tuition classes will be investigated too. If a school runs without permission, it will be terminated in accord with the law of 1984 Rules and Regulation of Private Subject Tuition.

Living Colour Magazine, vol. 132, July 2006, p. 18.

In hoping to give their children a better future with study options abroad, parents are also keen to send their children to formal institutions, although the quality of tuition is not verified or regulated. An article that appeared recently in the Voice weekly explains the situation (Box 8.4).

Box 8.4

Private schools ending with ‘School’ chosen over those that end with ‘Centre’

If the name ends with ‘school’, private schools are more likely to be chosen than if it ends with ‘centre’ said a principal of the private international school which opens in Yangon, Myanmar. The parents choose this as it is related with the international private school field. In this field, more credible names end with ‘school’ rather than having a name ending with ‘centre’.

According to the same principal over ninety per cent of parents did not check the credibility of the school. These parents send their children to what was perceived as popular schools [sic].

Until recently there were just two private schools (the most famous)—whose names end with ‘school’—they are Yangon International School (Shwe Taung Gyar Street, Bahan Township, Yangon) and the Diplomatic School (Shin Saw Pu Street, Sanchaung Township, Yangon).

The Voice Weekly, vol. 3, no. 30, 7 May 2007, p. 8.