Myanmar: Education For The Masses


Dr Craig J. Reynolds

Myanmar has historically had an education system distinguished by high rates of literacy that impressed the first European envoys and travellers. In 1996 government statistics indicate the rate of literacy was 83 per cent, which is extraordinary for an impoverished country. The explanation for this high literacy rate lies with the monastic school system that still exists side by side with the state education system. The people of Myanmar are great readers, and their librarians are world-class.

The Myanmar Ministry of Education states that for the 1996-97 academic year there were 348,701 students in higher education. Even if this figure, which presumably includes technical and vocational training, is exaggerated it is huge in relation to the country’s real needs. In that year about 64 per cent of the workforce was engaged in agriculture. Demand for skilled labour in industry and the public service was modest and could not absorb the number of young graduates. It is no wonder that university students have been a political force since before independence, for they have always had minimal prospects for employment after graduation. The official unemployment rate of 4.72 per cent for 1996 is surely unrealistically low.

Military leaders ruling Myanmar since 1989 have tried to address the fit between demand and supply. New cooperative colleges run by the Ministry of Cooperatives have been opened since 1994, an initiative that must be helpful to agricultural development. But while the Defence Services opened an Institute of Medicine in 1992 and an Institute of Engineering in 1993, these initiatives would be mostly to the advantage of the armed forces rather than the population at large.

Another difficult problem for economic planners as well as foreign investors is that the quality of university as well as technical and vocational education has necessarily been low for the past thirty-five years. I was impressed, at an academic conference I attended in Yangon last December, by the English proficiency and level of education of public servants and university staff in their 60s and 70s. But there is an absence of such skilled people now in the younger age brackets.

WATCHPOINT: In view of the skills and education of its labour force, how will Myanmar respond to changing times if the country should become more open to the international economy?


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