The Debate | Opinion

Myanmar’s Non-Government Education Sector Needs Urgent Help

There is an urgent need for foreign governments to help ensure that a generation of Myanmar youth is not lost to the country’s political turmoil.

Myanmar’s Non-Government Education Sector Needs Urgent Help

The logo of the newly established Spring University Myanmar (SUM).

Credit: Facebook/Spring University Myanmar – SUM

There are, of course, few winners from the coup that was launched in Myanmar on February 1. But, with almost half of the nearly 55 million population under 24, Myanmar’s youth have lost more than most. While many have lost their jobs, their freedoms, and even their lives since the army took over the country’s administration, it is perhaps in education where Myanmar’s young population has borne the most severe burden.

The country has not only seen a closure of educational institutions, partly due also to COVID-19 measures; it has also witnessed the virtual breakdown of the education sector as a whole, ensuring that many of Myanmar’s students will bear the costs of the coup well into their adult lives. International aid donors and educational institutions must act on the opportunities now available to step in and provide assistance.

Since democratic elections in 2010, Myanmar’s education sector has been a focal point for the country’s new leadership. It seemed for much of the 2010s that this generation might be among the luckiest in living memory, benefiting from the increased openness and international engagement that attended the country’s democratic reforms after decades of stilted progress under a succession of authoritarian regimes.

Early in 2021, many educational institutions were preparing to begin a new year with rare optimism. The National League for Democracy-run government had initiated a well-supported reform process to lift Myanmar’s schools and universities out of the mire of under-funding, politically motivated repression, and general systemic torpor.

The coup immediately halted any progress and with large scale protests against the coup hitting the streets almost straight away, including many students and teachers in prominent roles, formal education took a back seat. With rolling internet outages undermining any real chance to study online, most students saw their studies abruptly curtailed.

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Now, just over six months on, and even as protests continue, students are not surprisingly anxious to get back to their studies. The military government under Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has attempted to get the 2021 study year back on track( mostly to get students off the streets) and reopened some facilities in May. But a combination of fear and resolve saw only small numbers of students and staff return. Some 11,000 academic staff and other university workers and some 125,000 school teachers were suspended soon afterwards, seemingly in retaliation. By June only around 25 percent of students had reported for school.

This leaves students and staff in a desperate limbo, without funding or support, or even, in many cases, a functioning campus. Education in Myanmar remains something of a functional desert. The current student-age cohort of Myanmar people is at risk of becoming not the lucky generation, but the lost generation.

While foreign direct investment into Myanmar has continued since the coup, it has been skewed by the country’s political crisis. Sanctions on Myanmar, and general uncertainty, have blocked many Western investors. This has seen the United Arab Emirates, a relatively minor investor source through the “democracy decade” of the 2010s, come to dominate investment inflow in the latest annual period to June. There is little evidence this funding is landing in the education sector.

Education was one of the main targets of international aid until February, but all this was largely suspended immediately after the coup and has yet to restart.

The international aid and development sector therefore has a clear role to play at this critical juncture. Despite well-informed and considered calls by some for international donors to support the ruling military junta’s Ministry of Education directly, this approach seems counterproductive  and directly supportive of the coup. Civil programs should be favored.

Among the most prominent and promising of these is the Spring University of Myanmar (SUM), which was established in May with around 150 students. By July, this number had grown to 900, and there are now some 1600 “active members” of the SUM. Enrollment fees and donations are used to fund programs and are also channeled into education programs in internally displaced persons camps inside Myanmar, and in refugee communities outside the country.

Initially, SUM’s education programs were centered on English language courses. Programs have since expanded to include courses in science and technology subjects. Other courses are in development. Courses are online, generally via Zoom, which can make delivery difficult, given Myanmar’s regular internet outages.

Given the vast majority of tertiary students inside Myanmar, on whom the SUM is largely focused, are in medical, nursing, and dental disciplines, this suggests there are still large numbers of students who still cannot get direct access to their preferred study options.

The SUM has aligned with the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), the body that formally represents the democratically-elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, which was overturned by the coup.

With a focus on modernized learning and liberal arts, drawing on programs like those at the Yangon-based Parami University which, according to its website is Myanmar’s “first private, non-profit liberal arts and sciences university,” the SUM has sought to partner with foreign universities to offer Diploma courses. They have already attracted interest from prominent institutions in the United States, with Columbia University currently sorting out a workable arrangement with the SUM.

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As such, according to a SUM spokesperson, these partnerships will function as three-way arrangements between SUM, external partner universities, and the NUG’s  Ministry of Education.

Such an initiative offers a viable and useful means for foreign donors to inject much needed aid and development support into the crisis-stricken country. With a more discursive educational model, countering to some extent Myanmar’s past reliance on rote learning, and in partnership with the only recognized alternative government to the authoritarian military junta, facilities like the SUM (and others run through the NUG’s own programs), are just where aid funds, withheld for good reason since February, should be going.

While many governments should be commended for acting quickly in barring aid and investment into Myanmar after the coup, it is now time to find ways to help Myanmar’s long-suffering citizens with the nimble and effective disbursal of funds and resources. Starting with its students and educators, and emphasizing the validity of the country’s vibrant civil sector, is arguably the best way to get things moving forward again in Myanmar.