Economic prospects are bright, but your sector is looking at longer-term challenges and questions. How are you looking to update the infrastructure of education?
Our education sector is quite different from that which you may be familiar with in other countries. Ours is actually composed of two aspects: formal education and informal education. Formal education can also be divided in 2 – basic and higher education. Basic education falls 100% under the Ministry of Education with the exception of approximately 1000 monastic schools, which are located especially in the rural areas. Higher education, however, is run by 12 different Ministries. There are 168 institutions, and of those, 68 are under the Ministry of Education. However, because these are larger institutions, it means that about 72% of the students and 60% of the higher education teachers actually do fall under the Ministry of Education. Our institutions are not comprehensive – instead they are specialized. Those under the Ministry of Education specialize in arts and sciences, teacher training, foreign languages, economics and distance training. Others, for example those specializing in Medicine, are under the Ministry of Health.
We also have non-formal education. This is mostly assisted by international organizations like UNICEF and NGOs. They are mostly targeting children who are outside of the system such as those which are working.
As you know, currently all Ministries are carrying out reforms. We, too, are doing it. We have 8.5 million students, but that means that we have many more stakeholders, with families, parents, grandparents, all of whom are interested in our reform process. For the basic education level, our focus is on providing free, compulsory education at the primary level.
We are conducting a drive to enroll children in school through the “enrollment week.” We also try to get the stakeholders to make donations, either in kind or in cash. We feel that we have been quite successful because over 95% are now enrolling their children. However, we are also aware that after enrollment the problem can become dropouts. One of the important missions of our Ministry is not only to get them enrolled, but to make sure that the dropout rates are reduced. In the countryside it is difficult during harvest times to keep children in school. For this reason we are also dependent on improving the economy.
Of course we are also concerned about raising the quality of primary education, and that is focused on raising the capacity of the teachers. We have over 280,000 teachers, for whom we are responsible in terms of both salary and training. We are now trying to improve the standard of training for these teachers.
One of the topics that is true throughout the world today is the necessity for pushing rural communities to educate girls, and keeping them in school longer.
In terms of gender parity, we are actually doing quite well. I believe that we have about 51% boys and 49% girls entering school. In this way we are doing well against other countries in the region. Keeping them in school is what we drive through the advocacy program, and we are trying to battle the higher dropout rate for girls, especially in the rural areas. We try to persuade parents that they should educate their girls to a higher level.
When your President was speaking at Johns Hopkins University in Washington he extended the invitation for companies to come invest, but he also pointed to university collaboration as an effective way for western institutions to become involved in Myanmar. Can you explain some of those efforts?
At the moment we are trying to get more foreign institutions to get in touch with us and I have indeed met representatives from several American institutions. In order to make rapid progress we do feel like we need to partner with international institutions. The model that we are looking at now is that of Centers of Excellence. The Centers would not only assist the development of the universities concerned, but as each university hosts a Center concentrating in a different field, the universities can then feed into each other and collaborate. One of the Centers is in fact with Johns Hopkins, a collaboration for social science at Yangon University. Johns Hopkins should be bringing their scholars and we have upgraded the building and supplies. We also want to raise the standard for higher education, which we are beginning to do through increasing 3-year undergraduate programs to 4 years. We are also hoping for faculty exchange and scholarship opportunities for Myanmar scholars and international scholars to come here. We had a Fulbright scholar come last year and she had a very positive experience. We also had a group of American writers visit Myanmar. They gave a series of talks which went quite well.
I have a personal interest, because I began as a tutor and served through being Rector, or President of a University. We are anxious to get American academics to come and visit us and share their knowledge and experiences. We do not need just English teachers, but everything from marine biologists to conservationists, to any area of expertise. Another thing that I am keen on developing is creating more diverse programs, offering more options. We have been under sanctions for over two decades and for this reason we have lost touch with American institutions. If you look at our retired faculty, many were educated in the US and UK. Now, though, they are retired. For our young people to learn about the world and the US and UK we would like to see educators come to share their knowledge with us.
Now technology is being used to make education more accessible. How are you looking to harness technology in order to broaden access to education for your people?
Actually this is of great interest and we even started as long ago as 2001. Unfortunately we spent a lot of money establishing computer labs and learning centers, but we could not maintain the facilities. We are also challenged with electricity. My viewpoint now is that we should not wait until we can again establish such facilities across the board, but we should be doing what we can in each institution so that when the time comes there are already mechanisms for sharing knowledge. OSF is working on a project to provide us with access to online libraries.
Another way to help the sector advance is through private sector involvement. In 1964 all of our schools were nationalized through the “Burmese way to socialism.” Since then all institutions have been under Ministries. A year ago, though, we did enact a law allowing the establishment of private schools. Now those parents who prefer to have private education for their children can make that choice. We are now working on a draft of the private university law.
The reform process is about two years old. What are you driven to accomplish before the end this administration?
For me, the most important thing is to raise the quality of education, a process which takes time. We are, however, also working on quick-wins, like teacher training programs. We are also establishing these Centers of Excellence and hope that they will really contribute to the sector within the next two years. We are also very much moving toward a student-centered approach, with interactive classes instead of lectures and memorization. We want to encourage more creative, innovative, learning environments.
We also need to work with the private sector in order to provide them with the best possible future employees and we are anxious to engage in dialogue with companies toward this end.