After decades of neglect, Burma’s education system is in drastic need of reform and a far larger share of the national budget, said activists and educators at a forum last weekend.
The forum, held in Rangoon on Oct. 6-7 and attended by more than 200 representatives from around 40 organizations, also produced a draft proposal outlining a number of specific reforms that Burma’s government should introduce to improve the quality of education and people’s lives.
“Our main intention in holding the forum was to give the government suggestions as to how it should change the education system in our country,” said Dr. Thein Lwin, one of the chief organizers of the event.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Thursday, he said the three main proposals put forth were liberalizing the education system, reforming the examination system and increasing government spending on education.
Regarding educational freedom, he said that ethnic states should have a greater say in how the young are educated, and at the national level, schools and universities should have more autonomy.
Reforming the examination system is necessary, he said, to encourage critical thinking and intellectual independence.
The most pressing need, however, is more money to meet the basic educational needs of Burma’s younger generations, said Thein Lwin, who is the founder of the Chiang Mai, Thailand-based Migrant Education Center.
He added that the participants in the forum have sent their proposals to Parliament and hope they will be debated during the upcoming legislative session, which begins on Oct. 18.
“We don’t want them to just review the proposals; we want them to completely overhaul Burma’s education system,” said Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation Students group and one of the participants at the forum.
As a first step, he said, the government should increase spending on education from two percent to 10 percent of the budget.
Beyond this, Burma must end its authoritarian approach to education, said the former student activist.
“We were victims of the education system we grew up with. We need to change this system. I want to see a free education system in the future.”
Regarding language education, the forum proposed that students should study their native ethnic languages, Burmese and English.
Representatives of ethnic rights groups said that states should be allowed to administer their own education policies, and that students from ethnic areas should have the same opportunities as those from central Burma to attend university.
“Language is related to culture and custom. If they have the right to study their mother tongue and other people recognize their languages, young people will have more pride in their heritage. Then we can all learn from each other, which is very important,” said Thein Lwin.
This, he added, would also help to promote peace in the country by teaching people about unity in diversity.
But Thein Lwin’s experience of working in Thailand has taught him that Burma still has a long way to go to catch up with its neighbor in terms of quality of education.
Unlike schools in Thailand, he said, those in Burma have teachers who are both poorly paid and poorly trained, and have almost no equipment.
He noted that Thailand has a successful system of compulsory education, which requires all children to go to school until the 11th grade, but Burma can’t even provide decent primary education.
“There are about 80 students to a class here in Burma, but only 50 in Thailand,” he added, noting that overcrowding in the classroom also presents major challenges for Burmese educators.