Degrees ‘not worth the paper they're written on’

Employment prospects for university graduates in Burma are unpredictable. The subject they studied at university often does not match workforce skills requirements. A physics graduate does not become a physicist. He may work as a taxi-driver.

A maths graduate will not be a mathematician, but may become a trishaw peddler. A history graduate may become a security guard. Many other graduates end up working in non-professional positions like brokers or even doing odd jobs.

In neighbouring countries, Burma’s male graduates generally end up as manual labourers, and women graduates become babysitters or housemaids. Graduates do not have the skills suitable for working in the areas in which they majored at university.

The government has failed to create new jobs, leaving tens of thousands of graduates waiting for years to fill vacant positions in the public sector. More than 6,000 medical graduates are now unemployed in a country with a population of 60 million. The International Monetary Fund estimates Burma’s unemployment rate to be 5.5%, compared to 0.7% in Thailand.

Degree ‘not worth the paper it’s written on’

There is no private university in Burma. Nearly 170 public universities are run by 13 ministries and each minister has his own idea of how to do it. There is no independent university council.

Curricula and learning materials are out of date and are not relevant. Graduates lack the necessary skills to tackle the country’s immediate needs or the long-term social, political and economic problems that have devastated Burma for generations.

If you ask a student “What will you do when you graduate?” you will get answers like, “I will attend an English class” or “I will learn Chinese or a foreign language to get a job” or, more frequently, “I will attend a computer course”. Shockingly, some will say: “I will try to get another degree so I have more letters after my name.”

No matter what the answer is, it is likely that university graduates will not find a skilled job. The country’s educated people scoff at their own degree certificates, often saying they are "not worth the paper they’re written on".

For years, about 25% of Burma’s budget went to the armed forces, compared with 1.3% spent on education.

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, in her speech at the World Economic Forum, called for investments that create new jobs to avoid youth unemployment. At Oxford University she said the education system was “desperately weak” and that “reform is needed, not just of schools and the curriculum, and the training of teachers, but also of our attitude to education, which at present is too narrow and rigid”.

Exam-focused attitude

The common attitude of students, teachers and parents is to focus on passing examinations and earning one or more degrees – not on being a scholar. They encourage a culture of rote learning, with little emphasis on understanding information or being able to apply it.

Behavioural, interpersonal and communication skills are not taught at universities. If a student can learn the answers word for word and repeat them correctly in an exam, then s/he is awarded the highest score or credited with a ‘D’ for distinction. Exam ‘spots’ (two or three sets of possible questions and answers prepared by teachers) are best-sellers during exam season.

This exam-focused system discourages students’ development of analytical thinking and technical skills. Good exam results can be obtained with money and influence. Corruption, favoritism and cheating are common. State-accredited education has lost credibility.

‘Tuition’ culture

University admissions are based on matriculation scores. The highest scorers will go to universities of medicine or technology. To pass an exam, to get higher scores or to obtain Ds, parents send their children to ‘tuition’ classes, where students learn the same curriculum that is taught at school.

Students used to take ‘tuition’ to get favour from their formal (government school) teacher or from an external teacher who runs a paid class; teachers give ‘tuition’ to earn money or to augment their low salaries. ‘Tuition’ is a way of making it easier for students to learn.

From kindergarten to PhD level, ‘tuitions’ are analogous to formal classes. Well-known ‘tuition’ teachers run tutorial-style classes with extra attention paid to individual students (particularly using edutainment programmes), while many distribute notes of lectures to a larger group of students. ‘Tutors’ prepare easy-to-learn short notes (usually with mnemonics) and exam ‘spots’, which are rehearsed by students before entering the final exam.

A ‘tuition’ teacher does not need a degree in education, or to master the art of pedagogy. Any graduate can be a tutor at a self-funded ‘tuition’ class. There are also ‘boarders’, or boarding schools, where a group of pre-university students are boarded in a dormitory after signing a contract with tutors who promise to get them to pass the matriculation exam.

Each student spends 200,000 to 400,000 Kyats (US$200 to US$400) a month – government schools cost less than US$5 a month. There are also job-related ‘tuitions’ for public sector jobs. Recently, many medical doctors have been taking ‘tuition’ for the job selection exam, which paves the way for occupying one of the 1,500 vacant positions at public hospitals.

Students with a strong desire to pass exams with flying colours hire a study ‘guide’ in addition to taking ‘tuitions’. The ‘guide’ is a former student who drills the student through repetitive readings. A ‘guide’ and a student read together on a topic until it is learned off by heart.

Students are under pressure to get results through formal study at school, spoon-fed learning at ‘tuitions’ and parrot-learning with a ‘guide’.

This pressure was increased when Burma’s universities were broken up and moved to the outskirts of cities to prevent students from uniting against the military dictatorship. Campus lives have deteriorated, buildings are unkempt and university grounds full of grazing cows and stray dogs. Students spend an extra two hours a day just getting to campus.

Attitudes must change

Rangoon University was founded in 1878, and it became one of the top universities in Asia during the 1950s. Graduates from its medical college were recognised by the General Medical Council in the UK before 1974.

Under military rule, the tertiary education system went backwards and Burma’s universities are not included in world rankings of universities due to lack of research and library facilities, an imbalance between students and faculty, and assessment based on the final exam.

The Ranking Web of World Universities (Webometrics July 2012) ranked Rangoon’s University of Computer Studies at 12,109; the University of Medicine (1) in Yangon at 15,930; the University of Medicine in Magway at 19,228; and the University of Medicine in Mandalay at 19,606.

Hardly any Burmese universities have their own websites, and no student has a university email account.

To regain the past prestige and glory of our universities, we need to change our attitude to education. Burma’s universities should introduce a skills-based curriculum and affiliate with international universities.

My aspiration is that one of the world-ranking universities (or the Institute of International Education) might build a model university in Burma to coincide with the suspension of European Union and United States sanctions and with the Burmese government’s call for international investment.

* Dr Myint Oo is adjunct assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in the United States.