Education bill becomes law despite autonomy concerns

Myanmar’s overarching National Education Bill has finally been passed into law after being approved at the end of September by the Union Parliament – despite concerns from many groups about lack of autonomy for higher education institutions.

The president had the right to ask for amendments to the version of the bill first approved by parliament on 30 July. He sent it back to the house last month asking for some two dozen amendments.

However, the president does not have the power of veto. Lawmakers on 26 September accepted only 19 of President Thein Sein’s 25 proposed amendments during a paragraph-by-paragraph approval process.

The bill became law this month – within seven days of parliament’s approval on 26 September.

Rejected changes

Among the amendments proposed by Thein Sein, but rejected by parliament during deliberations last month, was that full implementation of the education reforms under the bill should be postponed until 2027, instead of within five years of the bill passing into law.

The Union Parliament reasoned that with Myanmar’s education so weak by international standards, reforms should begin early for progress to be made.

The president also attempted to remove the need to appoint representatives of the National Education Commission – a new body under the bill that will oversee higher education – only with the approval of the Union Parliament.

The parliament rejected the president’s annotation, reverting to the original clause agreed in July for the house to approve representatives to the new National Education Commission.


Section 26 of the National Education Bill, which states that universities and colleges must be autonomous, was rejected by a military representative but was nonetheless retained in the final vote.

“There are 13 ministries managing the higher education system. If universities become comprehensive, there will be fewer ministers,” said Public Parliament representative Su Su Lwin of the National League for Democracy – Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, which has been calling for increased autonomy for universities

“The army representative who rejected [this] in parliament believed that if all institutions are granted autonomy, those institutes linked to religious and military education might find it difficult to comply with the law.”

Nonetheless the bill is considered to lack adequate safeguards for university autonomy and freedoms for students and academics, and has angered students and teachers who have held protests in several cities around Myanmar.

The wording is considered to be vague on many issues, and among other things it fails to protect the right to association for students and teachers, critics have said.

In a statement on 19 August the National Network for Education Reform, or NNER, a coalition of civil society groups and student organisations, said it strongly disagreed with nine major points in the version of the bill passed in July, including formation of a National Education Commission and Higher Education Coordinating Committee, which it fears will limit university autonomy.

In particular the policy-making National Education Commission could exerting control over the sector and perpetuate military regime-style controls on universities and colleges.

NNER said the bill did not include any of its key recommendations drawn up after wide consultations within the community, including with students and teachers.

Little change

“Even after the National Education Bill has now passed into law, there are not a lot of changes for higher education, and the legislation does not guarantee freedom for universities,” Maung Thar Cho, a professor of Myanmar Literature at Yangon University, told University World News.

Ma Phyo Phyo Aung, secretary of the Myanmar Federation of Students Unions, agreed that the new law did not bring in many changes. It would take time to see whether the law would be effective for higher education reform, she told University World News.

Student groups said they were waiting for a more detailed sector-specific higher education bill – and a similar basic education bill for schools – hoping it would allow greater autonomy for universities and officially allow students the right to form unions, which is currently banned.

“The National Education Law is a ‘mother law’. So this is the root, and the most important aspect. We are unsure whether it would be the same in the higher education bill and the basic education bill. It’s very difficult for us to say now,” said Ma Phyo Phyo Aung.

Si Thu Maung, founder of the student union of the Yangon Institute of Economics, told University World News that students had been protesting to have the law amended.

“We are demanding to have a say in other forthcoming bills: a higher education and basic education bill. We urge the government to let the civilian representatives have a say this time,” he said, adding that there were a number of steps in the formulation of the higher education bill where the drafting committees can draw from public recommendations.

Referring to autonomy and freedom of association, he said: “We will keep pointing out that these are not included in this law.”

“We want higher education to be decentralised, which will give more freedom.”