Donors are not doing enough to help HE reforms

Myanmar has been going through a long process of education reform. But recent tensions linked to its national education law and possibly the upcoming sub-sector laws – including on higher education and private education – signal a lack of engagement from the development partners when it is most needed.

There is an apparent lack of policy consensus among multiple stakeholders and higher education reform is progressing rather slowly not only in relation to other sectors but even within the broader education sector.

The reform process

Although the Comprehensive Education Sector Review, or CESR, began in October 2012, higher education has been marginalised in favour of basic education and even technical and vocational education. The number of people working within the country’s higher education team, the quick wins announced in September 2014 and the resources allocated to higher education all support this observation.

Roughly two people and the assistant task manager (higher education) form the entire higher education team at the CESR, while only two of the 12 quick wins have been attempted – that is, the launching of a new university entrance policy and system design and the establishment of the Education Management Training Centre, which requires substantially less investment than the basic education sector and infrastructure development.

Project funding related to higher education, with the exception of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, related institutions, has come mainly from the Asian Development Bank, the British Council and UNESCO.

The Asian Development Bank has focused on its commitment to the CESR. UNESCO has supported a single higher education capacity-building project funded by the Open Society Foundations. And the British Council has supported higher education in terms of English language, institutional cooperation and, to a limited extent, policy dialogue.

AusAID support falls within the CESR and its project of revitalising the University of Yangon, while the Japan International Cooperation Agency has limited its support to STEM-related institutions and curriculum development.


There remains a need to define and reconstruct the hard and soft infrastructure of Myanmar’s higher education.

In fact, I believe that the development of its soft infrastructure is of significant importance given its long-lasting impact on the country’s higher education system, and on the long-term future of the education sector as a whole.

Although discussed within the CESR process, issues of access, quality, relevance and especially governance clearly lack the multi-stakeholder consensus that could form the basis for a sustainable and effective higher education system.

Institutional autonomy, consolidation and the rationalisation of higher education have been discussed but the lack of international support for higher education policy reforms and for a multi-stakeholder policy dialogue has stopped these discussions from moving forward and becoming policies that can be implemented on the ground.

International support for higher education in Myanmar has so far been limited to English language, engineering, increased but somewhat limited international collaboration, programme and curriculum development and increased resources such as e-libraries and laboratories.

Only the Open Society Foundations’ support for higher education policy issues (in collaboration with UNESCO) has focused attention on higher education policy reforms.

Both AusAID and the Asian Development Bank support higher education through and within the CESR process, while the former supports a number of institutions such as the University of Yangon’s revitalisation project.

Lastly, to my surprise, Japan, through the Japan International Cooperation Agency, has significantly been absent from the higher education picture aside for its support for STEM-related institutions, such as the Yangon Technological University, and curriculum development.

Although a Joint Education Working Group has been formed among the international development organisations and Myanmar’s government, political realities, including the upcoming elections, the lack of any real understanding of the need for a comprehensive education sector, as well as limited transparency and consensus-building exercises within the entire education reform process, have hindered the reform process.

Protests about higher education reform, both silent and voiced, are testimony to such a failure.

The international development community needs to understand that it is partly responsible for Myanmar’s current situation and needs to help the country to develop and bring its entire education sector – not only basic or technical and vocational education – in line with regional and global standards.

Although there is a need to respect Myanmar’s authority over its education policies, good governance practices, including transparency, accountability and multi-stakeholder consensus-building, should be at the heart of the education reform process.

Supporting reform

For this reason, I openly call for increased support for Myanmar’s higher education policy reform process, given the impact it will have on the country’s citizens and future leaders from a cultural, socio-economic and political perspective.

Myanmar’s education system, including higher education, should be determined by its citizens through its national governance process. The international development community, however, needs to support this process through increased support for policy dialogue and advocacy for increased transparency, accountability and consensus-building.

Lastly, any support needs better coordination within a comprehensive education sector, which takes into consideration the interdependency of each sub-sector on the development of a sustainable education system in Myanmar.

Dr Roger Y Chao Jr was formerly the international consultant for higher education for UNESCO Myanmar. He spoke at the 2014-2015 CHET – Centre for Policy Studies in Higher Education and Training – Seminar Series entitled Higher Education Developments within the ASEAN Community at the University of British Columbia, Canada, on ASEAN – Assocation of Southeast Asian Nations – higher education on 1 April 2015.