Enrolment in state-run universities down ‘70%’ since coup

The military takeover in Myanmar in 2021 has dramatically disrupted education systems, leaving many university students and prospective students with little choice but to put a hold on their studies, raising concerns from educators about the future of the country’s learners.

According to a survey, about 1 million students were enrolled in state-run universities before the military takeover. Now, it is estimated that number has dropped by more than 70%.

Many students who boycotted the regime’s education system are engaged in online alternative education while others have dropped out to work, and others are simply idle.

In the 2019-2020 academic year, about 910,000 students sat what was Myanmar’s last matriculation exam before the coup. That figure dropped by 80% this 2022-23 academic year, with only 160,000 students sitting the exam.

Public universities are still open and holding face-to-face classes. However, due to a fall in enrolments, the junta last year lowered entrance requirements for medical universities – using the highest total scores in three matriculation subjects – English, biology and chemistry – and eliminating poorer subject results. Previously, medical school entry required combined high scores in all six matriculation subjects.

This resulted in soaring numbers of candidates for the country’s five medical universities. A non-Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) teacher at the University of Medicine 2 in Yangon, who requested anonymity, described classrooms as “crowded”.

Students have dropped out of their studies for a range of reasons. Some, like Hnin Aye Wai, are actively boycotting the junta-run education system.

Hnin Aye Wai was a second-year student at the Medical Institute in Yangon when a junior student was shot dead during a protest against the coup in March, 2021. The tragic incident prompted her to boycott the junta-run education system. When the university resumed classes in May 2022, she decided not to go back and is preparing to study abroad.

“I do not regret my decision. Others have suffered more than me. My sacrifice is just trifling,” she said.

Interim education

Since the coup, a number of educational institutions have been set up to provide interim education for students and, at the same time, to support teachers all over the country who are part of Myanmar’s CDM, the peaceful resistance movement against the regime.

The National Unity Government (NUG), which is the government in exile made up of former legislators ousted in the coup, has set up Interim Education Councils to coordinate alternative educational opportunities.

Ko Lin, a director of Spring University which was founded in May 2021 and is currently educating 15,000 university students online, said the coup had affected the education of millions of students in the country and the future of these students is a great concern.

He said the military junta opened schools and universities just to keep the system running but without providing quality education. In addition, many CDM teachers were replaced by less qualified people.

The educational programmes conducted by Spring University, the interim education councils, and online educational institutions, are still small compared to the country’s overall educational needs, he said.

“It is not easy to replace the education system of a country, no matter how many interim educational courses there are. There is a need for great support for Myanmar's current education,” Ko Lin said, adding that bridging programmes to assist students to continue their studies should be considered.

More than 200 teachers are currently working at Spring University in its 11 schools, including: arts and media; economics and management; education; federalism and peace studies; health; human rights and democratic governance; law; languages; social sciences and humanities; and STEM.

The majority of classes are taught online, and at the same time, they work in cooperation with relevant on-the-ground education institutions.

The struggle to learn

Ko Lin told University World News that many young people are losing the right to education because they are in conflict areas and may have had to flee their homes. Some may live in places where they have access to education, but financial distress prevents them from studying and they drop out to work.

“Not all 15,000 students attending Spring University are CDM students. They have different educational qualifications and are different ages. CDM students who are not attending Spring University may join other interim educational programmes and continue their studies at other private schools. But many students discontinued their studies and entered the workplace. A few students left the country to study abroad,” Ko Lin said.

Many of his students are working. They sometimes arrive late to class or miss classes when they work overtime for extra income.

As part of the NUG’s plan for interim education, NwayOo (Spring) Federal High School was founded in 2021 to offer online night classes designed to help working out-of-school youths and those who have joined the People’s Defence Force – the armed wing of the NUG.

The school has over 70 teachers who took part in the CDM and were subsequently sacked or suspended by the regime.

When it was first founded, the school reached an enrolment of over 300 students who planned to sit alternative matriculation exams held by the NUG. Later, more classes were offered for CDM students from kindergarten to Grade 11. The classes last three hours a night for secondary and intermediate level students and two hours for elementary students.

Older students can use this interim education to sit the matriculation exam conducted by an assessment body under the ministry. Since NwayOo Federal High School opened, matriculation exams have been held three times – 300 students in the first batch, over 150 in the second batch, and nearly 100 students in the third batch this March.

“[There has been] a noticeable decline. It was obvious that many students have lost their right to education. The NUG has opened online federal schools but not all the missing students turned up due to various difficulties,” said school principal NwayOo Htet.

“Many students have discontinued schooling since the coup. It has adversely affected their learning. It was sad to see out-of-school youths have entered the workforce,” said NwayOo Htet.

Students deal with poor internet, phone bills, and prolonged blackouts. Difficulties include not having access to digital devices, such as smartphones, and security issues. Some who have smartphones only have older versions, making online learning difficult.

These alternative schools depend on donors, so they can offer free education. But this does not include devices to study online.

Weak connections disrupt learning and make students depressed, NwayOo Htet said. “Well-off families have sent their children to study abroad while children from ordinary families have tried to adapt to these challenges.”

Arrests and threats

Lack of security is another factor affecting high school completion and university preparation.

The military has threatened teachers and students who reject the regime’s education system as part of the CDM boycotts. At least 30 teachers were arrested last year, thought to be affiliated with the Kaung For You online school which had 30,000 students enrolled and was recognised by the NUG education authorities.

The arrests followed a leak of data about the students in the school, and triggered parents’ anxieties about enrolling their children in alternative education.

On 22 March, 15 teachers from Mandalay who were working online with NUG were also arrested.

NwayOo Htet said arbitrary arrests, demands for huge ransoms, lengthy prison terms and death sentences facing teachers have instilled fear in CDM teachers and parents.

“The military junta has pressured parents to send their children back to school. There are parents who have cooperated with the military junta out of fear of learning losses in children. Those parents who resisted faced threats and insecurity,” he explained.

“My son’s teacher called him to go back to school. But he stood firm in his decision to return only if the NUG gain[ed] power in the country,” MonMon Thant, a mother of Grade 6 student Kaung Kyaw Htun told University World News. Kaung Kyaw Htun was 13 years old when the military seized power on 1 February 2021. He joined CDM and ceased schooling. He is now 15.

“I could not afford to enrol him in other private schools because school fees are expensive. The news about arrests of teachers linked with federal schools also increased my concerns,” MonMon Thant said.

Her son was idle for almost two years until she was able to find an affordable computer and English language class four months ago.

Data security

Following the arrests and torture of teachers, alternative schools have increased their data security.

NwayOo Htet does not ask for detailed contacts of students and CDM teachers for security reasons. During class, they turn their cameras off.

“Parents have shown deep concern over engaging their children in online federal education. We take great care over keeping data safe and do not ask for detailed contacts,” NwayOo Htet said.

Ko Lin said the junta targets any education programme deemed to compete with the military-run education system. Teachers who work online and on the ground with alternative educational groups, including Spring University, can be arrested at any time and tortured by the military council.

“Over the past years, we have gone through cases of arbitrary arrests facing students, parents and teachers who are linked with interim educational programmes. It is important not to leak data. At Spring University, we have set strict security protocols to prevent data leaks,” he said.