The State of Education in Burma

The other day a few of us had the opportunity to sit down with Noe Noe Htet San (former member of BWU’s Executive Council) to discuss the current state of education in Burma.

Noe Noe began by describing the university system. Currently in Burma, students must pay to attend university, but the professors do not actually provide instruction on the university campus. Instead, they hold classes at their homes and require that students pay an additional fee to attend. It seemed counterintuitive to us—students pay university tuition and then pay their professors directly in order to be taught any material? Yes, that would be correct. If a student refuses to pay the fee for these “home-teacher lessons,” the student receives no instruction. Sometimes professors show up to their near-empty classrooms (only the desks are provided) at their allotted class time but they only write a few questions on the board before leaving. No discussions, no lectures. Students also don’t have the option of only paying for the “home-teacher lessons.” If they don’t pay tuition, they are not allowed to take the exams to earn their degree.

“But why do professors charge this extra fee and only teach lessons at their homes?” we asked Noe Noe. She told us that it was because the salary professors earn from the university is not enough to make ends meet, so they must seek additional income. Since they are teachers by profession, the most logical place is from their students.  

Another complaint from Noe Noe and countless other individuals that we have had the opportunity to interview in Mae Sot is that the Burmese education system does not teach its students critical thinking. In the paraphrased words of Brian Deslandes, principal of Minmahaw (migrant school in Mae Sot), “In Burma, if the teacher is wearing a yellow shirt but he turns to you and tells you that he is wearing a blue shirt, you must accept his statement. There is no place for questions or debate.” This personally struck me as one of the biggest disservices Burma is doing for its students. Whitman places such an emphasis on critical thinking, I cannot imagine attending a school where one cannot ask questions or debate different ideas openly.

Going back  to the topic of examinations, Noe Noe also told us that it is not at all uncommon for students to bribe their way through the exams to earn bachelors and masters degrees. “They are buying their degree without actually learning anything.”

GROW: “Do employers in Burma know this?”

Noe Noe: “Yes, which is why a degree is currently not very valuable in Burma. Employers know that students can bribe their way to get a degree so their diploma is a “fake document.”

Employers elsewhere in the world, however, are not aware of the corruption in Burma’s educational system. After receiving their degree, students will often look for jobs outside of Burma and then employers in other countries, such as Thailand, will hire these students for jobs in fields where they have no professional experience.

GROW: “How can the Burmese government allow this to happen?” (this question, unfortunately, has reappeared quite frequently these past five weeks)

Noe Noe: “The government is trying to cover up that the educational system is ok. I have tried going to Burmese officials explaining what is actually happening at the universities but they deny that anything is wrong.”

So what can be done about the state of education in Burma? Well, Noe Noe does have a few ideas up her sleeve that she is currently pursuing, but she was also very optimistic that Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to push forward in the next nine months with her educational reforms.

Despite the flaws in Burma’s educational system, Noe Noe was very positive and adamant about the need for all Burmese children to receive a quality education and university degree. Her parting words for us:

“Education is really important. Maybe not at this time but later [a degree] will be valuable because if we change the government mechanism, people who have finished their university degree will be higher valued in the work force.”

After this discussion, all I could think about was how grateful I am for the quality education I have and am currently receiving. I hope you are too.

In Peace,

-Rachel, Dandi, and Rachael

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