Published in Mizzima Weekly on 28 May 2015

Dr Yin Yin Nwe, chief education advisor to the president and special advisor to Myanmar Peace Centre

Dr Yin Yin Nwe, chief education advisor to the president and special advisor to Myanmar Peace Centre

Education and labour market experts took part in a panel titled “The human capital conundrum” in Yangon on 15 May as part of the Economist Events’ Myanmar Summit.

Although Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government launched efforts to overhaul the country’s out-dated education system in 2012, it is widely acknowledged that one of the greatest barriers to attracting higher levels of foreign investment is its low-skilled workforce.

According to panelist Dr Yin Yin Nwe, chief education advisor to the president and special advisor to Myanmar Peace Centre, the three major issues that need tackling are a lack of access, quality and bureaucracy.

“There’s a prevailing attitude that having a high school diploma doesn’t make a difference in terms of life opportunities – so there’s a lack of incentive to go and get even that. But I believe the most important thing we need to do is remove the red tape. We don’t need to be told; we know this,” said Dr Yin Yin Nwe.

In February 2012, the Ministry of Education began the Comprehensive Education Sector Review (CESR) with support from development partners such as Germany’s GIZ and the European Union, which is expected to be completed in the coming months. Myanmar is moving away from a highly centralised education system which for decades has prevented institutions from being innovative or adapting to the needs of its students, who for the most part learn by rote.

The National Education Law was passed in September 2014 but has been the subject of protests which kicked off last November and resurfaced in March. Students were disgruntled by what they perceived as a lack of consultation in drafting the law and no specific mention of the right to freedom of assembly. The law is currently being amended by parliament.

“I think a lot of protestors were driven by political agendas so I don’t want to get into that,” said Dr Yin Yin New in response to a question from a member of the audience.

A new law on technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is simultaneously being drafted by 21 different ministries – although the Ministry of Science and Technology was recently given the role of coordinating ministry, Dr Yin Yin Nwe conceded that the process remains “very fragmented.”

“We are taking baby steps in regards to TVET. We must encourage Japanese investors in particular to train people for periods of six months to two years – and the government must provide recognition for the qualifications they receive.”

Panelist Andrew McLeod, a research fellow and programme director at the Oxford-Myanmar Law Programme at Oxford University, said: “Such adjustments – which would essentially return higher education to what it was in the mid-20th century in Myanmar – require a great deal of effort.”

He added that while Oxford University is not looking to establish any of its own institutions in Myanmar, it is keen to work with a range of stakeholders on tertiary reform.

Mr McLeod, who had spent the previous 10 days at Yangon University working on developing a new curriculum for the law of contracts, emphasised that teachers as well as students need to be empowered.

“If you want students thinking critically, the teacher has to be comfortable with that. Offering teachers six month overseas placements would provide the opportunity for them to observe different teaching methods. It would also equip them with better English skills, which would in turn allow them to incorporate English materials into their curriculum.”

Dr Yin Yin Nwe, who was herself a teacher, said that the proportion of rote learning has decreased significantly since the government initiated reforms. However she said that there are cultural as well as practical barriers to fostering critical thinking in the classroom setting.

“Our culture teaches us not to speak up – and particularly not to elders. It’s also difficult to encourage interaction between students and teachers when the ratio is 70:1. There’s no easy fix for these challenges. Improvements will be gradual. Even in Singapore it took a long time for education standards to improve,” she said.

Retention challenges

In addition to providing on-the-job training, retention is seen as being of vital importance. As an increasing number of international companies enter Myanmar, the employment market has become extremely fluid and retention is often a major headache for employers.

The Economist's Myanmar Summit was held on 15 May 2015 in Yangon.

The Economist’s Myanmar Summit was held on 15 May 2015 in Yangon.

Vicky Bowman, director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, said that international companies aren’t necessarily doing any better than local companies when it comes to retaining their staff.

She said that many companies fail to provide staff with long-term incentive plans or a sense of belonging.

“This is classic stuff – retention isn’t purely about salaries. Sometimes retention strategies are missing because of the speed at which a company is growing and some companies probably aren’t doing as much as they should because they are busy dealing with Nay Pyi Taw,” she told Mizzima after the panel.

Ms Bowman said she said is somewhat skeptical of TVET, because “the government puts together technical programs which are very skills specific as opposed to teaching things such as work readiness.”

She cited a government TVET programme for tourist guides, saying “Those who come out of the course haven’t been taught how to be a guide. They’ve been taught a spiel on the Shwedagon Pagoda and so forth and can’t respond to the questions tourists may have. There’s a difference in perception in terms of what the government thinks is a tourist guide is and what the market demand is,” she said.

Panelists agreed that businesses operating in Myanmar should provide input into the TVET reform process to ensure that it’s relevant and provides a link wherever possible to an actual position, such as by offering internships.

Home advantage

The panelists also discussed issues relating to ‘repats’, who are joining Myanmar’s workforce in steadily increasing numbers.

“Repats are offered the nice jobs, which places the domestic staffing industry staff at a disadvantage,” said Dr Yin Yin Nwe.

However Ms Bowman said that salary expectations are often a barrier for repats. She cited the example of a Myanmar business expert she recently spoke to who earns US$12,000 a month in Denver.

“That would be more than an expat managing director would earn in Myanmar. Some repats want more than foreigners, while some companies don’t properly recognise the value of a repat,” she said.

When the moderator asked the audience whether Myanmar’s human capital woes is likely to be solved within five years, only fifty percent answered in the affirmative. This seems to demonstrate that a great deal of work lies ahead before Myanmar’s workforce can be pronounced work-fit.