Isabella Aung examines challenges faced by the interim education system post-coup.
The military coup on February 1, 2021, has had a severely negative effect on post-secondary education in Myanmar. With many university students and instructors participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), universities have remained closed for a long time. Though public universities reopened under the junta’s direction in January 2022, many students and faculty members, refusing to participate in an education system controlled by the military, continue to participate in CDM. This phenomenon has created a gap in the Burmese education sector. Education is a fundamental human right. However, students who boycott the military regime struggle to access it. More than two years after the coup, critics of the regime have developed multiple options to help bridge this gap.
There are currently four options for post-secondary education in Myanmar: public universities, private universities, not-for-profit online universities, and ethnic education providers. For student dissidents of coup leader Min Aung Hlaing’s regime, public universities, which are under military control, are not an option because these students denounce any involvement with the junta. Among the three other options, private universities are unattainable for many CDM students because these for-profit institutions come with a hefty price tag. Thus, the two post-secondary education options most accessible to student dissidents are online universities affiliated with the democratic movement and ethnic post-secondary education institutions, which may or may not be affiliated with ethnic armed organizations. The latter of these is more prevalent amongst ethnic minority youth given that these education providers operate mainly in ethnic minority communities, including for displaced populations. Some examples of ethnic post-secondary education providers include Education Gathering Group (EGG) Academy, Kachin State Comprehensive University (KSCU), Karen Education & Culture Department (KECD), and Karenni National College. Some of these education providers, such as KECD and EGG, have been in operation since before the coup.
Online universities, on the other hand, are popular amongst both Burman and non-Burman youth. In my capacity as both an advisor and a guidance counselor at the Institute of Human Rights and Democratic Governance (IHRDG), Spring University Myanmar (SUM), I have observed that both Burman and non-Burman youths constitute the student population. There is a growing number of online institutions that offer post-secondary programs and courses, including Irrawaddy Law School, Myanmar University of Social Science and Technology (MUST), Parami University, and Spring University Myanmar (SUM). Although these online institutions offer accessible, not-for-profit education for university-aged youth in and from Myanmar, they still face challenges in supporting dissident students in their pursuit of post-secondary education.
My tenure as the guidance counselor for the IHRDG at SUM showed me the most common challenges faced by students at this institution. I have been an advisor to the Director of IHRDG at SUM since February 2022, contributing to academic programming and planning. In March 2023, I took on an additional role as SUM’s guidance counselor. In this role, I work with individual students to provide academic and career counseling. Students come to advising sessions to discuss the issues they face while navigating the post-coup higher education landscape in Myanmar. By identifying the challenges these students face, I hope to encourage practitioners and policymakers to find practical solutions to improve access to higher education for vulnerable youth (though I acknowledge that students at other online institutions or ethnic education providers might not face the exact same challenges). In the context of this article, I use the term “interim education providers” to signify both not-for-profit online institutions and ethnic education providers, though I draw primarily from my experiences working with IHRDG.
Although many not-for-profit online institutions and ethnic education providers offer post-secondary-level courses for Myanmar’s university students, these students are often discouraged by the lack of four-year degree programs. Unlike public universities, many interim education programs only offer one-off courses or short-term diploma programs. The few institutions that offer four-year degree programs have competitive admissions processes. For instance, admission to Parami University’s four-year programs requires English language proficiency test scores, personal statements, and letters of recommendation. Many of these requirements are unfamiliar to youth previously educated under Myanmar’s education system, and the limited number of slots available to new students makes this process both alien and intimidatingly competitive.
Many of my students report feeling anxious about the lack of degree-granting programs. They also feel lost and hopeless when encountering unfamiliar admissions requirements. Hence, there is a need for educators and mentors who can help navigate interested students through these unfamiliar admissions processes.
Students also struggle with the fact that many of the educational opportunities available to them outside of the military education system are unable to grant formal credentials that would be recognized abroad. Students who want to continue their education abroad usually find that their certificates and diplomas are not accepted as sufficient proof of educational attainment for admission to graduate school. Those who want to continue their undergraduate studies by transferring to schools abroad also find that host universities may not recognize credits for the courses they completed at online and ethnic postsecondary institutions.
Some institutions have attempted to alleviate this issue. For example, Spring University Myanmar offers short-term courses that provide international college credit in collaboration with the University of Arizona. However, with only thirty students admitted to this special program, spots are extremely limited. Course offerings are also limited in terms of academic discipline: the only three courses available are Computer Science, Sociology, and Social Transformation. There is a high student demand for courses across different disciplines that offer formal and transferable undergraduate-level credits. Interim education providers and their donors should explore venues through which this could be made possible on a larger scale.
Students also struggle to access professional development opportunities and career readiness training. Several programs offered by interim education providers require students to participate in experiential learning through mandatory internship placements.
An example is the Human Rights Diploma Program by IHRDG at SUM. For those who switched over from the lecture-based Burmese university system to more student-centered and experiential interim education institutions, mandatory internships incorporated within academic programs are uncharted territory. Students often are unfamiliar with important career-related skills such as resume building, cover letter writing, creating a professional profile online, and interview skills. For students who have a background in disciplines that are highly targeted by the junta such as education and healthcare, there is a heightened safety risk. When applying for jobs, these students find that revealing too much information can make them vulnerable to persecution; yet omitting the most relevant education and professional experience from their resumes makes finding a job more difficult.
For many, the ongoing political conflict in Myanmar has made it impossible to continue the career paths they were on before the coup. Advisees seeking work in education and healthcare fields unanimously struggle to find balance between personal security and their pursuit of professional opportunities, regardless of their age, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. Hence, there is a need for interim education providers to offer career services along with academic courses to support students according to their unique contexts.
The number of students applying to study abroad has skyrocketed after the coup. However, for youths from vulnerable communities with limited financial resources, studying abroad is not viable. Although not-for-profit online institutions and ethnic education providers aim to bridge the post-coup education gap, many still find education very expensive. Low-income youths in particular struggle to access interim higher education. Many courses and programs are online, requiring students to have reliable access to both smart devices and a stable internet connection. With rising internet and mobile data costs in Myanmar and frequent electricity cuts – not to mention targeted internet shutdowns in regions most associated with anti-authoritarian resistance – virtual interim education remains inaccessible for many youths in hiding and exile. In addition, although relatively cheaper than private universities and studying abroad, interim education is not always free.
Different institutions have different registration fees for students who want access to higher education post-coup. For refugees, internally displaced persons, and other scholars at risk, even modest fees can deter access to post-secondary education. Interim education providers need to expand existing funding opportunities in collaboration with local and international donors to make education accessible for everyone.
Though there has been some progress following the coup, mental health remains a stigmatized topic in Myanmar. Following the 2021 coup, pro-democracy healthcare practitioners such as Dr. Phio Thiha and Phyu Pannu Khin began to speak up about the relationship between political conflict or warfare and an individual’s mental health. Many youth activists in Myanmar report experiencing severe mental health problems associated with political violence, ranging from anxiety and depression to a surge in suicide.
There is an alarming mental health crisis among Myanmar’s youth. Students of not-for-profit online institutions and ethnic education providers are no exception. All students who came to my advising sessions showed some signs of emotional distress and some further disclosed their mental health concerns. My coworkers at SUM also shared that they have similar experiences with the students they work with. While faculty and administrative staff can lend an ear to students struggling with their mental health, there is an urgent need for interim education providers to employ professionals who can effectively address students’ concerns. Healthcare workers who are trained in providing mental health care need to become permanent fixtures for the interim education system.
In this article, I have discussed five areas for improvement in the post-coup interim education system in Myanmar. These areas are deeply intertwined with one another and with the political situation in the country. For instance, the lack of degree-granting programs, credential recognition, and career services can result in youths having a very challenging time obtaining viable employment, which can in turn lead to an increase in financial difficulties, as well as mental health concerns, for young people who have already experienced incredible upheavals because of the coup. While finding solutions to address the existing gaps in the five areas discussed, interim education providers need to consider the interconnected nature of the challenge areas to effectively alleviate them.
Isabella Aung is an advisor and a guidance counselor at the Institute of Human Rights and Democratic Governance, Spring University Myanmar. She is also a doctoral candidate in Political Studies at Queen’s University. Her research explores how contemporary authoritarian power is both contested and sustained through social media and how this process is gendered. She is a fellow affiliated with the UBC Myanmar Initiative, the Civil War Paths Project, and the Queen’s Public Scholarship Program.