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Creative Programs Keep Myanmar’s Children in School

Myanmar is currently pursuing an aggressive course of education reform and restructuring, including reopening universities and investing in higher education. But one of the country’s greatest challenges as it moves forward will be keeping enough students in school before they reach university. Nearly all children in Myanmar attend primary school—an estimated 89.8 per cent, but that number falls off drastically. Less than half (49.3 per cent) of adolescent males attend secondary school, and only slightly more (52.3 per cent) of girls do.

School children, Myanmar
U Myo Win, executive director of Smile Education and Development Foundation, a nonprofit in Yangon, says that dropouts are most common in poor and rural areas. Addressing the problem will require state investment in schools, and “changing the poor families’ economic situation,” he said.

That thinking has inspired some to think of creative ways to support families and keep their children in school. U Naing Winn, a former chemist, created the Socio-Lite Microfinance Foundation—a company that gives small loans to families on the condition that all recipients keep their kids in school; if families cannot meet tuition costs, the foundation will provide scholarships to cover the costs. The foundation has proved successful, and boasts a 99.8 per cent repayment rate. Winn hopes the program will help people like Ko Zaw Htun, who has worked as a ferryman on the Yangon river for $40 a week for 18 years so his children can stay in school and have “a better future.”

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Myanmar’s Government Excludes Influential Education Group from Reform Talks

Myanmar is in the midst of a massive upheaval. Following the 2011 dissolution of the military junta that had controlled the country since 1962, the country has begun a process of democratization and reform. But now, just after the Ministry of Education hosted a forum on reforming an educational system in desperate need of change, the government is facing criticism for excluding the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), a prominent civil group attached to the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party. “In their latest action, they have denied us participation. We don’t think their process is inclusive enough,” said NNER member Sai Khaing Myo Tun.

burma seah1 coverThein Lwin, speaking for the NLD education bloc, said 150 members of the NNER were initially invited to attend the forum, but then the government abruptly revoked their invitations. “We had already prepared to go, and they cancelled,” said Lwin. “It is difficult to work together with the government because this is not the first time they have changed their minds. It’s difficult to believe them, to trust them.”

The Ministry of Education is currently in a two-year process of reviewing the public school system, identifying major priorities and recommending new policies. Ministry officials in charge of the Comprehensive Education Sector Review maintain that their process is inclusive and that they are collaborating with civil groups, NGOs, and community organizations.

In this latest process of education reform, civil groups like the NNER are calling for autonomous universities, higher teacher pay, and lessons involving ethnic minorities and multilingual education.

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Indian Compulsory Education Law Designed Actually Shuts Down Schools

Hundreds of low-cost private schools in India, which have become increasingly popular, are now being forced to shut down as a result of a new compulsory education law, titled Right To Education. The law, as part of India’s program to reform its educational system, requires a free and compulsory education for all children through elementary school. However, the law also mandates certain standards for educational facilities—standards these low-cost schools cannot meet.

School girls in Tamil Nadu, India The private schools, which offer education for as little as 100 rupees (about $1.63) a month—low enough to be available even to some of India’s poorest citizens—are being forced to shut down because their facilities do not meet RTE’s standards.

Critics of the schools say that that they are not providing running water or other basic amenities, and that they are not providing a high quality education. Some schools say that they will have to raise costs in order to meet the demands of the law. But parents students are fighting back. “Our parents are the pooorest of the poor, labourers and migrant workers, they won’t be able to afford it,” said Citanjali Krishnan, a teacher in a private school in Panchsheel Enclave in Delhi. Though comprehensive data on the school closings has not been released, officials have said that over 1,900 schools have been closed throughout the country so far.

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Education Reform Falling Short in Pakistan

Pakistan is in the process of enacting education reform, introducing new programs and legislating increased access to schools. A recent law, the Sindh Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, adopted last March, mandated that the state fund education for children between 5 and 16 years old. However, only one provision of that law has been enacted: the distribution of free textbooks to children in first through tenth grade.

School in Rahbat village, near Chalt

Recent reports indicate that the Sindh province, Pakistan’s second most populous, lags far behind other areas of the country. A survey in 2012 reported that 32 per cent of the province’s children between ages six and 16 were out of school—more than in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the country’s north that are beset with terrorism. Similarly, FATA students performed better in measures of quality than students in Sindh, outperforming them in arithmetic and English.

Some complain that the government has slackened in its oversight of the Sindh school system since the 1980s, resulting in school shutdowns and an overall decline in quality. “With no government attention paid to school monitoring, schools began to shut down and no new schools were opened in response to increasing population,” said Dur Mohammed Buriro, an education campaigner. According to Sindh’s education minister, Nisar Ahmed Khuhro, some 3,000 schools are currently closed in Sindh, along with another 28,000 without power, and 20,000 without water. Bruiro said that the first priority for Pakistani schools should be increasing enrollment. “If there are no students in schools, then who will get the free and compulsory education?”

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Sex Ed Comes to Pakistani Girls

On the heels of a recent UNESCO initiative to improve access to and quality of girls’ education, a new program run by the Village Shadabad Organisation is bringing sex education to nearly 700 girls in eight schools in rural Pakistan. The program begins with eight year old girls and teaches them about puberty, rights, and what to do in case of an attack. “We cannot close our eyes,” said Akbar Lashari, head of the VSO. “ a topic people don’t want to talk about, but it’s [a] fact of our life.”

Studying for the chance to become a teacher

Lashari says that sex education was the villagers’ idea. Parents are informed of the curriculum before enrollment, and none has objected yet, according to Lashari. The lessons also cover issues of marriage, including marital rape. “Our teacher has told us everything that we’ll have to do when we get married. Now we’ve learned what we should do and what we should not,” said Sajida Baloch, 16. In Pakistan, where marital rape is not a recognized crime, teaching the girls about the problem is a novel idea. “We tell them their husband can’t have sex with them if they are not willing,” Lashari said.

Sex education remains a largely taboo topic in Pakistan—Arshad Javed, a doctor in Lahore who has written three books on sex education says he sells 7,000 copies every year, but that none are bought by schools. “It is against our constitution and religion,” said Mirza Kashif Ali, president of the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation, representing 152,000 schools nationwide. “What’s the point of knowing about a thing you’re not supposed to do? It should not be allowed at school level,” he claimed. However, according Tahir Ashrafi, head of the Pakistan Ulema council alliance of moderate clerics, “If the teachers are female, they can give such information to girls within the limits of sharia law.”

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Grant Extends UMass Work in Afghanistan

A new $23 million grant from USAID  will allow the University of Massachusetts, UMass, to extend and expand its work in Afghanistan. The grant is part of a five-year, $92 million project designed to strengthen higher education in Afghanistan by way of a consortium headed by Family Health International, a group that includes Purdue University, the UMass College of Education, the Afghan Holding Group and Altai Consulting. “We will continue to build on the foundations with the Ministry of Higher Education [of Afghanistan],” said David R. Evans, director of the UMass College of Education’s Center for International Education.

School in Afghanistan

Evans said that UMass will be able to provide training for students to meet the demands of a growing and changing economy. “We will be creating associate degrees and revitalizing some new bachelors degrees and new masters,” he said. Joseph B. Berger, the College of Education’s associate dean for research and engagement added “We’re very dedicated to improving higher education in Afghanistan. This is a way to support what has become a mission for us.”

The grant comes at a critical time for higher education in Afghanistan, which has recently faced increasing violence. Women’s rights in Afghanistan, including access to higher education, where only 22 per cent of the faculty in universities and only 42 per cent of the student body are female, also remain a divisive and unresolved issue. As American and other western forces withdraw from the region, issues of access to and quality of education have drawn increased focus. It remains to be seen whether the continued involvement of western institutions will make a discernable difference in Afghani educational practices.

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Reach Out to Asia and Qatar Petroleum Partner for Education Initiative in Indonesia

Qatar Petroleum (QP) and Reach Out to Asia (ROTA) have partnered on the new Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Indonesia Programme, with the goal of improving access to technology, as well as streamlining teacher training and administrative processes in Indonesian education. “We are proud to say that although in its early stage, ROTA’s ICT Indonesia Programme has received an overwhelming response from participating schools, teachers, and students,” said Essa al-Mannai, ROTA’s executive director. The program, being implemented in 12 schools in and around Jakarta, has already passed the first assessment phase and is now being rolled out in full. There are plans to extend the program further outside of Jakarta in the future.

ClassroomIndonesian schools are sorely lacking in access to technology, and even when that technology is available, access to education itself is often limited, especially for young children. The Indonesian government reported last year that only 37.8 per cent of the country’s children under six had access to early childhood education programs. The ICT is designed to combat these issues, and provide more effective education for Indonesia’s students.

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Can a Modern University Build Bridges to Historically Isolated North Korea?

North Korea — Pyongyang

The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) is the first university in North Korea founded and run by foreigners, mainly from the United States, China, and South Korea, offering a Western Education. Inaugurated in 2010, PUST has selected young men from North Korea’s most prominent and influential families “to equip them with the skills to help modernise the impoverished country and engage with the international community.” In a country that has a long history of isolation and animosity toward the West, and the U.S. in particular, the university is a sign of hope for a North Korea that is more engaged in the global community. On the other hand, there are concerns that the university promotes unconditional support for a notoriously oppressive regime guilty of numerous human rights violations.

Similar to any other educational institution in North Korea, patriotism is a hallmark of PUST. Every morning, the students chant, “Our supreme commander Kim Jong-un, we will defend him with our lives.” Every classroom is also decorated with the photos of North Korea’s dictators, whom students are taught to blindly revere.

Dr. James Chin-Kyung Kim, the founder and president, is a Korean-American who raised most of the 20 million euros needed to establish the university – mostly from Christian charities. He was commissioned to do so by the current regime in North Korea. Many of the faculty are from the West, and are sponsored by Christian charities. In a country where internet and media are heavily monitored and students have never heard even of Michael Jackson, interacting with foreigners is a novelty. Some students expressed apprehension in the beginning, “but…now believe American people are different from the US,” and are eager to learn about other cultures and languages.

As a unique and potentially revolutionary institution in North Korea, PUST is a symbol of hope of integration and progress. As Greg Scarlatoiu from Committee for Human Rights in North Korea stated, however, “the key question is whether the university is trying those young Koreans most likely to change the country in a positive way, or those most likely to perpetuate the current regime.”

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Bangladesh’s Political Turmoil Takes a Toll on Test Scores

 バングラデシュのダッカのスラム街“Hartals,” or strikes, have been a common feature of Bangladesh’s political scene since its birth. Hartals often involve violence in the form of damaging private property such as cars, trains, or buses, and therefore result in a virtual shutdown of transportation and commerce. Although public schools remain open during strikes, attendance is low because many students are unwilling to take the risk of travelling. Private English-medium schools shut down during strikes, taking significant time away from the school year.

Not only do strikes take away valuable school hours, the uncertainty and constant reshuffling of exam schedules negatively impacts students’ ability to prepare. A student from Monipur High School and College stated, “our syllabus could not be completed because of the hartals and blockade programmes and now the political programmes are hampering our last minute preparations.” The impact can already be seen in the Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) results in 2013, which have dropped more than five percentage points. The combined pass rate also decreased 4.37 percentage points.

International exams such as the O’ and A’ Levels, which follow a global schedule, have been rescheduled or postponed at least nine times since January 2013, often at unusual hours such as midnight. In certain cases, consecutive hartals have resulted in cancelled exam dates, meaning students would have to wait at least six months before the next exam date. Parents and guardians are frustrated and worried about their childrens’ performance, and their prospects of admissions to national and international universities. A group of parents recently submitted a memorandum to the opposition party, demanding them not to call hartals on exam days.

Recent years have seen a marked increase in the number of hartals, with 173 days of shutdown in the period between 2001 and 2006. 2013 also saw a record number of strikes as it was a pre-election year. The recent election has been marred with controversy, with a boycott from the opposition party and a record low turnout. It has resulted in declarations of indefinite blockades and continued strikes, which threaten to weaken not only the economy, but the education system.

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Yangon University Re-opens in Myanmar

Myanmar’s political reforms, which began in 2011 with the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, are continuing with the reopening of Yangon University, which is teaching its first class of undergraduates since 1998.

Stupa-26The university had been the target of the military junta of Myanmar (then Burma) since 1962, when student protests spurred the destruction of the Rangoon University Student Union building and the deaths of dozens of students. In 1988, further protests against the junta caused the government to disband the political science department. 10 years later, the university ceased all undergraduate instruction.

In 2010 a general election unseated the military junta, and a nominally civilian government took power. Although the military still exercises enormous power in the government, recent reforms have led the country toward more transparent and democratic policies, and the administration of the university has followed suit. “We have full autonomy,” said Kyaw Nain, a university rector, two weeks after the school began admitting undergraduates again. After the military seized power in 1962, administration of the university passed from a council of professors to the Directorate of Higher Education—a government department controlled by the junta.

The reopening of the university is good news for higher education in Myanmar, where although the education budget has tripled since 2011, educational standards and funding still languish behind its Asian neighbors. A new class of young and educated Myanma will be integral to easing the transition toward a more liberal government and making concrete and lasting reforms.

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