A History of Education in Myanmar (Part-2)

  • University Education

There was little chance for Burmese to have access to university education. There had existed only two colleges until 1920 in Burma namely Rangoon College opened in 1880 and Judson College opened by the American Baptist Society in 1894. In 1920 these two colleges were merged to Rangoon University. Mandalay College opened in 1925 and Rangoon Teachers’ Training and Medical Colleges opened in 1930 were affiliates of Rangoon University. Mandalay Agricultural Academy of 1938 was also an affiliate of Rangoon University. Mandalay College became a degree college in 1948 and an independent university in 1958.

The opening of Rangoon University in 1920 did not meet a warm welcome of Burmese nationalists who viewed it as a complementary project to reinforce colonialism and pro-western elite class. There were reasons behind for Burmese people to suppose so. At Rangoon University, strict rules for university admission and matriculation examinations were placed to raise the qualification and the university would be separately administered to be free from outside political influence. A senate and university council free from the government control would be formed as university authorities. In reality these would be to guarantee self-administration and academic freedom of a university similar to the structure of western universities. The main grievance of Burmese students was a provision of the addition of a preliminary one-year course for those students who had only passed the High School Examination, and had not attained a minimum standard. High School examinations were suggested to be levelled up to diminish deficiencies. All the students enrolled at the university were required to reside in the prescribed hostels, and the number of students was limited by a merit-based admission. In 1919 there were only 875 Burmese students in Calcutta University. As more students would be liable to become ineligible due to this provision, they wanted to be exempted from it.

On August 1 1920 a public assembly including Buddhist monks organized by the YMBA boycotted the proposed Rangoon University Act. The assembly demanded not to submit it in urgency to the legislative council also as it had been made without consultations with the people, and U May Aung was strongly condemned for supporting the Act. At the assembly, Lieutenant-governor Reginald H. Craddock was quoted as saying, “How many Burmese university graduates do they have to rule by themselves?” The boycotters also questioned on the purpose of the Act to reduce the number of graduates, and were upset about a ratio of representation of Burmese nationalities in the university council and senate. They specifically boycotted a residential university system and the addition of a preliminary one-year course. They expressed the Act did not meet the needs of Burmese people, and if Burmese politicians in the Governor’s Council failed to stop it, they would overthrow it on their own. The boycott gained momentum shortly, and the university authorities didn’t know what to do. On December 4 1920 the boycott of Rangoon University students began. Three days later, the Chancellor of the university, Governor Sir Reginal Craddock planned a ceremonial opening of the university. The boycotter students gathered on the platform of the Shwe Dagon pagoda and announced an establishment of a national college. The GCBA mobilized throughout the country to open national schools. The boycott of 1920 symbolized a wake of nationalism and a resurrection of national literature and culture.

In November, protests scattered here and there throughout Rangoon in support of national schools. There was a boycott in Cushion High School of Rangoon run by an American Baptist Mission over setting dates for the Thidingyut festival of lights and teaching of Christian Bible without mentioning anything about Buddhism. All such protests eventually flowed into the Rangoon university boycott as part of nationalist movement. About the Cushion School boycott, its principal remarked, “Burmese youths are better educated than their parents, but Burmese parents have not guided them properly. Now they look uncontrollable, and Burmese parents who don’t support the boycott like us don’t know what to do. If you look around Bahan area…, it’s really inspiring to see about 1300 youths gathering at the foot of the Shwe Dagon pagoda. They all come here to study from different towns, and it looks a sheer waste of time….”

Despite running national schools, many of them faced a lot of difficulties except for some in Rangoon which were well-funded. Many were based in monasteries with insufficient teaching aids such as desks, maps and stationery with loose disciplinary measures. Some subjects were taught by conservative monk teachers and therefore, national schools lost trust in the long run. Soon, students went back to schools to sit for middle and high school examinations. A preliminary one-year course for those students who passed the High School Examination was annulled, and they were admitted to the university. Judson College students gradually came back so did those from the University (Government) College. These two colleges were at the heart of the existence of Rangoon University. The 1920 boycott of the students and the establishment of national schools faded away with time, but could set a milestone of nationalist movements in politics.

On December 4 1920, the boycott of Rangoon University students began. Three days later, the Chancellor of the university, Governor Sir Reginal Craddock planned a ceremonial opening of the university. During the colonial era university education in Burma was somehow limited providing very little professional skills. Mandalay College, opened in 1925 and Rangoon Teachers’ Training and Medical Colleges, opened in 1930 were affiliated to Rangoon University. Mandalay Agricultural Academy was opened in 1938.

Rangoon University, established in 1920 became the center of nationalist movements during colonial time, and was the origin of progressive political ideologies and pro-democracy activities after independence. It was also a birthplace of political leaders. When Doh Bamar Association came into existence in 1930, nationalist students titled themselves Thakhin, and the student union was the heart of nationalist movements.

  • Education of Burma after independence

After independence, new plans were installed to centralize basic education. The Prime Minister U Nu was so ambitious that he initiated a free education policy from primary to university in State schools and planned to teach professional skills in middle and high schools. The system was like an Anglo-vernacular education. School curricula were printed in Burmese. In 1949 Burma became a member of the UNESCO, which agreed to send an education mission to Burma upon requests of the Burmese government. By the end of 1950, a three-membered UNESCO mission came for a survey to Burma. The mission reported to the UN about their findings that insufficiency of classrooms, teaching aids, textbooks for school subjects and quality teachers were needed to be addressed. In response to the report, teacher training colleges were opened, and under the faculty of education at Rangoon University a bachelor degree course for education was begun to produce high school teachers.

After the 1962 military coup by General Ne Win, all missionary and private schools were nationalized, the University Act was revoked and all colleges, academies and universities were placed under a direct control of the government, the student union building was dynamited and a new education policy favorable to socialist economy and sciences was announced. After the middle school, a student of 14 years of age in average had to find two different paths of arts and sciences. University entrance was changed name to high school examination, and its results would decide university studies of students. Those with poor scores would have no choice, but to study arts subjects. Students of Chinese and Indian blood were not allowed to study medicine or engineering.

In 1970s student strikes frequented. To replace the centralized university education, 17 regional colleges were opened in 1976. It was a plan to disperse students to regional colleges in towns. Correspondence education was also established. Repealing English as a medium of instruction and failing to emphasize English language teaching and learning since the 1962 coup resulted in little or no teachers who could teach school curricula in English when an order came out in 1981 to use English as a teaching language. Consequently, home tuition became habitual both for basic and university education. Scholars were sent abroad in a large scale, but relatives had to sign compensation agreements if they did not return. Many high school graduates just went on correspondence education for a degree. According to the data, 41% of all high school graduates chose correspondence education during 1986-87 academic year.

  • Conclusion

Education in Burma has deteriorated in all aspects since 1962. Insufficient budget for education by the State, use of education as a propaganda tool, and no academic freedom in university were the major reasons. Under a military regime after 1988, the situation worsened. From 1990 to 1992, a needs analysis was carried out for implementation of basic education objectives with the help of the UNESCO and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). According to the UNICEF report of 1995, 39% of Myanmar children did not have primary education at all for various reasons, 34% were primary school drop-outs and only 27% completed primary education. Only 2% of them could reach middle and high school. It was said that the largest proportion of the national budget has gone to defense services whilst only 1,1% of it for education.

Than Hwan Phyo


Aye Kyaw. 1993. The Voice of Young Burma. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Southeast Asia


Kaung, U. 1963. A Survey of the History of Education in Burma Before the British Conquest and After. Journal of Burma Research Society 46 – 2: 1 – 124.

Khin Maung Kyi et al. 2000. A Vision and Strategy: Economic Development of Burma: Stockholm, Sweden: Olof Palme Institutional Center.