Since February 2021, Myanmar has remained under the thumb of a brutal military dictatorship. The coup d’état that hoisted the country’s military leadership — the Tatmadaw — into power has bad incalculable consequences on an economy already compromised by the COVID pandemic.
What’s happening with Myanmar’s economy?
Since the Tatmadaw seized power, the country’s currency, the Kyat, has depreciated significantly.
This slide was initially gradual, and endured despite an array of measures aimed at propping it up, such as limitations on exchange rate ratios and regulations controlling the use of foreign currencies in the county.
But a recent nadir in the USD exchange rate has led the Central Bank of Myanmar (CBM) to pursue a range of panicked initiatives, from confiscating the dollar savings of foreign-owned companies and residents earning dollar salaries, to ordering companies to cease payments of offshore loans. Local markets have responded with soaring prices as the Kyat-USD exchange rate continues to tumble. As of the end of June, the market rate had depreciated by 23 percent compared to the same period the previous year.
This depreciation of the Kyat, paired with the surging value of foreign currencies, has resulted in inflation, cheaper exports, increasingly expensive imports, and soaring daily expenses across the country.
What does this mean for the country’s student population?
The depreciation of the Kyat has disproportionately affected students. Since the Coup, students across the country have scrambled to find ways to attain their degrees without submitting to the Tatmadaw’s overhaul of the education system. But succeeding in this comes at a price — a price often calculated in foreign currency.
On a whole, students wishing to earn their degree beyond the scope of the government-controlled educational structure have three options:
- Obtain a scholarship to study abroad
- Obtain family money to study abroad
- Pursue an alternative degree program within Myanmar
What does it take to obtain a scholarship to study abroad?
The requirements vary by level of education. For undergraduates wishing to obtain a scholarship to study abroad, the following tests are typically required (listed alongside their associated dollar-pegged fees):
- General Educational Development (GED): a test that enables students to prove they have the equivalent of US high school academic knowledge (USD 320);
- International Student Admissions Test (ISAT): a test international students must take should they wish to study in certain healthcare-related university programs in Australia (USD 290);
- A Standardized English-language proficiency test, typically either the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL; USD 210) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS; USD 242); and
- University admissions fees (often around 100 USD)
In short, undergraduate students are often looking at hundreds of dollars just to apply for admissions to universities, before they can begin to seek scholarship funds.
Graduate students face similarly high prices just to become eligible for the possibility of scholarships. At a minimum, most must take TOEFL or IELTS exams, and pay admissions fees for each university they seek admission to.
These are impossible sums for most in a country with an average GDP per capita of 1,292.09 per the latest available data.
How difficult is it for most students to get money from their parents or families to study abroad?
Aggressive inflation may have the most pronounced impact on this group due to the fact that in addition to the testing and admissions fees outlined above, they also need to be able to cover their own living expenses abroad. And given the finite nature of scholarship opportunities, this also represents a substantial chunk of the student population.
Many students are drawn to the prospect of studying in Thailand as it is one of the most affordable options for the students of Myanmar, but even there, students are faced with eyewatering prices, such as:
- Tuition fees (which average 6,124 USD per year)
- Accommodation (averaging 1,980 USD per year)
- Daily Expenses (averaging 1,980 USD per year)
As noted above, these figures far outweigh the average GDP per capita in Myanmar.
What options do students have if they wish to pursue alternative degrees within Myanmar?
In light of the desperate need for education, educational entrepreneurs are pioneering a variety of alternative options available within the country. These initiatives fall broadly into two categories:
- Student-led non-profit institutions offering free or low-expense certificate courses; and
- Universities offering internationally accredited diploma courses mostly related to Business Administration subjects.
Although student-led non-profit institutions usually offer affordable certificate courses, the prices of internationally accredited diploma courses can still be prohibitively expensive. These sums can grow precipitously when paired with exam fees and other university expenses, many of which are likewise exacerbated by unruly inflation trends.
Where does this leave us?
Under the current circumstances, more and more Myanmar families are being pushed into poverty, with many struggling even to feed themselves. According to a recent World Bank report, poverty levels doubled in 2022 compared to March 2020 and households are struggling to maintain the lifestyle they once took for granted. And the situation may continue to deteriorate.
But an indisputable fact about the students of Myanmar is their profound resilience. Come what may, the students will not give up on their dreams. And as their prospects continue to darken in the aftermath of the Tatmadaw’s rise, they will continue to find ways to cling to hope for a brighter educational outcome.
This explainer has been published anonymously due to the risks faced by our Myanmar law student correspondents in the region in the aftermath of the coup d’état.