NYAUNG SHWE, MYANMAR — Across the marshes and open waters of Inle Lake, in Myanmar’s Shan State, motorboats and traditional canoes carry monks to temples and villagers to market, while fishermen with spherical wooden nets pull fish from the murky waters. Lately, another sight has also appeared — boatloads of tourists, cameras readied for the perfect shot of a rapidly disappearing traditional way of life.
Tourism in Myanmar, formerly Burma, is readying for takeoff, with new hotels, airports and restaurants under construction all over the country. Yet development in places like Inle Lake risks being held back by a major constraint: Decades of isolation and repression under the former military junta have left a shortfall in higher education and vocational training in essential skills, not least a working knowledge of foreign languages.
As a step toward filling the gap, a pilot program last summer sponsored by Partnership for Change, a Norwegian social business organization, arranged a six-week English language immersion course for Inle people working in tourism and hospitality. Supported by Teachers Across Borders, 77 students were taught a range of material including English grammar and giving spoken directions. The program proved so popular that 120 students are expected to join a version of the course this summer.
“We talked to the locals here and they were very specific. They wanted to improve their English skills,” said Barbara Bauer, a retired American telecommunications executive who coordinates the program. “We used a rather crude assessment at the beginning and then again at the end, and it was literally a measurable improvement in written and grammar skills. It improved their confidence dramatically.”
The Inle Lake program is one among dozens of vocational education programs that are being implemented to get Myanmar — a place where major multinationals are eager to invest — up to speed in skills as varied as hospitality, information technology and nursing.
For example, Telenor, which won a mobile phone license tender last year and planned to hire 1,000 employees by the end of this year, started the Telenor Myanmar Academy in December, focusing on skill training and professional development.
There are also huge changes afoot in university education. In October 2012 a “Comprehensive Education Sector Review” was begun to bring the quality of education at all levels, from primary school through to university and adult learning, up to international standards.
Led by the Myanmar government, working with partners including the Asian Development Bank, the British Council and Unesco, the review is expected to produce a final draft of recommendations in June as a framework for sweeping improvements in curriculums, matriculation exams and school environments.
“The education system, especially in higher education, will be key to the economic development of the country,” said Daniel Obst, deputy vice president for international partnerships with the Institute of International Education. The I.I.E., a nonprofit group based in New York has been helping the government create links with global educational institutions.
“You have all these companies swooping in and investing,” Mr. Obst said: “But if you do not have the courses that can teach the right things — and professors who do not have the knowledge to teach them — it is very challenging.”
The country’s higher education sector was devastated by five decades of military rule, which formally ended in 2011. After a nationwide spate of student protests in 1988, brutally suppressed with thousands of deaths and arrests, the university system was essentially dismantled, with undergraduate courses dispersed to satellite campuses far away from the city centers like Yangon and Mandalay.
“Students had to literally wade through paddy fields to go to university,” said Tharaphi Than, a Burmese languages professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. “The idea was to not just physically disperse the student population but to also send a strong message that you cannot use higher education institutions for political activities.”
Universities were nationalized, with 13 different ministries in charge of various higher education institutions, and academics were cut off from their international counterparts.
Since the country opened up three years ago, however, changes in higher education have been happening quickly: “It is hard to keep up with, really,” said Kevin Mackenzie, the director of the British Council in Myanmar.
Among the changes, undergraduates have been allowed back to the main campuses of schools like Yangon University; in December a first cohort of 1,000 students moved back into Yangon’s dorms and started classes.
There are also plans to give universities more autonomy and to decentralize some powers, moving some authority away from the ministries.
In parallel with the comprehensive review, two parliamentary committees are examining how to redraft higher education laws and how to modernize Yangon University. There also is a strong understanding that the current vocational and higher education curriculums may not be relevant to the needs of the job market.
“We need to look towards courses with greater job orientation in practical areas,” U Zaw Htay, director general for the Department for Higher Education, wrote in an email. “This is an area of imbalance in our current system and it is important that we redress this.”
That is where catch-up vocational courses such as the Inle Lake English classes have served as a stopgap.
“People are leaving university without the kind of skills that are needed for employability,” Mr. Mackenzie said. “Companies that are coming in now are finding it difficult to recruit skilled workers. If you want to recruit someone with critical thinking skills or business management and with good English, that is very, very challenging.”
There is also an understanding that international educational links are essential for universities to improve their courses and prepare students for a global job market. The I.I.E. began a 20-week course in November aimed at helping universities in Myanmar set up links with schools around the globe.
“Our thought was, you cannot wait until education reform is enacted, you have to do something now,” Mr. Obst said. “All this stuff is happening, but how can you redesign your curricula if you do not have contact with a foreign university? How can you bring in foreign faculty to co-teach courses? So it is International Education 101.”