Myanmar: a new frontier for international student recruitment

“Since political and economic liberalization, the advent of a multiparty democratic system, and the lifting of economic sanctions, the country has been opening up to the world in grand fashion”

The number of Myanmarese students heading overseas for study may be low at the moment, but political shifts and a growing economy mean it is a rapidly growing student market. The time for education institutions in the US and beyond to begin recruiting is now, say Mark Ashwill, managing director of Capstone Vietnam, and Deepak Neopane, founder of City College Yangon and managing director of Academics International.

Situated between two of the largest countries in the world, India and China, Myanmar has significant geopolitical importance in Southeast Asia. Until the early 1960s, Burma, as it was then known, was the region’s most developed, most well-educated, and richest nation. Yangon University was a prestigious institution in the region and Yangon Airport was a major regional hub.

“The demand for an educated workforce is growing exponentially”

When Singapore gained independence in 1965, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew expressed his desire for Singapore to catch up with Myanmar in economic development in 20 years. The army ruled from 1962 to 2013, which turned back the clock on economic development and made Myanmar poor and isolated from the world.

Over 20 years of economic sanctions from the West further damaged the economy. Since political and economic liberalization, the advent of a multiparty democratic system, and the lifting of economic sanctions, the country has been on the move, opening up to the rest of the world in grand fashion.

Economic development

International organisations like the International Monetary Fund have forecast Myanmar’s economic growth to be strong and steady for years to come. A country of over 50 million people, a frontier economy that needs development in almost every sector, young and cheap labor, and its geopolitically strategic location has made Myanmar a destination for investment from all over the world.

The demand for an educated work force is growing exponentially. Large numbers of young expats are working for banks, manufacturing and trading companies, telecoms, etc. The local population has seen the opportunities for career advancement that are available to people with the requisite education.

“Its geopolitically strategic location has made Myanmar a destination for investment from all over the world”

Due to a rapidly growing economy, streamlined visa procedures, and the prospect of a better career for their children, parents have the resources and willingness to invest in their education. Instead of sending their kids to government schools, where students get rote education and classes are crammed with up to 60-70 students, more and more parents are spending upwards of $10,000 per year on private schools in Myanmar. All of these private school graduates will go overseas for their higher education.


The military government over the last 50 years invested relatively little in the higher education system. There are very few colleges and universities to provide education for these high school graduates, let alone in desired majors like business and engineering. Large numbers students go overseas but mostly to nearby countries like Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia. Farther away, the UK and Australia are also popular destinations. The cost of education in the neighboring countries is increasing yet these countries do not provide quality education on par with what is available in the West.

Even though the US is a desirable destination for overseas study, more Myanmarese students go to the UK and Australia because of their aggressive marketing efforts. With proper and timely promotion of US education, this trend can be reversed. Indeed, we’re seeing this beginning to happen on a small scale.

A lack of information, economic sanctions, and difficulty in obtaining a student visa are the main reasons very few students chose the US in the past. However, since the lifting of US economic sanctions in 2013, it is easier to get a visa and there is more information available through higher education fairs and information sessions, which has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of students studying in the US.

“There are very few colleges and universities to provide education for these high school graduates, let alone in desired majors”

An emerging student recruitment market

There are an estimated 25,000 students from Myanmar studying overseas. Since 2013, this number has grown significantly and this trend is likely to continue. Due to its close proximity, Thailand is the leading overseas host of Myanmarese students, with about 8,000 students going there every year.

Other destinations in Asia are Singapore, Japan, China and Malaysia, hosting approximately 5,000, 3,500, 3,000, 1,000 students respectively. There are also students from Myanmar studying in India, Hong Kong and Korea. The leading destinations for education in the West are the UK (with about 2,000 students), the USA (1,600) and Australia (600).

There are about 30 private and international schools in Myanmar (and this number is growing), all of which use a Western curriculum. They have essentially opted out of the public education system, which means all of them are planning to study overseas. While graduating classes have been small, enrollments in the lower grades are much higher, meaning more and more students will be studying overseas as they make their way through the educational pipeline.

Internet penetration is still very low and parents, who are the key decision makers, rely on education fairs, embassy resources, and agents to learn about US colleges and universities. When they actually meet higher education representatives, they have more confidence that their sons and daughters will receive a quality education in a safe environment. This information in turn is shared with other parents.

­Market Opportunities

Myanmar is reminiscent of Vietnam 15-20 years ago in several respects, including s growing openness to the world, increasing foreign direct investment, growing interest in overseas study, and greater ability to pay.

“Myanmar is reminiscent of Vietnam 15-20 years ago in several respects”

Like Vietnam, Myanmar will become a major source of international students for US higher education institutions in the near future. There are currently 1,594 Myanmar students studying in the US at all levels, according to the March 2017 SEVIS update.  53.9% are enrolled in four year schools, 19.8% in community colleges and 10.5% in master’s programs, and 5.6% in Ph.D. programs.

A 2016 study by the Boston Consulting Group found the people of Myanmar to be the most confident about their future, followed by the Vietnamese. A recent survey conducted by MasterCard revealed that millennials from emerging economies such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam displayed the highest levels of optimism, in stark contrast to more developed countries like Singapore and Malaysia, where high levels of pessimism were recorded.

Demand for overseas study remains strong because of a substandard domestic higher education system, the reputation of overseas educational institutions for quality, the prestige factor of a foreign educational credential, and a growing ability to afford overseas study on the part of parents. The time to begin your recruiting efforts is now, when the market is still relatively wide open.

Dr. Mark Ashwill is managing director and co-founder of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company in Viet Nam with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam. Mr. Deepak Neopane is the founder of City College Yangon and.managing director of Academics International, an educational consulting company based in Yangon.