Education is free, although informal fees were increasingly imposed in the late 1990s. Primary education is compulsory for five years, although observers estimate that between two-thirds and three-fourths of students drop out before completing five years. Generally, Burmese is the language of instruction, and English is taught in the secondary schools; as of 1982, however, English became the medium of instruction in the universities.
The system of education initiated by the Ne Win government in 1964 equates learning with livelihood. At that time, the government announced its intention of opening at least one agrarian high school and one technical high school in each district. By 1967 there were six agricultural high schools, seven industrial trade schools, and one technical high school in the country, and the government had taken over about 880 private schools. In 1996, Myanmar had 35,752 primary schools with 5,413,752 students. In the same year, secondary schools had approximately 107,000 teachers and 1,923,323 students. The pupil-teacher ratio at the primary level was 33 to 1 in 1999. In the same year, 83% of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school.
Primary education lasts for five years followed by four years of secondary education at the first stage and two years at the second stage. Postsecondary institutions, including 18 teacher-training colleges, six agricultural institutes, eight technical institutes, and 35 universities and colleges, had a total enrollment of 245,317 students with 5,730 teaching staff in 1996.
The Mass Education Council has attempted to increase literacy through special programs. The 2000 adult illiteracy rate was estimated at 15.3% (males, 11.0%; females, 19.4%), although international observers question this figure, estimating illiteracy to be much higher since up to 40% of children in rural areas do not enroll in school and those who do drop out early. As of 1999, public expenditure on education was estimated at 1.2% of GDP.