Motivated but Overstretched: Job Satisfaction among Myanmar’s University Teachers

Zue Wadi Htun explores the challenges faced by university teachers and some possible solutions.

The motivation and job satisfaction of university teachers are fundamental not only for quality higher education but also for the human and economic development of a nation. Universities prepare the professionals of tomorrow and the quality of the teaching offered managers, teachers, scientists, medical personnel, government officials, advisors and other professionals. If Myanmar is to improve higher education and produce capable, ambitious, and productive professionals, we need highly motivated and professionally satisfied university teachers. And are they? I explore the challenges faced by university teachers, rather than sources of satisfaction. Although a majority of university teachers are satisfied with their roles, university teachers are dissatisfied with some factors in the workplace.

As part of my Master’s degree in political science, I conducted a study exploring job satisfaction or dissatisfaction among 220 university teachers in Mandalay (specifically at the University of Mandalay, Yadanarbon University, and Mandalay University of Foreign Languages) from July to October 2020. I found that while university teachers are highly motivated to teach, teachers are unsatisfied with their pay, the pressures of administrative tasks and workload, poor working conditions, and the associated policies, protocols, and administrative measures. Together, these create additional burdens that undermine teachers’ physical and psychological well-being, and result in the dwindling of their motivation and enthusiasm to teach.

Who becomes a University Teacher in Myanmar?

The questionnaires I developed build upon Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory. Related to this, my findings reveal that the main pull for most university teachers to their profession is their passion for teaching and sharing knowledge. This is a promising finding as it shows that Myanmar has an inspired, driven set of university teachers who could elevate the quality of higher education in Myanmar if given the support, systems, and conditions to do so. However, Myanmar’s universities are anything but enabling, as teachers experience circumstances that chronically undermine their physical and psychological well-being, which in turn undermine their teaching.

According to my interviews, the majority of university teachers enter the profession because of an innate passion to teach. Teachers who were not innately driven by this passion were attracted by other factors, including benefits (such as prestige and job security), the perception that teaching is a way for women to fulfill their role in society (In Myanmar, teaching is traditionally regarded as a female occupation and girls are more likely to continue their educations in order to become university teachers), parents’ desire (due to the family-oriented culture of Myanmar) and job scarcity. Most of the respondents stated that they would encourage others to become a university teacher only if they were really interested in teaching. My survey found that university teachers who particularly loved teaching were more satisfied with their jobs, despite the many challenges of being a university teacher in Myanmar. Motivation is fundamental and, when it is paired with satisfying conditions, the outcome is high productivity and effectiveness.

A notable dynamic in my findings is the notion that university teaching mainly attracts women rather than men. Significant gender disparities are evident in higher education in Myanmar. The vast majority of teachers (more than 86 percent) are female, and this profession is unattractive for many males in Myanmar. Low enrollment rates of men in universities and their hesitancy to pursue a master degree (a prerequisite for university teachers) also causes gender disparities in academic staff. The shortage of men in Myanmar’s higher education results in a gender imbalance that impacts learning for students, and that contributes to chronic human resource shortages within universities.

Sources of Job Satisfaction among University Teachers

The majority of university teachers (91%) I surveyed are highly satisfied with their roles. Their job provides accommodations and benefits, job security, and pension after retirement. These perks are the leading sources of job satisfaction among university teachers. What is more, university teachers are pleased with their jobs as Myanmar society recognizes their profession as an impressive, respectable, and noble job. These motivations are likely to influence university teachers’ plan to stay in their current job, and most of the university teachers I surveyed have no plan to leave their profession. One university teacher said: “I would not leave from this job even if I won the lottery because this job is my dream and I love teaching”.  Most informants described their love for teaching and are proud to be university teachers as they can share their knowledge with students.

Sources of Job Dissatisfaction among University Teachers

When looking only at satisfaction with their roles, one gets the sense that Myanmar’s university teachers are completely content. However, the reality is that Myanmar’s university teachers are satisfied in spite of pervasive constraints and challenges. There are many factors prompting dissatisfaction that test teachers’ motivation, with the majority of university teachers reporting dissatisfaction with (1) their salary, (2) non-teaching tasks and pressure, (3) poor administration and policies, (4) workplace relationships, and (5) poor working conditions. These factors undermine university teachers’ physical and psychological well-being and their capacity to enthusiastically teach.

(1) Low Salary and Incentive

Financial security is the biggest challenge for university teachers with most facing difficulties in supporting themselves since their salaries are very low. Furthermore, if a teacher wants to buy a computer needed for learning and teaching, s/he needs to save a portion of salary for months. Put another way, teachers are poorly paid and face additional personal expenses required for them to properly do their job. Thus, 65 % of respondents answered that they are dissatisfied with their salary. The base salaries of university teachers are as follows: Tutors (216,000 kyats per month), Assistant Lecturers (275,000 kyats per month), Lecturers (308,000 kyats per month), Associate Professors (341,000 kyats per month), Professors (374,000 kyats per month) respectively. Regardless of the position, the listed salaries are intended to cover only the livelihood costs of a single teacher, and are insufficient to support their families or other dependents.

University teachers regularly cited salary as the one thing they dislike most about their job. As one university teacher explained, “the salary is only sufficient for cost of living of one person and thus, if a teacher doesn’t come from a rich family, they have to struggle with financial security and save for the future”. Another university teacher said: “although my current salary is sufficient for my family with a child, I cannot support my parents yet”. Furthermore, one university teacher explained that “I plan to leave the job because I am worried about my future”. Motivated teachers are being chased out of their jobs because low salaries that is not only inadequate, but insufficient for parents to support a family. This, along with cultural factors, makes men reluctant to even consider university teaching positions. A maximum of only 8 % of the Union budget was allocated for education, of which 85.25% was spent for basic education and only 10.35% allocated to higher education.

Attracting and retaining high quality teachers is a primary requirement for an educational institution. In Myanmar, university teachers still face slow growth of personal development, including low salary, limited opportunities for outstanding teachers, the absence of recognition for their achievements, etc. Consequently, even highly motivated university teachers end up developing plans to leave their job. The salary situation also lessens teachers’ ambition and drive over time. One respondent said “I worked hard when I started entering into my life as a university teacher, but nothing happened in proportion to my efforts and so my willingness to exert so much effort gradually decreased”.

(2) Non-teaching Work

Aside from teaching, university teachers are required to perform a number of other tasks. The extra work unrelated to their teaching and research duties – including administrative duties and office work – remain a source of dissatisfaction and chronic stress for nearly half of university teachers, as these responsibilities divert their time and energy away from teaching and research. An insufficient number of teaching support staff in departments ultimately leads to these unmanageable workloads for teaching staff.

The constraint is not only one of human resources but also technology. Existing office staff often have weak technological skills and cannot confidently use computers which, in turn, creates a reliance upon teachers to do office work. As a consequence of such workloads related to non-teaching tasks, university teachers fall behind in learning and teaching in their particular fields. This results in a situation where university teachers are unable to keep up with the evolving knowledge in their fields.

As university teachers have to perform tasks in addition to teaching, it is vital to have qualified office staff in a department. If the office staff are trained so that they can do their work more effectively, the workloads of teachers will be reduced, to some extent. Thus, departmental technological trainings are essential. Alleviating the pressure associated with these types of administrative tasks is essential as teachers stated that they are often overburdened to the extent that they have to cancel a class or put off research in order to fulfill administrative duties.

(3) Policies and Administrative Measures

Centralized administration: A further constraint for university teachers is the legacy of military rule—a system of centralized administration at the ministry and institutional level. Under Myanmar’s current bureaucratized higher education system, when a university proposes any change to academic life, it must first request permission from the Ministry of Education. For example, to buy equipment for a laboratory to support research, a request must be sent to the Ministry, which must, in turn, assess the university’s needs and feasibility in terms of its budget. This process may take months or even years, hindering university leadership and teaching staff from acting promptly to respond to urgent needs. This, among other constraints, is reflected in my data, with 62% of university teachers reportedly disappointed with ineffective administration.

Transfer Policy: What is more, most university teachers are dissatisfied with the existing transfer system in education that forces teaching staffs to frequently rotate between universities around the country. Workplace location is reported as especially crucial for job satisfaction, as many university teachers want to settle down near their parents, families and other relatives. When university teachers are required to transfer to a place far from their family, difficulties arise related to communication with family, transportation problems, and limited access to resources. These issues result in teachers becoming unhappy with their workplaces and, ultimately, make them want to leave their jobs. When competent university teachers quit as a result of these transfers, they depart with critical knowledge and experience that might otherwise positively affect the development of higher education in Myanmar. The transfer policy also directly impacts their strength in teaching. Within departments, university teachers have teaching specializations but when teachers are transferred to other universities, those transferred teachers’ expertise may not overlap with that of newly arrived teachers. As a result, teachers often lack expertise in the subjects they are required to teach, a reality which places an undue burden on university teachers, while also making them ineffective in their teaching.

Promotion Policy: University teachers I surveyed also report strong dissatisfaction with the promotion policy, which must be improved to be more consistent, transparent and fair. In the past, university teachers’ promotions were based on the number of years of experience rather than performance, but a newly revised promotion policy (as of July 2019) adds new criteria for career advancement based on the number of authored or co-authored publications, along with years of experience and level of education. Though the purpose of this revised promotion policy was to encourage research in higher education, the implementation of the policy remains ambiguous. For example, there is little scope for analyzing how the quality of research output informs the promotion process. Furthermore, the criteria for career advancement (which is focused on quantity) has resulted in controversies where many academics in Myanmar pay for their research papers to be published in illegitimate journals in a bid to gain promotion. This incident was reported in the news and discussed on social media.

Equality and fairness issue in administration: Equality and fairness remains a critical issue in the administration of higher education. Some university teachers stated that they have been discriminated against based on their background, patronage, or personal attachment. One university teacher expressed that she did not want to stay in her role due to unfair administration, while another reported: “I dislike the discrimination and bias among female and male university teachers”.  Inequality mostly occurs in departmental management and institutional administration. 

 (4) Workplace Relationships

According to teachers, workplace relationships (with the head of department, colleagues, and students) are an especially crucial factor in university teachers’ job satisfaction. Myanmar’s culture obliges respect for authority, age, rank and status. This applies not only to relationships between teachers and students, but also throughout the system’s hierarchies. When university teachers see their heads of department as unaccountable or unfair in the division of labor, they reported feeling less motivated to work, with their dissatisfaction a response to favoritism, to being treated unequally, or discriminated against. One respondent explained: “University teachers who have good relationships with heads of department might be more satisfied than those with bad relationships”. The same is true in regard to teachers’ colleagues, with one university teacher noting that “if cooperation and understanding among colleagues in the department could be enhanced, it would be a fun workplace”.  Teachers’ working relationship with students also contributes to teachers’ job satisfaction. University teachers said “they feel dissatisfied when students are absent from classes and when students are poorly prepared and unmotivated”. Thus, this study found that social relationships in the workplace are crucial to increasing teachers’ collaboration, job satisfaction and productivity.

(5) Poor Working Conditions

Poor working conditions have demoralized those in the teaching profession in Myanmar, with university teachers facing limited resources for their research, teaching and learning. Research shows that when university teachers feel unsupported, they are not motivated to do their best in the classroom. In Myanmar, when it comes to resource allocation, all Myanmar universities rely solely on government support. Due to budget limitations, universities have very limited infrastructures and resources. Most universities still fail to provide university teachers with basic resources: good libraries, computers and projectors, and campus-wide Wi-Fi. University teachers need to have a good teaching and learning environment at their universities.

A Way Forward

University teachers are the backbone of the higher education system of any country. They shoulder a huge responsibility in shaping young minds to achieve the vision and sustainable development of a country. Job satisfaction among university teachers cannot be overlooked and the government should focus on their motivation and performance as a crucial human development measure and an indicator of the fate of the nation. Therefore, the following recommendations are made based on my findings.

  • The Ministry of Education not only needs to raise salaries, but also create systems that reward teachers in proportion to their efforts, qualifications, and outputs – including publications – and overall performance. To raise existing pay levels, more spending on higher education is needed, and doing so will demonstrate that the government is serious about improving the quality of higher education in Myanmar. Additionally, the government should allocate more of the budgets so that universities can afford to supply more classrooms with multimedia resources, and upgrade their libraries and related infrastructure.
  • A clear separation between administrative and teaching duties is needed if university teachers are to be more efficient and effective teachers and researchers. To do so, universities need to provide technological trainings for office staff in departments or appoint office staff with necessary technological skills.
  • Universities need to build performance-oriented cultures that treat all equally and increase transparency and accountability, assigning clear duties and responsibilities to teachers appropriately regardless of personal attachments or personal backgrounds. Moreover, due consideration must go toward cultivating positive interpersonal relationships among university teachers, including assigning  work appropriately based on the capacities and preferences of university teachers. Universities also need to establish transparent criteria for the performance review of university teachers.
  • After decades of neglect, a culture of research needs to be rebuilt in Myanmar’s higher education institutions. This includes the formation of an ethics review committee, which includes reviewers with sufficient academic research experience and relevant credentials to function independently.
  • Teachers need training for their professional development as they require more skills and knowledge about research and pedagogy. What is more, university teachers also need technological training to improve their skills for learning and teaching. This problem was especially apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic as the Ministry of Education implemented new plans to transition teaching online—creating new difficulties for university teachers to teach online.
  • Collaboration with international higher education institutions and research organizations through MoUs, training programs, conferences, workshops and seminars, joint research programs, scholarship programs and faculty and administrator exchanges should be enhanced in order to improve university teachers’ qualities. These collaborations could be highly beneficial to the university teachers so they gain exposure to, and acquire knowledge on, their respective subject areas and research methods.
  • The policy makers in universities should also ensure the participation of university teachers in the decision making process and consider the input given by faculty of universities, with targeted strategies to address the stress and dissatisfaction of university teachers. If universities that receive some degree of autonomy can manage their activities effectively, it would enhance teaching and research quality, which would elevate higher education in Myanmar as a whole.

(Featured image courtesy of EIFL, from Flickr)

Zue Wadi Htun is currently serving as a part-time tutor at the Department of International Relations, Mandalay University. She will soon graduate with a master’s degree in political science. A fellow with Urbanize: Policy Institute for Urban and Regional Planning, since May 2020, she would like to thank Mael Raynaud, at Urbanize, and Dr. Matthew Mullen, at Article 30, who helped her develop this article. She is also a former international election observer with the Carter Center and a volunteer with the Tampadipa Institute. The views expressed in this article, based on the thesis for her Master’s degree, are her own.