Written by Leyang Fu
Brunei’s Education System
Brunei Darussalam is a nation nestled on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, neighboring Malaysian Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak and Indonesian Kalimantan. With one of the highest per capita incomes in Asia and nearly all Millennium Development Goals achieved, Brunei’s education system has been on a path of continuous reform and growth. It provides free education to children in primary and secondary levels and the gross enrollment in the respective level has reached 100.1 and 92.1 in 2019 according to World Bank statistics. The 97% adult literacy rate of both sexes is also a remarkable success for national education. Reflecting its Islamic heritage and monarchy, Brunei emphasizes faith and loyalty to the Sultan. Yet, British influences persist, shaping curricula and structures. Over the past three decades, the country has implemented significant educational changes, from bilingual education to emphasizing noble moral values in the curriculum and introducing a national curriculum for the 21st century.
Despite the enviable prosperity and educational standards, Brunei still faces educational challenges in different aspects, including gender bias in the teaching profession, skill-education mismatches, low tertiary enrolment, and teacher shortages.
General Strategy: Sustainable Education in Brunei
Launched in 2007, Wawasan (or Brunei Vision) 2035 represents the country’s commitment to economic diversification and the development of an educated, highly skilled populace. The first goal of this vision is to create a nation of accomplished people, emphasizing the importance of achieving a first-class education and providing equal educational opportunities for all. Approved by the Ministry of Education in 2009, the Sistem Pendidikan Negara Abad ke-21 (SPN21) has ushered in significant changes in Brunei’s education system. It sets out three important facets: education structure, curriculum and assessment, and technical education. It also includes the goal of achieving equality in educational fields and improving the inclusion of disadvantaged and at-risk learners. This system aims to modernize education in the country, aligning it with the demands of the 21st century.
Multifold Challenges Faced by Brunei
Imagine this: You’ve spent years diligently studying, striving for excellence, only to find yourself in a job market where your qualifications don’t quite fit the bill. This is the harsh reality facing many Bruneian citizens. According to the CSPS Brunei Economic Outlook 2021 publication, the incongruity between skills and qualifications has emerged as a critical issue, profoundly affecting the employability of Bruneians in the private sector. It exists among the low-skilled as well as among graduate work entrants. (Rizzo, 2015) The Sultanate grapples with the gap between the skills people acquired through education and the skills required by the job market. The statistics paint a grim picture: an unemployment rate hovering at 9.3% in 2017, with the burden falling heavily on the shoulders of the nation’s youth, where a staggering 25.3% find themselves without work. But 2022 has seen improvement with the unemployment rate dropped to 5.2%, despite slightly higher than the 4.9% of 2021.
The irony lies in the fact that Brunei boasts a relatively high rate of tertiary-educated individuals but falls short in providing the high-skilled job opportunities that these graduates aspire to. In an effort to combat high unemployment rates, Brunei initiated the i-Ready paid apprenticeship program. Registered with the JobCentre Brunei, unemployed graduates would be exposed to potential employers in public and private sectors. For a maximum period of three years, the apprentice would receive a monthly allowance of $800 (BND) from the Brunei government, while working for the companies. In other words, the government subsidizes the apprentice to gain working experiences for future career. It sounds like a sweet idea, what could go wrong? A commonly found problem is that the payment barely covers the basic needs of survival, as single person monthly estimated costs in Brunei are $1,000 (BND) without rent. With the poor salary and absent benefits, the apprentices still find themselves expected to fulfill the workload of a contracted employee. The reality that some companies are reluctant to provide a permanent spot for the apprentices only worsens the situation. A ‘hiring freeze’ is noticed since the i-Ready program rolled out, and the abusing of under-paid human resources are no longer news to Bruneians. I-Ready apprentices questioned that if they are being exploited after investing all those years and energy in obtaining tertiary degrees. Overall, it should be acknowledged that i-Ready program is far from an anecdote for addressing the current unemployment issues. More vigilant monitoring is required in place to improve the situation.
In a bigger picture, while Brunei has made strides, the road to tertiary education is still less traveled. With a tertiary enrolment rate of just 31.99 percent, Brunei falls below the global average. For comparison, the world average in 2020 based on 113 countries is 51.98 percent. But there is hope on the horizon. Recent years have witnessed a modest increase in tertiary enrolment. In addition to the low enrolment, scholars pointed out that the gender disparity in academic achievement exist, as females far outperform their male counterparts in those subjects key to admission criteria, provided the fair opportunity to tertiary education. Another persistent issue in Brunei’s education system is the shortage of teachers. Various reports have highlighted shortages in different subjects and specializations, including English, art, pre-school, and special education. The Special Education Unit struggles to accommodate the annual increase in the number of students, adding to the challenge faced by teachers. To address teacher shortages, Brunei has implemented measures such as the School Leadership Programme (SLP) and the Teacher Service Scheme to enhance the prestige of the teaching profession. However, ongoing efforts are needed to attract and retain educators, especially those in specialized fields like special education. The Ministry of Education defines inclusive education as ‘giving all children and students, including those with special needs, an opportunity to learn alongside their peers under the same teaching and learning conditions’. It is required that appropriate individualized education being rendered to those students with special needs, including but not limited to physical, mental, behavioral aspects.
A report submitted by Brunei to UNESCO in 2014 revealed a significant gender bias in the teaching profession. While there were more women school leaders and teachers in early childhood, primary, and secondary education, fewer women occupied teaching roles at higher levels, such as Technical and Vocational Education (TVE). As shown in an OECD brief about the imbalanced gender ratio in education, it is not uncommon that female teachers are under-represented at tertiary level among OECD countries. The skewed gender ratios in different level of education indicates not only the persisting gender stereotypes that women are caregivers of children, but also the difference in accessibility of professional education for men and women. Addressing this disparity is crucial for promoting gender equality in education. Regardless of educational levels, teaching professionals overall earn lower wages than other professionals in Brunei, as one article of International Labour Organization revealed this worldwide phenomenon. (ILO, 2023) In one salary guide published by Brunei government in 2023, in the similar level of career, teacher wages are comparable only with hospitality, culinary, retail and cleaning services. Despite teaching career has much room for progression, it nevertheless is eclipsed by civil works, fiance and logistics.
Brunei’s journey towards educational excellence is commendable, with significant achievements in literacy, enrolment rates, and curriculum reforms. However, challenges persist, ranging from gender bias in the teaching profession to skill-education mismatches, low tertiary enrolment, and teacher shortages. The implementation of inclusive education in Brunei is also a barrier to achieve equality.
To navigate these challenges successfully, Brunei must continue its commitment to the goals outlined in Brunei Vision 2035 and SPN21. By investing in relevant education, fostering creativity and entrepreneurship, and addressing teacher shortages, the nation can bridge the gap between its youth’s expectations and the employment opportunities available. With strategic planning, policy reforms, and dedication to quality education, Brunei can ensure that its citizens are not only well-educated but also equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in the rapidly changing global landscape. The future of Brunei’s education system holds the promise of even greater accomplishments, aligning with the nation’s vision for 2035 and beyond.
- Hiew, Wendy & Tibok, Rose Patsy. (2019). Higher Education Institutions and Systems, Brunei Darussalam. 10.1007/978-94-017-9553-1_584-1.
- International Labour Organization (ILO). (2023, October 5). Quality education for all? We need (more) teachers! [https://ilostat.ilo.org/quality-education-for-all-we-need-more-teachers/]
- Manpower Planning & Employment Council (MPEC). (2023). SALARY GUIDELINE. [https://www.mpec.gov.bn/Lists/EmployeePoliciesAndGuidelines/Attachments/8/Salary%20Guideline%20-%202023%20Edition.pdf]
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- Neue. (2018). I-Ready: Is It Ready? [https://whatsneue.online/2018/09/19/i-ready-is-it-ready/]
- OECD. (2022). Why is the gender ratio of teachers imbalanced? [https://www.oecd.org/publications/why-is-the-gender-ratio-of-teachers-imbalanced-8fea2729-en.htm]
- Rizzo, G. (2015). Unemployment Issues among University Graduates in Brunei Darussalam. CSPS Working Paper.
- The Global Economy. (n.d.). Tertiary school enrollment. [https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/rankings/Tertiary_school_enrollment/]
- The Scoop. (2020, March 11). Govt probes alleged exploitation of i-Ready trainees. [https://thescoop.co/2020/03/11/govt-probes-alleged-exploitation-of-i-ready-trainees/]
- World Bank. (2022). Brunei unemployment rate. [https://www.ceicdata.com/en/indicator/brunei/unemployment-rate]
Cover Image by Amri HMS via Flickr