A Community Approach to Education in the Luang Prabang Region of Laos

By Jennifer C. Langill
2016, Vol. 8 No. 06 | pg. 1/2 |

Although is at the forefront of innumerable research and development initiatives, some countries remain significantly under-researched. While increasing statistics exist on development indicators and education in The Lao PDR (hereafter Laos), there has been minimal qualitative insight into students’ views of education. It was this that led to this exploratory study of the experiences and perspectives of students from surrounding rural areas who came to study in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Laos ranks quite poorly by most development indicators. Laos is one of 48 countries on the United Nations’ list of Least Developed Countries and ranked 141st out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index ( 2016; United Nations Development Programme 2015). Economic growth has been unevenly distributed, leaving over 20 percent of the country below the international line (CIA World Factbook 2014; Estudillo et al. 2013; Howe and Sims 2011; The World Bank 2016). This percentage has been declining, however improvements have been quite slow. While there are over 100 ethnic groups in Laos with a significant “ethnic hierarchy” (Evans 2001:1249) creating inequalities, insufficient research breaks statistics down by ethnic group.

While one of the least urbanized countries in Southeast Asia, urbanization in Laos is rising (Evans 2001). Approximately 35 percent of Lao people currently live in urban areas, increasing at almost five percent annually (CIA World Factbook 2014; United Nations 2014; Unicef 2013). Common push factors out of rural areas include decreases in farmland size, lack of economic opportunities, and low standards of living (Estudillo et al. 2013; Howe and Sims 2011). Multiple studies have indicated significant inequalities in living standards between rural and urban areas (Howe and Sims 2011, Phouxay et al. 2010, Suart-Fox 2007, Stuart-Fox 2009; Unicef 2008; Unicef 2013). Prevalent draws towards urban settings are employment prospects, higher incomes, and educational opportunities (Phouxay et al. 2010; Stuart-Fox 2007). Students, the literate and educated, and those aged 15 to 29 are the most common people to migrate to urban areas in Laos (Phouxay et al. 2010). Luang Prabang has a large population of students who have migrated to the town from surrounding rural areas.

Laos has made great advances in access to education and education levels. The country’s literacy rates have increased dramatically; adult literacy was reported at 73 percent in 2005 (CIA World Factbook 2014; International Monetary Fund 2008). However, a stark gap remains between male and female literacy. In 2005, male literacy was 82.5 percent, whereas female literacy was only 63.2 percent (CIA World Factbook 2014; United Nations 2014). School life expectancy and enrollment rates have been rising. While the mean years of schooling in the country is only 5 years, the expected schooling for current students in 2014 was 10.6 years, up from 8.5 years in 2005 (Unicef 2008; CIA World Factbook 2014; United Nations Development Programme 2015). However, secondary school enrollment and attendance remains quite low, both hovering around 40 percent (United Nations 2014; Unicef 2013).

With low levels of secondary school enrollment, progression to is difficult. Higher education remains out of reach for most Lao youth. Only about eight percent of students reach the tertiary level, which has low standards and is usually comprised of children of the elite (Stuart Fox 2009; Stuart Fox 2007). Standards and accessibility of higher education is also increasing, however progress is slow compared to global standards.

Education has been important for local and national development. In rural areas, education has been noted to increase options for nonfarm employment, while in urban areas it has enabled the country to adopt modern technologies and compete in wider markets (Estudillo et al. 2013; International Monetary Fund 2008; Rigg 2007). However, these relationships have not been thoroughly researched. Connections have also been observed between personal circumstances and education attainment. For example, both the richest and urban populations score higher than the poorest and rural in every educational category, such as attendance, survival rates, and minimal repetition and dropout (Unicef 2008). Furthermore, a generational study revealed a relationship between family circumstances and children’s schooling (Estudillo et al. 2013). Families with an educated father or with larger farmland were more likely to have children attain higher levels of education, which subsequently led to greater choices of nonfarm jobs.

Despite increased research in Laos, studies tend to overlook qualitative insight. The country is undergoing many changes, particularly in education and urbanization, and yet these shifts are undocumented beyond statistics. Therefore, the purpose of this research was to qualitatively learn about the experiences and perspectives of a small sample of students from rural areas who had moved to Luang Prabang town.

“I want to develop myself, and my village.”

Methodology

Research Team

The research team consisted of a principal investigator and a research assistant. The principal investigator is a Canadian female with a background in Global Development Studies who has spent extensive time living and working in Laos. The research assistant is a Lao male, who was chosen based on Lao and English ability, local and community knowledge, and interest in the research. All researchers have positionality that affects the research process, analysis and results, as researchers can never truly be removed from the study. Both the principal investigator and the research assistant were integrated in the community, creating obvious biases. While this did help to minimize systematic errors, a very exploratory approach was taken to help reduce the level of bias.

Participants

A combination of snowball and purposive sampling was used to obtain the twelve participants (two females and ten males) interviewed in the study. The participants ranged from 16 to 23 years old. Three participants were in high school, two were between high school and higher education, five were in post-secondary education, and two had just finished their post-secondary degrees. Within education levels, there was variety in the enrolment years. Of those in or graduating from higher education, one was in accounting, one was in culinary school, one was in law, two were in paramedic school, and two were in teaching.

There was a range in the length of time that participants had been in the town for. The shortest amount of time was four days for a participant who had come to apply to post-secondary schools; the longest was seven years. Of the remaining participants, four had been in Luang Prabang for between three months and a year, five participants have lived there for between two and three years, and one participant for five years. All participants mentioned education as motivation for moving to the town. Five of the participants mentioned additional reasons for relocating, including to learn about the town, for a change in location, to work, and to become a monk. To keep home village names and locations confidential, participants were asked how many hours it takes to reach their hometowns to understand how far they had come. Seven participants could get home in two to five hours, whereas five participants took six to ten hours. Six participants had no family members in the town; three had immediate family members in the town, such as a sibling or grandparent; and three had extended family members.

Based on interpretations of the interviews and knowledge of the participants, the researchers identified three of the participants as being relatively well off, seven as relatively poorer, and two as neither well off nor poor. Two participants send money to their family and seven participants receive financial support from home. Of the participants that receive, one said that in turn he sends medicine and other things home to his parents. Two participants said they never send or receive any money, and one participant did not mention this topic. Five of the participants were working at the time of the interviews, while seven were not. All of the participants considered well off and moderately well off were not working. Four participants were renting a room alone, seven were in shared accommodation, and one participant was living with extended family at their house.

Data Collection

This study collected data using in-person semi-structured interviews. All interviews were conducted in Lao language by both researchers. Interviews were conducted in public areas that allowed for private conversations, mainly a neighbourhood park. The researchers had a list of guiding questions for the interviews, but adapted the sequence, formality, and length of the interviews as necessary. Earlier questions addressed demographics, such as “how old are you” and “what level of school are you entering this year?” Interviews progressed to open-ended questions, such as “how have you sustained your living since moving to the town” and “what are the biggest challenges for a student studying in the town?” Follow-up questions for further information varied across the interviews.

Participants were recruited through various people who knew either researcher, such as neighbours and previous coworkers. No close friends or family members were part of the study. Informants were asked if they or anyone they knew were current students in the town who had moved to Luang Prabang from a rural area. Participants had to fulfill the following criteria: Lao national, current student (high school level or above), currently living in Luang Prabang, and moved to the town from outside the Luang Prabang district. The interviews were conducted in August, which is between academic years in Laos. Students who had just finished their degree program that academic year (graduating in July), were considered as current students, but anyone who had graduated earlier was considered a former student.

All proposed participants were considered. No preference or exclusions were made based on ethnic group, sex, socioeconomic status, or education field or level. A total of 13 people were interviewed. One interview was removed from the sample, as it was discovered during the interview that the participant was not living in the town. This made him ineligible to participate and so his interview is not counted in the sample size of 12 participants and his responses were not considered.

Data Analysis

All interviews were consensually voice recorded. To ensure that both direct meaning and associated ideas were understood, a combined method of translation and interpretation was used. To achieve this, both researchers independently translated each interview, and then discussed the chosen translations and any discrepancies to determine the most meaningful translation as possible. Each researcher noted any concepts that may not translate perfectly, and these were addressed before analyzing the data. The transcriptions were then coded and analyzed to draw out themes and discussion points, and then grouped into broader categories. All of the data was reviewed given the identified categories to determine how prevalent each was in each interview and the wider dataset.

Results

The primary finding in the research was a widespread connection between community and education. This was observed in all 12 interviews, across three phases of formal education: Community support to pursue education, a communal atmosphere during studies in the town, and desires to benefit the community with one’s education. Following this, there were three more variant findings: The high intrinsic value associated with education, the sacrifices made for education, and the low quality of education. As this was an exploratory study, these themes raise important questions for further research, despite not being present in every interview. To best understand the perspectives and experiences of the participants, translations of participant quotations will be used to illustrate findings. Participants have been randomly numbered to have their identities protected.

Community support for education

All participants mentioned community support for education on some level. The two most common means of community support were receiving money and food. Eight participants said they received money from home and ten participants mentioned people from home sending food to the town for them. Participant 1 was very pleased with his parent’s support: “The thing I feel most proud about is that my parents sent me to study in the city and that they let me study what I want to study.”

Participants 7 and 8 discussed trying to financially support themselves independently. Both participants mentioned still occasionally receiving money or food, and how they felt comfortable asking their parents for support if necessary. Participant 8 commented:

“[At first] my parents sent me money every month. They would tell me my budget for the month is 500,000 kip … but since September 13, 2013, my parents have not sent me any money. I work. I told them I have a salary now. If it is not enough I will ask for more from you … I only tell them when I run out of rice, “please send me rice.” Sometimes when they send me rice it might have a bit of local food, something that I love.”

The youngest of ten children, Participant 10 emphasized his siblings’ roles in his education. Having many elder siblings financially stable ensured he was always supported. However, he said that was temporary until he could support himself:

“[My siblings] sent me to study. The only people who help me to study are my siblings … For example, this month I will call and ask from this brother and then next month I will call and ask from another brother … They just help me until some point when I can stand on my own feet.”

Two of the participants had wider communities to help them pursue their education. Participant 12 discussed his decision, as advised by close friends, to become a monk to receive more community support:

“I was still dependent, still asking for money from my parents, so I thought how can I not have to ask for money from my parents … [my friends] suggested to me that I become a monk [laughs]. If I became a monk, I wouldn’t need any help from other people and I could support myself because there are already people who could support me with food and drinks. I thought it was not a bad idea and I could live like that.”

This was the start of his seven years as a Buddhist novice. Participant 11 had a similar experience, whereby she had not completed high school and had no opportunities to continue studying. Her extended family helped her obtain a job with the military, which then supported her through chef training.

Participant 12 was the only participant to identify overbearing family control over his education. He said that studying law was not his “real purpose” and that he would prefer to work in business or . He said his parents chose his degree: “They controlled my siblings and me, like this person study this and this person go do this kind of work.” He did not indicate whether or not this was part of his decision to leave home to become a Buddhist monk.

Communal atmosphere during studies in the town

Since arriving in the town, it appeared that many participants had created a communal atmosphere for their time there. This was predominantly seen through sharing food and rent, as eight participants were living in shared accommodation. Four participants mentioned sharing rent costs with other people and six mentioned a communal atmosphere surrounding cooking and food. Participant 8 reflected on this from her time living in a dormitory:

“The main food at the dormitory is vegetables. We ate together. We shared whatever we had. It did not mean that every day you had to go eat together, it depended on if they were available to eat together they can, if not they can eat alone. But while I was living there I liked to share with friends, talk to them, and make new friends.”

Similarly, Participant 1 shared:

“If we have food then whoever has time to cook has to cook … Rice we get by ourselves then we mix and cook and eat it together. If somebody’s rice is finished we can cook somebody else’s rice.”

While most participants in shared accommodations were living with other students, Participant 6 was living with extended family. He and his stepmother1 had an arrangement where he could stay with her and in return contributed by paying for electricity and water bills and sharing to pay for food.

Other participants spoke of community atmosphere in the town that went beyond food and rent. For example, Participant 3 mentioned that in case of any medical trouble, his friends would look after him “like my brothers.” Participant 1 shared similar sentiments. When asked who looks after him if he falls sick, he replied: “Friends will look after me. They will come if I call them and I miss my parents.” Participant 12 said he borrows money from friends in times of financial need.

Many participants maintain a strong relationship with their home community. Six participants mentioned keeping in touch with their parents, mostly by phone calls, at least once per week. For example, Participant 6 had never been home to visit, but calls home once or twice per week, and sometimes up to five times per week. This indicated that community ties stay strong despite the distance. Of the other six participants, five did not mention contacting home and one said he wanted to call home but could not because his village did not have phone service. It is unknown whether the five participants who did not discuss this stay in touch with their families and how frequently if so.

Benefitting one’s community with education

Many participants mentioned wishes and obligations to help their community after graduating. Teaching as a means of achieving this was a common thread between seven interviews. Two participants were in teacher training, four participants hoped to enter teacher’s college, and one participant was studying accounting only because he was rejected from teacher training. Of the six still pursuing teaching, all of them mentioned that they would prefer to teach back at home. While one participant indicated that teaching in his village would be easiest for attaining employment, others suggested that they would like to use a teaching degree to develop their village. Participant 6 said about teacher’s college:

“I like it. I’ve dreamed of becoming a teacher since I was a kid.” (Why?) “I want to develop myself, and my village.”

Participant 3 was pursuing teaching because he said there are “not enough teachers yet” in rural areas. Participant 8 also wanted to help her village:

“I think I will be a teacher in my village … because in my village, if we compare second language ability, it is very poor. This makes me want to go home to develop my village.”

It is notable that seven of 12 participants wished to pursue teaching, and six specifically identified their intent to teach in their village. Considering that the participants may not have known each other, it could indicate that Lao students feel an obligation or desire to help their community. This same pattern was observed in three other interviews in fields other than teaching. For example, Participant 5 shared:

“I think after I graduate I would like to study to become a police … because I would like to look after my country. Our country is not peaceful yet.”

This was one of the three participants identified as relatively well off. The other two participants identified as well off, Participant 9 and Participant 10, also wanted to help others through their studies to be paramedics. After asking Participant 10 why he was studying to be a paramedic, he replied:

“I like to help other people. When I see poor people it makes me want to go help them … It became my motivation. It made me want to become a paramedic to help poor people.”

Participant 9 similarly answered:

“Because my father is a paramedic … so I want to be like him and help patients … I am going back home [to work] because in my village there are not enough doctors there.”

When asked if he would work in the city if he were offered a higher salary, he persisted on returning home:

“I prefer my priorities to use my knowledge that I learned in the city because in the city there are many people, but in remote areas there is not enough. I have to go help people in remote areas.”

Beyond their careers, several participants directly said that they would like to help their parents after they graduate. When asked if he would bring his parents to Luang Prabang if he worked there, Participant 3 answered:

“Yes, I would love to.” (Why?) “Because I don’t want them to work hard. If I graduate from university, I can help them.”

Participant 12 said that he had not been able to send money to his parents yet: “I still need to help myself to survive first,” but continued, “I really do want to help my parents.” When discussing motivation for school, Participant 1 said that at times he wants to give up because of his stress about helping his family:

“I think the reason why is that my family is poor. At home, they don’t have good jobs to do. They only get up and go work in the rice fields. So I am thinking about what to do in the future and how to resolve this problem.”

These sentiments raise questions of possible underlying feelings, such as pressure of obligations to the community, desires to develop one’s village, guilt for living in better conditions in the town, among many others.

The Value of Education

It was evident that all participants considered education intrinsically beneficial. This was interpreted from various comments made during interviews. For example, Participant 7 said that knowledgeable people are superior:

“Comparing people in the city to people in my village, people in the city have more knowledge … they are better … If I could choose, I would love to live in the city. It makes me more knowledgeable so I can develop myself fast … [My friends in the town] are more knowledgeable, more developed than friends from home.”

Likewise, meeting knowledgeable people was motivation for Participant 1:

“If I see people who have education it makes me want to change myself. If I live in a small city, I won’t see people who have education and I won’t be able to change myself.”

Several other participants discussed similar dedication to their studies. Participant 4 had talked to his teacher about studying after school hours and Participant 6 said that he uses his free time to “go to the library and study.” Participant 8 discussed her commitment to her studies and how she felt when she graduated:

“I did stress and I felt like I wanted to give up but I never gave up. My parents sent me to study and I was too far, so I did not give up, only move forward … In the past five years, [graduation] was the thing I was the most proud of. It was the most fun, the hardest, the funniest. Even though I was poor, I really liked it. I never did something big like this before, never seen so many new things before, met new people, a new community. It made me know how it is like living with many people, made me learn the differences between here and my village. I met a lot of new people and their new ideas, many new things.”

In this quotation, Participant 8 highlighted her pride of her formal education, but also her learning beyond the classroom. She was the only participant to connect the benefits of the town with education beyond its intrinsic value.

Sacrifices for Education

The participant pool was very dedicated to their education. Arriving to the town to pursue education required drastic changes in lifestyle and often some significant sacrifices. This varied among participants. For example, Participant 6 and Participant 9 mentioned exhausting schedules with commitments after school to help them accommodate their studies: Participant 6 studied from 8am until 3pm and then worked from 4pm until 10pm with no day off; Participant 9 studied from 8am until 4pm and then trained in the hospital every night. When asked if it was tiring, Participant 9 replied, “I don’t sleep enough.”

Participant 7 found it very difficult to look after himself while studying:

“The bad point [of the town] is that when I came here I didn’t have a house to live in, no land to live on, and I had to rent a room to live in, which all the money I made was not enough for … [Difficult aspects] about student life are being far away from parents, money, and food to eat. I have to make money to live by myself and I am a student. That is difficult.”

Finding affordable accommodation appeared difficult for other participants as well. Many students live in dormitories, as they are the most affordable. Four of the participants had either previously or were currently living in dormitories and discussed the challenges. Participant 8 recalled arriving at her dormitory for the first time:

“When we got to my dormitory I was surprised when I saw it … They have two; one is for women and one for men. One room has 21 people sleeping together. At my home there were four people and that was a whole house but now living in a narrow room and 21 people inside the room. There are two floors of beds [like bunk beds] … Some beds did not have fans … The first time when I arrived in my dormitory I cried.”

Participant 12 did not enjoy the variety of lifestyle choices in his dormitory:

“Life in a dormitory … I don’t know how to say it; there are many people. Some people use drugs, some gamble, some people like to be loud, to play music very loud. I am living there but I don’t really like it.”

Similarly, Participant 10 was frustrated with his shared accommodation, as he likes to study but his roommate “is always drinking” alcohol. Participant 11 lived in a dormitory for her first two years in Luang Prabang and had a similar experience to those above. For her third year, she started renting a private room but was also having difficulty there: “There is good and bad. Because I am living in a private dormitory, there are more risks. At night-time I get scared.” One of the two female participants interviewed, she mentioned that it could be scary being a female and living alone in the town.

Five of the participants were working at the time of interviews to support their education. Participant 12 discussed living on his income from tour sales:

“In the [tourism] low season it is okay. Until the 25th of the month it is okay; then I have to tighten my belt and be frugal. In months where my money is gone by the 25th, it is okay as there are only five more days. Most months my money is gone by the 25th. But if in some months my money is gone by the 15th, then I need to get ready to die.”

This comment was a figure of speech, but really demonstrated how much the participant struggles to survive financially from month to month, regularly running out of money before his next paycheque. This could explain why he mentioned sometimes needing to borrow money from friends.

Low Quality of Education

Three participants discussed the low quality of their education. They were predominantly concerned with teaching styles. One participant quit studying English because it was too focused on English for tourism and did not help him. Another participant changed his opinion during the course of the interview, which was interpreted as becoming more comfortable. While at first he replied that his teachers instruct “quite well,” Participant 6 later said:

“My problem about studying is that it is still not good enough, the standards are not high enough. I would like to have someone who can help … some teachers are good and some are not really good … The education in Laos is still not at a good standard yet … No quality and teachers have no quality so when they teach there is no quality. In fact, it is because of students too, they are too lazy to study … some people are very focused and some are not. For some people, when they can’t study it makes them not like studying”

Participant 1 similarly explained:

“When teachers come inside the class, they let students study by themselves. Some teachers explain very clearly, but mostly they don’t really … we all have our own books. They just tell us what pages, what unit then students study by themselves and they leave the class. If they come back and if we have questions we can ask them … some hours they don't teach at all … mostly teachers only come to teach when it is math/calculus … For people who like to study and discover new things, they will like it. But if people don’t like to study, when teachers leave the class they will talk and not study at all.”

He estimated that 20 percent of his classmates enjoyed studying, while 80 percent “just talk.” While this is only one participant’s interpretation, his estimate is a telling figure, indicating that the learning environment does not facilitate active teaching or learning. As this topic was never asked directly in interviews, it is unknown if other participants would have agreed with the perspectives raised by these three participants. It does raise questions as to the reason for valuing education so highly and sacrificing so much to obtain it, if so many teachers and students seem disinterested.

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