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Official Country Name: Brunei Darussalam
Region: Oceania
Population: 336,376
Language(s): Malay, English, Chinese
Literacy Rate: 88.2%

The small (2,226 square miles) South-East Asian Sultanate of Brunei is located on the northwestern coast of the island of Borneo, sandwiched between two states belonging to neighboring Malaysia. The official name of this wealthy, oil-rich country that became independent of British control (although it was never an outright colony) in 1984 is Brunei Darussalam (Arabic for "Abode of Peace"). It has a predominantly Malay Muslim population with a substantial Chinese minority, many of whom are classified as non-citizens. One striking educational feature of this country, which due to its prosperity ranks third in the world in per capita income, is that citizens of Brunei enjoy the benefit of access to free schooling at all levels.

Historically, the first Malay language school began in what was then Brunei Town (now the capital and renamed Bandar Sri Begawan) in 1912. Similar schools in other towns followed it. A Chinese school was established in 1916, followed by an English medium one in 1931. The growth in schools, both government and private, continued through World War II and beyond. The first five-year plan for economic development, beginning in 1954, resulted in the creation of the Ministry of Education.

This Ministry, which was subsequently reorganized in 1974 on the basis of an official governmental commission report, continues to oversee educational policy and allocate resources to all schools under its control. All government and private schools are overseen by the Ministry of Education in conformity with the Education Act of 1984. All primary and secondary schools follow a common curriculum that is set by the Ministry. Although there have been both official and unofficial recommendations urging the adoption of Malay as the sole medium of instruction, currently dwibahasa (bilingualism, using both English and Malay for teaching purposes) is being practiced. Due to Brunei's small population, many teachers have historically been expatriates from neighboring countries in Asia or from Australia and Britain. One provision of the Education Act is the requirement for private school teachers to register with the Ministry.

Based on Brunei's Islamic heritage and government by monarchy, its official educational philosophy emphasizes Koranic elements, such as faith and piety, along with loyalty to the Sultan. At the same time, its past reliance on Britain has resulted in educational structures and curricula that draw from that nation's educational system. Brunei's educational policies, as stated by the Ministry of Education, aim to achieve the following. They wish to provide:

  • greater scope for the use of Malay in education;
  • a total of 12 years of education for all students;
  • a system of integrated curricula and public examinations;
  • Islamic religious education as part of the school curriculum;
  • facilities for education in scientific and technological fields;
  • appropriate co-curricular activities;
  • access to higher education as appropriate; and
  • educational structures that are in harmony with national needs.

In the year 2000, a total of 221 educational institutions were in Brunei. These consisted of 175 primary schools, 39 secondary schools, 2 vocational schools, and 1 each of the following: technical college, nursing college, mechanical training center, technological institute, and university, the Universiti Brunei Darussalam (or UBD). There were 32,316 students in government primary schools and 27,914 in government secondary schools. In addition 24,370 students attended private primary schools and 4,038 were in private secondary schools. There were 2,867 students at the University of Brunei while 2,500 students attended the other vocational and technical colleges. Clearly, a significant proportion of the country's population (more than one-third) consists of students at the primary, secondary, or tertiary levels. One additional feature worth noting is that, according to official statistics, while the enrollment numbers of males and females keep pace with each other at the primary and secondary levels, approximately 57 percent of students at the tertiary level are females.

Brunei follows a 7-3-2-2 pattern of education. This means that there are seven years of primary education (including one year of preschool), followed by a public examination known as the Primary Certificate of Education. Lower secondary education is for three years, followed by another public examination, the Lower Secondary Assessment examination. Based on the performance of an individual student and following the ninth year of schooling, he or she will be tracked into one of two streams. One stream leads to technical or vocational education that prepares the student for immediate skill-based employment after graduation; such education is provided at a number of technical and vocational institutes described below. The other "academic" stream leads to two or three years of upper secondary education culminating in the student's appearance in the Brunei-Cambridge General Certificate of Education (GCE) examination at either the O-(Ordinary, similar to its British secondary school counterpart) or N-Levels. The GCE examinations are conducted jointly by Cambridge University's Local Examinations Syndicate and Brunei's Ministry of Education. Those not immediately prepared to take the O-Level examinations are allowed to take the N-level examinations which, if passed, give them an additional year of schooling and preparation to tackle the O-Level examinations. Finally, students with adequate achievements at the O-Level examinations can go on to two years of preuniversity education that prepares them for the Brunei-Cambridge A-Level (similar to the British GCE Advanced Level) examinations.

At the apex of Brunei's education system is its only university, the UBD. This relatively new institution of higher learning began operations in 1985 and offers undergraduate and a few graduate programs through its six faculties (colleges). These include faculties in the arts and social sciences; business, economics and policies studies; Islamic studies; Brunei studies; science; and education. The last named faculty originated as a separate institute of education that predates and was incorporated into the UBD in 1988. UBD's teaching staff numbers slightly more than 300 people. While most undergraduate programs of study are offered in the English medium, some are also offered separately in Malay.

Brunei's educational system will face two major future challenges. The first is to expand available educational resources and choices at all levels to match the demand both from its own population and the changing economy of Southeast Asia. The second is the continuing dilemma of integrating historical and traditional (religion, monarchy, and "colonialism") as well as modern (liberalization and globalization) elements into a coherent educational infrastructure.

—N. Prabha Unnithan

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