Bringing Myanmar’s Universities Back to Life

Yangon University is typical of Myanmar’s universities: a shadow of its former self at the time of independence in 1948. Then Myanmar’s literacy levels were among the highest in Asia, and the country was the region’s rice bowl. Now years of political repression and economic neglect have left Myanmar’s universities as ghostly places. Universities were open only sporadically between 1988 and 2002 in response to student unrest, after which the regime scattered universities outside the major cities to disperse the student population. Yangon University’s undergraduate department was closed and distance learning was introduced. Academic teaching and the teaching of English in schools has become time-warped. The effect has been that an entire generation has missed out on an education.

But the winds of change are beginning to blow. Since the opening up of Myanmar there has been huge pressure for education reform, and there is an urgency to act as quickly as possible. The government has launched the Comprehensive Sector Education Review (CESR), a far-reaching reform initiative supported by foreign donors. This government-backed review is due to report in three phases by the end of 2014. Some politicians want faster results.

The CESR was officially launched in February 2012 and aims to bring Myanmar’s education system closer to international standards. The reforms were embarked upon to deepen socio-economic reform and further develop human capital in the country, building on the vision of the Ministry of Education “to create an education system that will generate a learning society capable of facing the challenges of the Knowledge Age”. In other words, access to quality education for all children is now a top priority for the government. Some would say this is a late start, but Myanmar has been buried in political difficulties until the recent political breakthrough.

In some respects, the central challenge faced by Myanmar’s policymakers is the same shared by vice-chancellors and politicians around the world: how to find the right balance between the universities’ autonomy and their accountability for the public funds that sustain their teaching and research. More autonomy comes with the risk of less public funding, but more private donations.

Myanmer 2 Yet nowhere else in the world are the stakes so high. Myanmar’s higher education reforms will have a knock-on effect on economic models that dominate the country. Myanmar’s attempts at rebuilding its universities and nation-building at the same time cannot be achieved with less regulation. Industry isn’t ready yet to invest in research and development in Myanmar, and state investment is still going to be needed. Myanmar’s higher education reformers are walking a tight rope—and the calls to walk faster make the risk even greater. Politicians demand rapid reform because universities are centre-stage in Myanmar’s efforts to revitalise and reinvigorate society and the transition to a fully fledged democracy. Increased attention to ethnic issues has put a renewed focus on education’s role in building social cohesion. Aung San Suu Kyi, famously an Oxford graduate, is leading a bold move to draft a law on higher education in Myanmar. The model she espouses for Myanmar is one where the universities will revitalise young people and listen to society.

Myanmar has overwhelmingly large numbers of distance learners, which mushroomed after 1988 when undergraduate studies were expelled from the existing universities, including Yangon’s. The new government universities established for undergraduate studies were in isolated places. Students chose distance learning out of a lack of choice, however the new universities offer poor standards of education, and presently nobody wants to employ their graduates. There are vast differences between the quality of old and new universities, with many education specialists now calling for these new universities to be closed down since they can’t offer quality education and are costly to maintain.

Two parliamentary committees have been set up by Aung San Suu Kyi to spearhead education reform: one focusing on the legislation of the higher education sector and another focusing on revitalising Yangon University, both of which the British Council is supporting with technical expertise and through exposure to UK systems. This has ignited a debate about university governance that has parallels with Europe’s universities, namely: should power reside with elite, academic councils, or with society itself.

myanmar 3More recently, in October 2013, the pace for reform and delays associated with it has led to the creation of an Education Promotion Implementation Committee (EPIC), which is going to push through some of the reforms at a faster pace. This new committee will not replace the existing ones, but it will enforce the government’s work on education and create a fast track for reform. It is unclear how these two processes will work alongside each other, bringing into sharp focus the technical review and the politician’s time tables. The irony with Myanmar is that a lack of political will is a problem for education reform in many countries (Pakistan is a case in point), but in Myanmar’s case, the politicians are wanting to drive faster reform – and for once, the foreign donors, technocrats and bureaucrats have been left standing and watching. The price Myanmar will pay from bowing to political pressure is still uncertain. One thing is certain: reform is never an easy process, fast or slow.

There are important lessons to learn from Myanmar too, for other developing countries, as they seek to strengthen their higher education systems in a bid to develop economic  competitiveness in more a knowledge-intensive world. The urgent need to reform areas of learning, teaching and autonomy took Europe at least 200 years to settle, which Myanmar will have to achieve in less than five years, if lucky, while the window of opportunity is open. University reform in the UK has not been a static process, requiring the same pace of change on all a

reas; rather, reform has taken a flexible, and adaptive approach, to allow for more responsiveness on some parts of the HE system, while other parts take longer to kick-in.

Fast-tracking evolution isn’t going to be easy. As the deadline looms for the presentation of their policies to rebuild their education systems, and their society, the rapid pace of reform required will put greater pressure on Myanmar to move fast to create sustainable, long-lasting change for its youth, and restoring Myanmar’s role on the world stage. Future leaders are made in universities, and this is going to be true of Myanmar’s newly-reformed universities, while university building is supported by those within and outside as a way of supporting democracy and state-building.

By Dr. Halima Begum – East Asia Education Director, British Council, based in Jakarta, covering wider East Asia

You can follow Halima on twitter using @halima_begum

Photos courtesy of Kois Miah