Rohingya crisis exposes mistake of UK universities

Atrocities in Myanmar expose how universities have unnecessarily risked their reputations by partnering with corrupt political systems, says Peter Brady

September 23, 2017
Aung San Suu Kyi
Source: iStock
Aung San Suu Kyi has led efforts to build links with British universities but has been criticised for her inaction over the displacement of 400,000 Rohingya Muslims

With transnational education netting UK universities about £550 million a year it is no surprise that many UK universities are seeking to expand provision into new markets. 

However, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in Myanmar raises serious questions about where UK universities are choosing to offer their degrees via partnerships with local institutions.

Too often the UK government has been complicit in developing an unrealistic narrative of change in countries that have dubious histories. A whiff of compromised democracy or a semi-repentant dictator, such as Libya’s deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi who agreed to pay billions of pounds to victims of his own terrorism, is enough for ministers to re-engage with previous pariah states. Only, of course, if there is potential for profit. 

The government also encourages British businesses to join in on the opportunities that arise from decades of suppression and corruption. UK universities – whose educational exports were recently valued at about £13 billion a year by a Department for Education report – are often invited in at an early stage, but many choose not to engage.

After the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 after the opposition leader had spent years under house arrest, many UK universities were invited to set up partnerships and develop programmes in Myanmar. The vast majority of institutions did not get involved.

But some did and are currently working there. According to the latest British Council data, there were five universities offering programmes in Myanmar in 2015-16, teaching about 1,000 students. This number is, however, expected to increase significantly over the next few years, with experts predicting a four-fold increase on 2015-16 numbers by 2020 as more universities start to validate degrees offered in the former colonial outpost of Burma.

However, even before the recent atrocities it is difficult to see why they chose to work in Myanmar. Just look at its corruption ranking.  Despite undergoing major democratic reforms in 2011-12, for many years Myanmar was rated by the Berlin-based NGO Transparency International as the third most corrupt country in the Asia-Pacific region, with only Afghanistan and North Korea viewed as worse. It improved its position last year, when it was placed 136th, up from 180th, but it is still considered extremely corrupt. As Transparency International observed in January, “in too many countries, people are deprived of their most basic needs and go to bed hungry every night because of corruption, while the powerful and corrupt enjoy lavish lifestyles with impunity.” It’s no surprise that Myanmar, as the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia over the years, is also the poorest.

Corruption is endemic and is built into Myanmar's societal structures; the military control the gas and mineral extraction industries and, by using these profits, their families control much more.  If you visit Myanmar it doesn’t take long to find that the majority of businesspeople behind private higher education have links to the military or the preceding government. With so many years of such corruption who else could have amassed the wealth needed to own a college? These are the businesses that UK universities are likely to be working with if they are validating or accrediting programmes. Given the level of fees, one can also assume that the students  on these courses come from the families that control the businesses. 

With little infrastructure, high child labour rates, and now ethnic cleansing, many will wonder why any university would chose to risk their reputation by working in this country. Those who are more generous-spirited would argue that education is a way to change society. Helping Myanmar to build an educated workforce can only do good, they will insist, and attitudes will change through engagement with UK higher education.

More cynical observers would feel that it was only for profit and question whether educating the offspring of a corrupt elite will do anything but maintain and legitimise that elite. Having a respected higher education institution maintain a presence in such a state might also encourage the government to assume that the international community, if not condones, does not damn its behaviour, some might argue.

This is not just about Myanmar. As university finances tighten and transnational education becomes increasingly important to institutions’ bottom lines, how do we decide whether it is morally correct to work in any country? It is a matter for individual universities to develop systems that not only check financial risks but reflect on the impact of a presence in such a country, not just on the university’s reputation but on the people of that country. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution and these are not always clean-cut decisions. However, in the case of Myanmar, it should have been an easy choice and certainly must be now. Any university that is working in Myanmar and continues to do so, despite the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, must believe that it is a force for good. They should donate at least some of their profits to a fund for the Rohingya refugees.

That would go some way to assure their board of governors that they are working for the benefit of the people of Myanmar, rather than profit. Simply ignoring the issue leaves them in the dubious moral position of picking up more business as more concerned rivals exit the transnational education market.

Peter Brady is an international higher education consultant.

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