Universities in Myanmar need more international help

A two-year hiatus in educational activities following the military coup is threatening the country's post-conflict future, says a professor in Yangon

July 1, 2022
Myanmar riot police blocked the road in front of the protesters during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar on March 3, 2021.
Source: Getty

The internal armed conflict that has racked Myanmar since the military coup in early 2021 has put the country in an education deadlock.

Universities have not been damaged physically, but the majority of academic and professional staff and students have refused to go back to campuses run by pro-military administrations. For instance, it is estimated that at least 75 per cent of students at Yangon Technological University are still refusing to return.

This means that academic activities in Myanmar have been stalled for more than two years, having initially been suspended in March 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But this raises moral questions for academic staff. Is their conscientious defence of democracy having negative consequences for the education of the country’s youth? What could a high-quality, sustainable, democratic education environment look like in the current circumstances?

There are concerns about the quality of the pro-military educational activities, partly because these programmes are pitched primarily to demonstrate the military’s ability to function as a government despite the mass walkout of 360,000 civil servants in the wake of the coup. Admissions criteria in some medical schools have reportedly been lowered to boost admission, for instance, and there are concerns about a shortage of experienced staff.

On the other hand, some universities in ethnically controlled areas, which have relative freedom and security, are reportedly doing a good job of delivering undergraduate programmes. Such successes should be studied so they can be adapted to other similar locations; accreditation and international recognition for such colleges should also be accelerated.

If the academic vacuum persists, it will surely result in shortages of the skills and competencies that will be indispensable for rebuilding the nation in the post-conflict era. Alternatively, with courage and innovation, we may even come up with better quality programmes than we had before the coup, with greater capacity, resilience, flexibility and iterability.

One constraint is financial. If Burmese universities resumed their programmes, they would have to pay their staff. For the time being, some staff are either doing private tutoring or teaching part time in private universities to make ends meet, while some also receive support from groups from the civil disobedience movement. However, this situation is unsustainable; if the hiatus persists, most university staff may change their career for better life prospects. There has already been a brain drain from the sector, and many people will not come back even in the post-conflict era.

A further barrier is potential repercussions for staff and students who have taken part in the civil disobedience movement. Pro-military administrations not only have suspended or dismissed thousands of such staff and students but have also put them on blacklists, denied their applications for passports and blocked them from taking up international roles, such as on committees of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). To mitigate these risks, the identities of participating staff and students in the academic programmes run by pro-democracy administrations should be undisclosed among peers, and students’ work should be assessed blind. Some leading staff could also be relocated to safer locations, potentially abroad. But this is a tremendous challenge, which the international community should help higher education institutions in Myanmar to overcome.

Teaching virtually would obviously help to protect identities and also overcome capacity issues. But in Myanmar, very few state universities, such as the University of Forestry and Environmental Science, have resumed their courses online. A few private institutions are also running online programmes – some free, some not. But while some are apparently successful, the range of programmes is very limited.

In my view, Burmese universities should follow the example of Ukrainian universities and request partnerships with international higher education institutions on joint/double degrees, student transfer programmes (whereby the foreign partner takes over the education of some Burmese students) and student exchange programmes (whereby the Burmese students return to their home institutions after the conflict). Some have already begun to make such requests, and the innovations that such partnerships will facilitate, and the capacity they will develop, will help re-establish good-quality programmes in the post-conflict era and promote international academic ties.

The problem is that the division of Burmese providers and students into pro-democracy and pro-military groups confuses overseas actors about how to respond. Asean countries also have a policy of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, and no higher education institution in the bloc has taken any initiative to provide access to academic resources for Myanmar academics.

If international universities do agree to lend their support, one factor that must be considered is universality versus local variation. Politically, democratic federalism seems to be widely supported, so it makes sense to pursue educational federalism, strengthening individual local universities. However, with limited human resources, security and freedom, a central online learning platform offering all higher education institutions in the field equitable access to academic resources and modules might be a better initial option. Either way, the system should be set up in a flexible way so that it can be upgraded to suit future developments in law and policy.

In hindsight, much greater international help and integration should have been sought by Myanmar’s higher education sector long ago. Then, we in Myanmar might have been able to avoid the current hiatus and might be closer to being able to play our part in realising Goal 4 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals on access to quality education.

The author is a professor at a Yangon university. He can be reached at pystar2021@gmail.com.


Print headline: Myanmar’s universities need more in way of international help

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles