Myanmar takes steps towards university autonomy

New government is opening up to the wider world, but much remains to be done, says British Council country director

July 25, 2016
Man walking across congested street, Yangon, Myanmar
Source: iStock

How is the ongoing reform programme in Myanmar impacting on higher education?

Some of the answers were provided by Kevin MacKenzie, British Council country director there from August 2012 until 1 July this year, during a recent briefing in London.

He arrived 15 months after the military junta was dissolved, during “the early days of the reform agenda”. The election of Aung San Suu Kyi as a member of parliament and an amnesty of political prisoners in 2012 “helped convince sceptics the government was serious”, although it was still dominated by “the same faces without military uniforms”. It was a time of “power cuts, empty roads, taxis with holes in the floor and scarce mobile phones”.

Much has obviously happened over the past four years. Mr MacKenzie mentioned “a notable change in basic infrastructure” and the election of a government led by Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in 2015, even if three of the main ministries and a quarter of the parliamentary seats are still controlled by the military.

The British Council had played its part by working with civil society and opposition groups, for example offering courses in democracy and human rights taken by many who are now in government.

Higher education had also come under the spotlight. Ms Suu Kyi, who studied at the University of Oxford, specifically encouraged an opening up to British institutions. This led to a study tour of Myanmarese parliamentarians to look at the different English and Scottish models of higher education. Policy dialogues were convened to bring together government and opposition, ethnic groups and teachers’ and students’ unions. And geoscientists from Oxford and Heriot-Watt universities had travelled to the country to offer their expertise.  

Mr MacKenzie also pointed to “a drive towards greater autonomy for the higher education sector”, citing the case of a rector who was free to appoint a gardener but nobody above that grade. This topic had been much discussed during the period from 2012 to 2015, with capacity-building initiatives such as training offered by Oxford to both academics and administrators, although it had inevitably become less prominent in the immediate run-up to last November’s election.

Now that the first non-military president of Myanmar since 1962, Htin Kyaw, has been elected and Ms Suu Kyi has taken on the new role of state counsellor (roughly equivalent to prime minister), Mr MacKenzie reported that “rectors are more accessible” and “the new government is open for business and has a better idea of what university autonomy is”.

Nonetheless, he stressed that “it is still early days” and that real reform would require “structural changes”. Since universities currently “fall under 13 different ministries” representing sectors such as health and agriculture, “it is a government priority to rationalise that”.

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