Myanmar’s private universities ‘overwhelmed’ by student demand

Applicants turn away from public campuses, but external perceptions of the country as ‘failed state’ could put off overseas institutions from forming new collaborations

November 30, 2022
Yangon port
Source: iStock

Nearly two years after a violent coup toppled Myanmar’s democratically elected government, soaring inflation and lacklustre public education are pushing students into the arms of private universities, the British Council’s Going Global conference heard.

Josephine Khin Aye Win, president of STI Myanmar University – a privately run institution – said that, in the country’s largest cities of Yangon and Mandalay, the demand for private education has been “overwhelming”.

For those students reluctant to attend public institutions in the country, which must follow the rules set by its military regime, private universities offered a welcome reprieve from years of online education.

“Students would like to return on campus…because they were locked out during the pandemic as well as during the coup for such a long time,” she said.

Aung Chit Khin, founder and principal of Strategy First University, reported that demand was also strong at his own privately run institution.

Even as many of Myanmar’s best educated people have fled the country, many more who want an education remain – giving him a compelling reason to stay after last year’s military takeover.  

“My first thought after the coup was to leave the country and to sell everything…but then, I have 1,700 undergrads [and] it would be irresponsible for me to do so,” he said.

With rampant inflation since the military takeover pushing up the price of basic goods, most of the parents once able to fund an international education for their children became unable to send them abroad.

“It’s their…only chance to get this international education,” Mr Khin said. “We can’t just bail on them.”

But continuing to run an institution hasn’t been easy. “The challenges are many,” he said. “My partners are getting cold feet…some of the students are still in conflict areas so they cannot come back to Yangon.”

Perhaps most worryingly, the perception of Myanmar abroad could put off universities in other countries from forming new collaborations.

Mr Khin shared a recent experience talking to a UK colleague. “In their mind, Myanmar is a failed state now,” he said.

While panellists emphasised that – apart from opposition-held border areas – life in the country is mostly back to “normal”, collaboration may prove a hard sell to those overseas.

Academic freedom, while greater in private institutions than their government-run peers, is still limited.

“Teaching critical thinking is fine, but in terms of student politics, we don’t say much about it, but students usually stay away from it,” said Mr Khin. “We have to be careful.”

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