Signs of movement towards autonomy give Burmese hope

As junta’s grip relaxes, Aung San Suu Kyi joins drive to rebuild sector

July 25, 2013

Source: Getty

March towards freedom? Aung San Suu Kyi has said that she wants Burma’s universities to be independent again and to be allowed to recreate a vibrant campus life in which young people are a force for change

After nearly five decades of rule by a military regime condemned around the world for its human rights abuses, Burma’s higher education system has been left with a troubled legacy.

University autonomy was revoked by the military junta after it seized power in the coup of 1962.

In 1988, students organised by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi mounted anti-government protests, leading to the closure of all universities for two years. Higher education institutions in the Southeast Asian nation’s largest city, Yangon, also known as Rangoon, were subject to further closures.

The University of Yangon, the nation’s oldest and once its most prestigious institution, where the students’ union was dynamited and destroyed by the military after the 1962 coup, has been a postgraduate-only institution since 1996. Undergraduates have been dispersed to newer institutions on the outskirts of Burma’s cities, while much of Yangon’s campus lies empty and overgrown with weeds.

Students at all of Burma’s universities are required to live off campus, a policy that grew out of the junta’s fear of mass gatherings of politicised young people.

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, who was subject to detention between 1989 and 2010 and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, gave her appraisal of the junta’s legacy of repression when she spoke, via video, at a British Council event on Burmese higher education held at the University of London earlier this year.

“Our university system has been almost destroyed by half a century of military rule. Campus life ceased to exist several decades ago,” she said.

But 2010 saw the first multi-party elections for 20 years, and the following year a nominally civilian government came to power, led by President Thein Sein, who had been a general and then prime minister under the junta.

International sanctions are easing in the wake of the elections, bringing new foreign investment and the potential for new job opportunities for graduates.

And now change is in the air for the nation’s higher education institutions. The government has launched a comprehensive review of the education sector that aims to produce a sector plan by 2014.

Cross-party group weighs reforms

Meanwhile, the main opposition party, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, is heavily involved in two parliamentary committees looking at higher education reform.

The NLD won a previous multi-party election in 1990 but was prevented by the junta from governing, and it boycotted the 2010 general election over concerns about its fairness. But in by-elections in 2012, the NLD won 37 seats in the 440-member House of Representatives, including one for Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.

The first of the parliamentary committees is drafting a new higher education law, and the second is focusing on the revival of the University of Yangon.

The parliamentary committees will to some extent overlap with – and perhaps even conflict with – the government’s own review.

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi chairs both the committee on Yangon and the one drawing up the new higher education law. She told the London event that she wanted the latter body to make universities “independent” once again.

But will the government, still dominated by military figures, agree to the reinstatement of university autonomy that the committee led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to recommend?

“Of course, autonomy comes with responsibility,” was the less enthusiastic answer from Myo Myint, deputy minister for education, when he spoke to Times Higher Education in London.

A third parliamentary committee, looking at a draft national education bill produced by the Ministry of Education, may also lead to curricular and managerial autonomy for universities, it has been reported.

Dr Myo Myint was in London as part of a Burmese higher education delegation’s visit to the UK, hosted by the British Council. As part of its reforms, Burma has chosen the UK as one of two developed nations it wants to study (Australia being the other), alongside two developing nations, India and Thailand.

It looks likely that there could be a political battle over the extent of freedoms granted to universities. But Dr Myo Myint was keen to downplay the possibility of conflict. Government ministries and Parliament were “cooperating to revise the law”, he said. “It’s not just the Parliament alone and not just the ministries alone.”

University of Yangon sign

The deputy education minister explained the unusual nature of Burma’s higher education system. The nation has 168 universities, technical colleges and colleges. But these institutions are run by different ministries, with the bulk coming under the aegis of the Ministry of Education (68 institutions), the Ministry of Science and Technology (61) and the Ministry of Health (15). The institutions are consequently “very specialised”, Dr Myo Myint said.

He noted that average tuition fees at Burma’s universities are presently “less than a dollar per month”, while the sector’s curricula “need a lot of updating”.

Graduate employability a priority

The return of foreign investment to the country means that there are now “a lot of job opportunities, creation of a lot of different kinds of jobs compared to 10 years ago”, Dr Myo Myint argued. In the past, owing to “the stagnation of the economy”, he said, there were relatively few options for “jobs that graduates could pursue”.

Echoing a complaint common in many Asian nations, Dr Myo Myint lamented that Burmese universities’ courses are “dependent on rote learning”. He added that the nation’s higher education institutions must “try to get away…from that kind of learning style to a more active, participatory learning style” focused on analytical and collaborative skills.

The visit to the UK – a nation whose university governance and entry requirements for students, said Dr Myo Myint, were of particular interest – came as part of efforts to raise standards by inviting foreign universities to collaborate, including in the establishment of centres of excellence.

There is a plan to involve the US’ Johns Hopkins University in a centre of excellence for social sciences, the deputy minister said, and 10 US institutions have been involved in training Burmese academics in research methodology.

Looking to the wider political context, Dr Myo Myint was keen to highlight the steps towards a freer society being taken under Burma’s new government. “We have a free press, we have private newspapers being established,” he said.

He said the government’s drive towards “strengthening democracy” would see “higher education play a very important role in providing experience in democracy”.

Kevin Mackenzie, the British Council’s Burma director – who said the University of London had shown interest in establishing joint degree programmes with Burmese institutions – echoed the point that higher education reform was about “creating the institutions that help to encourage and promote a more democratic society”.

Youthful ‘force for change’

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, too, told the London event that the higher education reforms “have to do with much more than mere education. It is really part of our efforts to revitalise and reinvigorate our society”.

She called for universities to nurture “vigorous young people capable of meeting the challenges our country will face”.

The opposition leader also urged Burma to “recreate campus life”. She wanted an end to laws banning students from living on campus, which had been “deliberately aimed at keeping our young students separate from one another that they might not gather together and become a force for change – which young people need to be”.

The plea from Ms Aung San Suu Kyi to representatives of British universities was: “Please help us to put Burma back on the map of those countries where education is enjoyed by as many people as possible.” This achievement would, she said, help “build a happier human society”.

Some ways forward for Burma’s academy have been explored by Kenneth King, emeritus professor in the schools of education and of social and political sciences at the University of Edinburgh, in a report written for the British Council after the visit by the Burmese delegation. In the report, Policy Insights for Higher Education: Recommendations for HE Reform in Myanmar, Professor King notes the interrelations between different kinds of autonomy: “greater autonomy in student learning; greater academic staff autonomy; more institutional autonomy; and greater financial autonomy”.

Professor King adds that “at one level, it should be recognised that many measures of institutional autonomy do not make sense without greater financial autonomy”.

But if, on the other hand, “a primary concern is to create greater autonomy within the students’ currently minimalist ‘culture of learning’ and to create a more vibrant campus culture, is the starting point a change in the examination process, or is it halls of residence, libraries, and ready access to the internet? These are very different initiatives carrying very different costs.”

Listen to excerpts from the interview with Myo Myint

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