International help to upgrade Burma's neglected university sector

The United Kingdom has said it will help Burma improve its higher education sector, according to an announcement on Monday pledging support to education in Burma at both the school and post-school levels.

“Plans are afoot in tertiary education aimed at strengthening higher education institutions,” said Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council, after a meeting in London with Burma’s opposition leader leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“We hope to provide support and opportunities for academic mobility and develop research and teaching links between academics and students in our two countries

The British Council told Suu Kyi it would continue its work to develop Burma’s education system, which is seen as vital to generate stability and opportunities for the country’s future.

Aung San Suu Kyi described education as key to Burma’s security and development in a speech to the UK parliament on 21 June, during an official visit which included collecting an honorary doctorate of civil law at Oxford University almost two decades after it was first awarded to her.

“It is in education in particular that I hope the British can play a major role. We need short-term results, so that our people may see that democratisation has a tangible, positive impact on their lives,” she said.

“Vocational training and creation of employment opportunities to help address Burma ’s chronic youth unemployment are particularly important.”

She added that in the longer term, Burma ’s education system was “desperately weak” and the country needed a change of attitude, “which is at present too narrow and rigid.”

“The great challenge that a democratic Burma has got, is the great expectations of young people,” said Davidson.

“At the tertiary level there has been decades of under-investment or non-investment and some time ago a great deal of suspicion about the activities of students on campuses, as a focus of dissent, so the university system is in quite a bad way,” Davidson told University World News.

He said partnerships with foreign universities would be based around academic and institutional strengthening.

“The sort of things we are in conversation about is the training of academics – there are relatively few academics who have postgraduate qualifications and postgraduate training; and institutional management and leadership: how do you run a modern university that has been completely cut off.

“There is the beginnings of a conversation on how that strengthening of academics and institutions might take place.”

Need for a plan

However, he added that a detailed government plan for higher education in particular had not yet been drawn up.

“There has to be a willingness of government to invest in tertiary education, and some of the restrictions on academic gatherings are going to have to be relaxed. There is going to have to be the resources and the support, to make institutions fit for purpose,” Davidson said.

Nonetheless, he said assistance to the sector should not wait.

“I would like to think within the next three to six months [the British Council will] have something on the ground in Burma.”

Strengthening teacher training at tertiary level is also a major task, as primary and secondary education participation needs to be increased – one in six children in Burma never get into education and many drop out of primary school.

The British Council has already reached an agreement with Burma’s Ministry of Education to implement a schools programme, training 10,000 English teachers per year from the 20 state teacher training colleges, reaching 41,000 schools and two million Burmese youngsters.

More international help sought

Suu Kyi has frequently stressed the importance of education for her country’s development.

Apart from British initiatives in the pipeline, a number of international higher education cooperation projects have been initiated since the elections in April, when Suu Kyi won a seat in the Burmese parliament. Western countries moved to remove some sanctions.

According to local media in Burma, Rangoon University will cooperate with Johns Hopkins University of the United States to improve its law and political science programmes; Mandalay University will receive aid from the universities of Lyons and Montpellier in France; and Pathein University will receive aid from for training in bioscience research from Montpellier.

India has agreed to open an internet technology university at the location of the Institute of Development of Nationalities in the town of Sagaing by 2013.

And South Korea has offered assistance to build the Myanmar Development Institute, modelled on the Korea Development Institute, providing research and analysis on economics and policy, according to presidential advisor Ko Ko Hlaing.

He told local media in June that special education development centres would be established at the universities of Rangoon and Mandalay with the aim of upgrading overall education standards in Burma.

“Some foreign organisations have offered to promote the Myanmar [Burma] education system. We hope to upgrade the universities including the former Yangon [Rangoon] University,” he said

Higher education politicised

Upgrading the university system is a highly political issue as many of the country’s renowned universities were broken up and moved to the outskirts of cities to prevent students from uniting against the military dictatorship.

Controversy has already been sparked over restoration of the origianal Rangoon University campus in the centre of the former capital, historically a hub of the country’s political movement since the time of Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San.

Classes have not been held in the central Rangoon buildings since the 1990s, after the then military junta began a policy of moving universities to the suburbs to suppress student dissent.

U Myint, a government economic advisor, wrote an open letter in May in his personal capacity in which he suggested restoring university buildings including student hostels in the centre of Rangoon, and reinstating classes as a way of developing Rangoon University into a world-class institution.

Most controversially of all, he suggested rehousing the student union there. The former union building at the Rangoon campus was demolished by General Ne Win after mass student protests against the 1962 military coup.

Government officials disassociate themselves from the open letter.