Restoring Yangon University to its former glory captures public mood

The campus of Yangon University, formerly Rangoon University, in the centre of the city, is semi-abandoned. Tall grass surrounds the old convocation hall still used by a number of universities for delivering degrees. But other structures, particularly the old student buildings, are in a dilapidated state.

Some classes are still held for postgraduate and doctoral students but the main university, along with other Yangon universities, was relocated to the outskirts of town in the 1990s. With its history of student activism and dissent since British Colonial times, the military government relocated the university in part to quell student activism and prevent student demonstrations gaining support within the city.

Ma Ei studied for a masters degree in international relations at the old campus in 2008. “It was very dirty, with old buildings and a lot of [overgrown] bushes. The environment was very poor,” she told University World News.

In addition, the once-leafy campus lost many of its trees during Cyclone Nargis in 2008. “Many of the big trees were destroyed, almost all of the old trees are gone.”

But now, as the Myanmar government looks to invest in four of its major universities as centres of excellence – part of its efforts to rebuild higher education – Yangon residents have been engaged in excited discussions over the future of the campus.

This follows a suggestion by a senior presidential advisor that Yangon University be restored to its former glory as one of South East Asia’s top universities.

Widespread support for restoration

There has been widespread public support for renovating the city-centre campus since U Myint, the president’s business advisor – himself a student at Yangon University in the 1960s – called in the weekly Yangon Times in May for restoration of the buildings and, more controversially, rebuilding of the student union building demolished by the regime.

“Like other students at that time, I spent a lot of time in the student union building. I recall the facilities there consisted of a small reading room and a library, a restaurant, a barber shop, meeting rooms, and a recreation room with a ping-pong table,” reminisced U Myint.

“More than anything else, the new student union building will be a landmark in the national reconciliation process and it will fill a void that has been in our hearts for some time.

“As in the past, it will provide a place where our young people can gather, engage in free debate and discussion, and in keeping with our tradition, they will be encouraged to play an effective role in the nation-building task that lies ahead.”

His comments sparked a furore, as he was referring to the key role played by the university’s student union in past uprisings.

In 1988, a country-wide uprising led to the closing of all universities until 1990, as the government took control of universities.

Government officials later said U Myint, who is also chief of the Centre for Economic and Social Development at the Myanmar Development Resource Institute and a former economics lecturer, had been speaking in a personal capacity.

But he captured the public mood.

Yangon residents say they want the university to come alive as in the past, providing quality higher education to students. Many can remember when Yangon University was once the most popular university, attracting students from all over the country.

Far from town

By contrast, the new Yangon University buildings are far from the centre of town, surrounded by farmland and with poor transportation links. It is particularly hard on professors.

“The need to hold regular classes at out-of-town facilities and to rush back to the main campus to conduct evening diploma and postgraduate courses has also inflicted considerable physical and mental stress on the teaching staff and taken a heavy toll on them,” U Myint said.

Students agree. “Studying outside Yangon is very difficult for us,” Win Tint Aung, an English literature student at Dagon University situated on the outskirts of Yangon, told University World News.

“It’s time consuming due to bad transportation. Most of the students live very far. Also, the education level is very low and [the university] doesn’t have enough facilities. I would love Yangon University to be restored in the downtown area.”

Some students argue that the distance from town is not the problem, but rather that they become disconnected from others. “They don’t even have students' lives”, said U Kyaw Myint, a law student at Dagon university, who would prefer a city-centre university.

“The students are still called 'students', even though most of them are not at the universities but outside.”

Parents complain that the distance means they do not know whether their children are actually at university or spending their time in cafés or indulging in anti-social behaviour.

‘Land problems’

But when U Thein Nyute, a representative of the National Democratic Force party, suggested building more student accommodation near universities to make it easier for students, Deputy Minister of Education U Aye Kyu said during the March session of parliament that this had not been decided yet because of a rise in the number of students and teachers and lack of funding.

He also claimed that the government had to relocate universities to the outskirts because of “land problems”.

Myanmar had 32 universities and colleges before 1988, and the government is trying to increase the number to provide more opportunities for higher education. There are now 163 universities, U Aye Kyu said, adding: “We shouldn’t put all the universities that we are developing together in the downtown area.”

As the price of land and property has been rising, businessmen have eyed the campus, which is already surrounded by shopping malls and markets. This was aired openly by U Myint.

“The Yangon University estate in its current situation with empty buildings, spacious grounds and open spaces, and attractive recreation areas and sport complexes needing upkeep and renovation – in the wake of sky-rocketing real estate values – has provided massive incentives to big private firms to pursue lucrative business ventures on university property.

“This provides another, urgent reason to get students and faculty back on the campus to prevent further encroachment,” U Myint said.

Centres of Excellence

There have been some new moves by the government this year to invest in improving universities, which has fed into the debate about restoring the old campus.

The government has designated four universities – Yangon University, Yangon Institute of Economics, Yangon Institute of Technology, and Mandalay University in the northern city of Mandalay – as centres of excellence.

“Generally, this is a good plan if the government is trying to promote the qualities of these four universities,” said U Kyaw Myint (65), a retired local government official who graduated from Yangon University in 1968.

“Everybody agrees that Myanmar’s education can’t compare to the rest of the world’s. But compared to other Asian countries, education here started to decline from 1988.”

Although it is not yet clear how the government will fund the upgrading of these universities, and how they will be improved, U Win, the parent of a student at Yangon Institute of Technology (YIT) – formerly Rangoon Institute of Technology – said he understood it was “100% certain to be restored”.

A senior Ministry of Education official told local media in early June that the four institutions have initiated contacts with South Korean and European universities and Johns Hopkins University in the US, for help in upgrading, in the hope of stemming the outflow of students from Myanmar going overseas for a decent education.

Budget problems

However, U Nyi Hla Myine, a professor and YIT advisor, said at the opening of a YIT dissertation presentation on 23 July that to get government funding to solve the financial problems of universities was not as easy as imagined. It often takes a year for funds to be disbursed by government.

“We can’t wait that long. That’s why we have to ask for donations from companies and some of the old students to solve our budgetary problems,” he said, adding that higher education would improve faster if disbursement were speedier and more efficient, as well as having more money allocated to higher education.

U Thein Win, a YIT English professor, said higher education needed to be boosted, with a huge increase in its budget. “Parliament has said they are using 2% of the budget for education and 20% for defence,” he pointed out.

With universities’ pressing financial needs, it is unclear how any restoration of Yangon University could be funded. But as U Myint said, the institution “belongs to all the people of Myanmar. It is our national heritage. It should be preserved and protected for future generations.”

He added: “In conversations with faculty members and students of various institutes of higher learning spread out all over the countryside and in the suburbs of Yangon, the main message I have got from them is: ‘Our biggest and enduring wish is to return to the main university campus in Yangon.’”