Higher education bill scrapped over lack of university autonomy

In a major upset, the Education Ministry’s higher education bill was rejected during the final stages of its passage through Myanmar’s Hluttaw, or parliament, after opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other legislators criticised it. It is the first time that the lower house has scrapped an entire bill rather than amending it.

A new bill to increase university autonomy and place institutions on the road to international competitiveness will be drafted by legislators after the proposed bill was thrown out on 31 July because it would not allow universities enough freedom.

Amendments would not be sufficient, Aung San Suu Kyi said, requesting parliament “to bring about a bill that is more suitable, for this country, this era and this world”.

Suspension of the ministry’s bill would “enable the Hluttaw to discuss a higher education bill that is more comprehensive, brings more benefit to the country and represents the voice of the students,” said Thein Nyunt, the MP responsible for putting forward the eleventh-hour motion to scrap the bill.

Legislators said the ministry’s proposed bill simply mirrored the system set up by the previous military regime, and blamed government control of universities for the collapse of higher education standards in recent decades.

The bill “has been modified just a little compared to the 1973 bill which conformed with the socialist system [of the then regime],” legislator Aung Ko of the Union Solidarity and Development Party – a party backed by the military – told parliament.

“Because university management, teaching and financial discipline will still be under the control of departments of government ministries [under the proposed bill], it does not move in a democratic direction,” he argued.

The military regime maintained tight control over universities, regarding them as a hotbed of student unrest and a threat to stability.

Myanmar has 185 universities under 12 government departments including the science and technology and health ministries. Some 64 universities are under the education ministry.

Union Education Minister Mya Aye, who had presented the bill to parliament on 4 July, refuted the criticisms and said universities under the ministry were “not far off” being autonomous. He pointed to plans for Yangon University to initiate contacts with John Hopkins University in the United States.

But Aung San Su Kyi responded: “Even if universities have initiated contacts with international universities, it won’t be appropriate in this era if it appears that the Education Ministry still exerts considerable influence on them.”

In a further blow to the government Shwe Mann, speaker of the lower house, said a replacement higher education bill should be drafted by a lower house committee and the Legal Affairs and Special Issues Assessment Commission together with the Education Ministry and legislators interested in the issue, rather than being left to the ministry alone.

This would allow legislators to draw on the expertise of people outside the ministry, including university rectors, he said, explaining the extraordinary move to increase the powers of parliament. Normally, a bill is drawn up by the relevant ministry and a parliamentary bill committee.

Maung Thin, rector of Magwe University, told University World News that human resources were important for Myanmar’s reforms, so higher education had to be changed.

“It will be great if Aung San Suu Kyi is involved in drawing up the universities bill as we share the same opinion,” he added, saying that universities needed more autonomy.

MP Thein Nyunt told University World News that the ministry’s bill would be replaced completely. MPs are discussing a new draft law that would be similar to the system in place in 1920 that governed Yangon University, he said.

Yangon University, then Rangoon University, was considered one of the best in South East Asia before the military regime came to power.

“MPs are trying to consider the disadvantages and advantages of the education system,” he told University World News, adding that Myanmar’s higher education system still needed a lot of reform.

Aung Ko had said in parliament that the government should allow each university to form an autonomous governing council free from the influence of government ministries.

Other MPs said universities should be allowed to draw up their own curricula, raise their own funds, decide independently on how to spend money, hire foreign academics and recruit foreign students.

“The reform of Myanmar’s higher education should not just be controlled by the Education Ministry. The participation and involvement of stakeholders like parents, students, media and civil society are very important,” Aung Tun Thet, a senior United Nations advisor, was quoted as saying in the Myanmar Times.