Government HE proposals slammed for lack of autonomy

A draft proposal drawn up by a government-led committee to modernise Myanmar’s higher education sector after decades of neglect has been slated by higher education groups who say it would not give universities genuine autonomy.

A wide-ranging group of political, educational and student organisations – including the opposition National League for Democracy, or NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi – said they had rejected government proposals put forward last month and intended as a first step in drafting a new higher education bill.

A previous bill was thrown out of parliament in July 2012 because it did not grant universities enough autonomy.

At a meeting with 100 representatives from civil society, political parties, and student and lecturer bodies held on 31 December 2013 in Yangon, the government presented proposals that included setting up a Central University Council to oversee higher education.

The civil society groups said this was merely another form of state interference.

The policy unveiled by government “lacks transparency, freedom of thought, and it limits the rights of universities,” said Thein Lwin, a member of the NLD education network, which is part of National Network for Education Reform – NNER – a civil society group formed in October 2012 to provide input into education reform.

NNER also includes '88 Generation Students' and other student groups, ethnic education organisations, teacher unions, Buddhist monks and Christian churches.

The discussion on 31 December “was not about the independence of universities but was just to control Myanmar’s universities and limit their independence,” Thein Lwin told University World News.

Pre-empting the bill

Arka Moe Thu, an executive member of the University Lecturers Association, said the group had rejected the government’s proposals, “which mainly only discuss a Central University Council”, and criticised the government for wanting to set up the council before a new higher education bill was drafted.

“Autonomy for universities is the first priority of the bill,” he stressed. “But they just want a Central University Council to be created, which means they want to centralise and handle all university activities” under the new body.

If universities were granted genuine autonomy, as demanded by many groups, the government’s higher education department would have a greatly reduced role, according to Arka Moe Thu. He believes that is why the council is being proposed.

Education Ministry officials said last year that the plan was to make the country’s 168 universities autonomous institutions.

However Zaw Htay, director general of the ministry’s higher education department, told local media: “The details of how much freedom they [universities] can practise, will not be known till it [the bill] is enacted.”

“Can they even form a Central University Council without a higher education law?” There was no transparency, said Si Thu Maung, founder of the Yangon Institute of Economics student union and an NNER member.

Maung said lecturers who attended the 31 December meeting were only given the draft bill to read on that day and did not have sufficient time to understand it. “It was difficult for us to discuss.”

But he revealed that the proposed council would comprise ministry officials, 75% rectors and only one representative each of lecturers and students. “They are trying to reduce the role of teachers and students,” he claimed.

Consultations not representative

The government-led committee was created under Tin Naing Thein, a minister in the presidents’ office, and was supposed to include civil society representatives, education experts and other stakeholders.

But NNER said only one representative from each of three universities in the country had been invited to consultations on the draft policy before it was unveiled last month.

The group said the government’s committee, formed by presidential decree, had ignored NNER’s recommendations.

“Most university professors are afraid of criticising the government because they are themselves government officials. The government committee doesn’t include any outside education experts, students, ethnics groups, religious groups and the disabled.

“We also learned that it lack transparency,” said Thein Lwin of the NLD education network.

“Our own proposal was drawn up with the voices of the public,” Thein said, pointing out that the NNER held 25 seminars across country and in June 2013 staged a national conference attended by 1,200 participants. Afterwards, it sent a report with recommendations for creating an inclusive education system to parliament and for a government committee overseeing the Comprehensive Education Sector Review.

NNER met with the Education Ministry three times last year and also discussed education policy reform with Aung San Suu Kyi, who heads the legislature’s Higher Education Law Reform Committee, he said.

“The government side is drawing up a higher education bill and we [NNER] are also drawing up a national education bill. The main priority of both bills is to reform the education system. So why can’t we build common ground based on dialogue?” Maung wondered.