The challenges facing higher education in Myanmar

It is not often that countries have the opportunity to undertake major development and reform of their higher education sectors, but that’s the position currently facing Myanmar. And inevitably there is a diversity of interested parties, both domestically and internationally, with firmly held views about what and how much to do. As is so often the case, there are rarely ‘right’ answers.

With policy-makers in Myanmar approaching this challenge it is perhaps helpful to stand back and reflect on the role of tertiary education and think about what this might mean for the future development of the sector.

The economic contribution of higher education usually features highly in any such reflection – whether because of its direct role in creating the highly skilled workforce that underpins longer term growth and development or because of its indirect role in driving economic growth through innovation.

And of course the cases of Korea, China and the developed economies of the West are widely cited as exemplars in this respect. It is this economic contribution that fundamentally underpins what might be described as the ‘business case’ for investment in a country’s tertiary sector.

Critical thinking

But the importance of the social and cultural contribution of the tertiary sector must not be underestimated.

The creation, protection and dissemination of knowledge has always been central to what a university does – and this encompasses all knowledge and not just economically relevant knowledge; it is sometimes too easy to be seduced by a focus on activities that are seen to be of immediate economic value while forgetting the significance of subjects, particularly those in the arts and humanities, which have so much to contribute to our social well-being and identity, to our understanding of our current context and our aspirations for the future.

This breadth and diversity of activity within tertiary education also makes a further important contribution. Managed effectively, it provides the conditions that help students to develop creative skills, to think critically, to challenge and to innovate. And it underpins our efforts to raise awareness of the broader social responsibility of higher education communities.

But critics will point out that the evidence for the economic value of higher education is ambiguous at best and that secondary education offers a superior return on investment; they will argue that the skill gains may be overestimated because higher education tends simply to benefit existing well-educated elites.

And of course, they will point out, the social and cultural benefits are largely restricted to those same elites who have the means and the opportunity to access post-secondary education.

Measuring the benefits

It may be unwise to attach too much significance to such critiques; measuring the economic returns from higher education is challenging and more so when some of those benefits are private (to individuals) and some are public.

In general terms, salary premia (correctly measured) can provide indications of private benefit; public benefits, especially in terms of the social and cultural, may be very real but notoriously difficult to capture in numeric terms.

Anecdotally, countries which have invested in their tertiary sectors have seen real benefits. Korea may be the most widely cited example, but China also appears to have benefited from putting significant resources into higher education, as have countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

Furthermore, while it might be reasonable to argue that there are real challenges to ensuring access to higher education for the most talented students (rather than just the economically advantaged ones), this should not be used as an argument against supporting higher education.

It simply highlights a need to accompany investment in the expansion of the system with policies that enable access to tertiary education for those who are most able to benefit.

Meeting demand

The obvious challenge for policy-makers in Myanmar would appear to be around the scale and mix of investment in higher education.

With a young population and a significant skills gap, demand will almost certainly outstrip supply and there will inevitably be a temptation to focus on the more vocationally relevant subjects – not least because of the perception of a quick payback.

That would be short sighted and underestimates the importance of breadth within any higher education sector.

With conflicting demand on government resources, moves to draw on private as well as public funding for higher education have a clear logic. In some quarters this seems to have generated concerns about quality, but there is enough experience worldwide of managing private provision to suggest that quality should not be seen as a problem that is intrinsic to either the mode of funding or the ownership structure.

A mixture of public and private funding creates the potential for higher education institutions to deliver the broad range of economic and social and cultural benefits.

But the realisation of these benefits doesn’t just depend upon investment alone. The way in which investment is used matters hugely and in particular, the way in which higher education institutions are governed and managed.

There are inherent challenges with both public and private funding – politicisation, market failure, short-termism – that can impact on quality.

The right regulatory system matters to provide some protection for students and other stakeholders. But so does institutional autonomy – giving tertiary institutions the freedom to do what they do best in the way that they think is best.

Perhaps the real challenge for policy-makers in Myanmar will be less about scale and mix and more about getting the right balance between government control and institutional autonomy.

* Professor Christine Ennew is provost and CEO of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. This article draws on her presentation last month on “The Development of Higher Education: National and global relevance”, at the British Council Global Education Dialogue in Myanmar.