‘Enigmatic’ bill criticised for centralised HE control

A national education bill passed by Myanmar’s parliament on 30 July has been criticised for maintaining centralised control of universities and for not going far enough to reform higher education. But student groups said the exact content of the bill covering all sectors from primary to tertiary is still shrouded in mystery, leaving many citizens perplexed.

Representatives of the National League for Democracy or NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, backed the National Education Bill, saying they could accept “70% of the content”.

Although not perfect, Suu Kyi told students who came to parliament on 24 July to discuss the bill that it should be considered a ‘mother law’, with separate bills on basic education and higher education to follow.

But the bill – or what is known of it – has been extensively criticised by student groups and the National Network for Education Reform, or NNER, a group of civil society organisations. Students from Yangon, Mandalay and Sagaing divisions staged public protests against the bill as it made its way through parliament.

Groups including the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, or ABFSU, said the way the bill was handled lacked transparency. Some interest groups described it as ‘enigmatic’ and said they did not know what had gone through in the final version and what had not, while the extent of university autonomy in the future remains unclear.

“Right now, the problem for all students is that we have not got full information about the bill and some students from other cities protested without knowing what parliament was discussing,” Si Thu Maung, founder of the students union of the Yangon Institute of Economics, told University World News.

Some parliamentarians have told students during various meetings that the bill restricts rights and higher education autonomy through control by the government. Ethnic issues had not been tackled, they reportedly said.

“That’s why we believe things will be worse [than before] after they approved this national education bill,” Kyaw Ko Ko, chair of ABFSU, told University World News.

It is not clear when the higher education bill will be ready, parliamentarians said.

Confusion over versions

Confusion arose as two versions of the bill – one put forward by the Ministry of Education and the other by a special education committee of parliament – were discussed in the People’s Parliament, the lower house or Pyithu Hluttaw.

The two versions were combined after some amendments, before being approved by the National Parliament, which comprises both the Pyithu Hluttaw and the Amyotha Hluttaw – the upper house made up of state representatives and including the military and military appointees – sitting in joint session. Bills do not have to go back and forth between the lower and upper houses but may be passed in a bi-cameral session.

State-run newspapers carried reports only referring to the ministry version of the bill even though the two versions had been combined after the separate and sometimes contradictory versions of the legislation were passed by the two houses of parliament late last month.

Lawmakers reportedly reconciled 69 differences between the two bills during its passage, indicating wide differences in how education is perceived by the ministry and parliamentarians.

The exact version of the bill passed in July had still not been made public two weeks later, making proper scrutiny impossible, students said. Even when the bill came to National Parliament at the end of July, amendments continued.

“The national parliament cut 11 clauses and added some others. For example, students can attend the university they want without depending on their marks,” Arka Moe Thu, an executive member of the University Lecturers Association, told University World News.

Currently students are assigned according to their ranking in national exams, leading to a mismatch between students’ interests and the subjects they study.

Proposed National Education Council

While not completely happy with the 30 July bill, Nyo Nyo Thin, a member of the Yangon Region Parliament, said it was better than the previous version of the bill that came before the National Parliament in March.

“The last bill was very general,” she told University World News.

Currently the department of higher education in the Education Ministry supervises universities. Under the bill the department will be abolished and all universities, public and private, will come under the control of a proposed new National Education Council.

The council is to be headed by a national-level parliamentarian and will include ministers of science and technology, and health, which are currently responsible for technology and medical universities respectively.

The bill states that the proposed council “will not interfere in the management of the universities.”

Nyo Nyo Thin said: “The National Education Council will not be controlling each and every thing but it will still be in charge of national education policy. Centralisation will still exist.

“There is no particular protection for university autonomy in the latest bill,” Nyo Nyo Thin added, questioning the ability of the proposed council to draft policy without harming the strategic management plans of individual universities.

She pointed to another group to be set up under the provisions of the new bill, known as the Coordinating Committee for Higher Education under the proposed National Education Council, whose role will be to “connect and negotiate with the universities that are under different ministries”.

Nyo Nyo Thin added that those in favour of education autonomy did not want the Coordinating Committee. “In fact there is no need for both a National Education Council and the Coordinating Commmittee, one is enough.”

But even on the proposed council “the bill is too general”, she said. For example, it does not mention how many people will be in the National Education Council. It says only that it will comprise ethnic experts and ministers. "The goals and terms used are very ambiguous.”

University autonomy

The NNER particularly criticised the proposed council. “This is similar to the national education committee formed during the military regime. The National Education Council is another form of central control... The academic freedom of students and teachers is still under their control, and there are remaining concerns over freedom for ethnic languages and curriculum," the network said in a statement.

It does not guarantee the freedom of students to form unions, currently banned in Myanmar. “The bill is very vague. There is no guarantee for the freedom of education and the right for students and teachers to organise unions,” Nyo Nyo Thin said.

NLD member and People’s Parliament representative Zay Yar Thaw told University World News that Suu Kyi had said student unions would not be neglected but it was not appropriate to include this in the ‘mother law’ right now. It would be added in a future higher education bill, he said.

Not everyone agrees. Arka Moe Thu of the lecturers association said student unions and teacher unions should be included in the ‘mother law’.

Nyan Htein Lin, chair of the Myanmar Federation of Students Union based in Mandalay, said an education law should be complete and include education rights and education needs. He said both Suu Kyi and the president accepted that the law was not 100% perfect. “So they must consider how to amend [it to make it] a better law.”

“We protested earlier that the bill should be amended before it was approved. But it’s approved now and we have to rethink how we can make it better. In this law, education is still not free from the influence of government ministries and it doesn't include ethnic literacy that we demanded,” said Nyan Htein Lin.

The bill will be sent to President Thein Sein to sign into law. The president may also choose to send the bill back to parliament with suggested changes.

ABFSU’s Kyaw Ko Ko said that in drafting the bill parliamentarians had “made some changes that we wanted included. However, the changes have not satisfied our needs. If we find that the National Education Bill would be the same as before, we will keep protesting.”