Transformational leadership in action

With the world focused on Myanmar and its reform process since 2010, it is important to understand that any reform process requires transformational leadership. This transformational leadership can be seen at the national political level, but it can also be seen at the higher education sector level.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

In spite of criticism of Myanmar’s higher education development, the country has made significant progress in reshaping the foundations of its higher education sector. It should be noted that this occurred during its transition to a democratic form of governance, at a time of conflict between political parties and complex ethnic and religious issues.

Myanmar’s developing higher education sector

After roughly 50 years of isolation and a persistent lack of investment and innovation in its higher education sector, Myanmar has managed to undertake its largest education (including higher education) sector review and draft and approve a national education law. Hopefully there will be subsequent laws for higher education and private education.

Furthermore, Myanmar’s government and education leaders have been actively engaged in global education discourses and have been learning from international best practice and experience, especially with the help of international organisations and non-governmental organisations engaged in education.

UNESCO, UNICEF and the Asian Development Bank’s support for Myanmar’s higher education sector has been intertwined with that of the Open Society Foundation, the British Council, the Australian Agency for International Development or AusAID, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the European Union.

Aside from supporting capacity building for Myanmar’s higher education policy reforms, the Open Society Foundation has also facilitated study tours for academics and Ministry of Education leaders, helped individual universities, especially the University of Yangon and Mandalay University, in establishing their e-library system, and along with AusAID, has helped to revitalise the University of Yangon project.

Support for the Comprehensive Education Sector Review came from multiple agencies working together through the Joint Education Sector Working Group.

The Asian Development Bank and UNESCO have been instrumental in supporting higher education policy reforms while the British Council and AusAID have significantly supported English language education and increased engagement with United Kingdom and Australian universities and familiarisation with their respective higher education systems.

Furthermore, the Japan International Cooperation Agency has been instrumental in supporting engineering and science curriculum development in Myanmar and the development of infrastructure at some of Myanmar’s key science and technology universities.

Although much needs to be done, Myanmar’s higher education sector has moved in the right direction. It is: conducting a comprehensive education sector review (and is currently undertaking its National Education Sector Plan); looking at international experiences and best practice; engaging in domestic and international education debates; and working with international organisations and the donor community.

At the same time, they have kept in mind that other countries' best practice may not necessarily be what the country needs.

Given its changing political system and society, Myanmar’s higher education sector needs to reassess and internalise its core mission: to serve its changing and democratising society or to serve Myanmar’s future economic needs or both. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but that may not always be the wisest path to take.

Transformational leadership

Given the above developments in Myanmar’s higher education system, one should ask how it was made possible in an environment of democratic transition, in the early stages of economic development, domestic and international policy negotiations and various domestic issues.

Education and higher education in particular have become key political issues in the ongoing political struggle for power and have become central issues in political debates and that has required transformational leadership.

In Myanmar this should not be linked to any particular individual or a group of people but should be seen in its entirety. Although the Ministry of Education and the Department of Higher Education in particular are responsible for higher education and its development, it should be realised that the Office of the President and the parliament have been key players in Myanmar’s higher education development.

Furthermore, international organisations, non-governmental organisations (domestic and international), universities and students have also played a role in Myanmar’s higher education development.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Education and the other ministries with interests in the higher education sector, however, played a key role in collecting data, interpreting policy directives from the president and the parliament, gathering insights and perspectives from key stakeholders, cooperating with each other in the area of higher education policy reform and feeding into the National Education Law.

The President’s Office and the parliament played a significant role in policy-making, in increasing the depth of education debates and in promoting policy options and ensuring that interest and support for higher education reforms was sustained and in line with the national interest.

International organisations and non-governmental organisations, with their own respective missions and objectives, supported Myanmar’s government and respective ministries in promoting policy dialogues, suggesting avenues for higher education policy engagement and learning, providing the resources required to sustain Myanmar in reshaping and modernising its higher education sector in line with national priorities and the needs of a changing nation and society.

As the Myanmar case illustrates, transformational leadership should not be discussed solely in connection with situations where there are no real challenges or conflicts but should instead be seen in relation to how leaders address these challenges and conflicts and make decisions that embody compromises for the greater good of the nation and its citizens.

In spite of student protests about Myanmar’s National Education Law, it should be noted that multiple perspectives have been heard and different aspects and options for higher education reforms have been studied prior to the drafting of the law. It is not, and no education law ever is, perfect. It will remain a work in progress along with Myanmar’s changing political environment, economic development and social needs.

Remember, a masterpiece is always a work in progress and I look forward to Myanmar’s continuing higher education development in the coming years.

Dr Roger Chao Jr is an independent higher education consultant. Aside from being the former international consultant for UNESCO in Myanmar, he has been engaged with several consultancies related to higher education with UNESCO. His research focus is on regionalisation of higher education, higher education reforms and comparative and international education.