International support boosts research development

Research in Myanmar’s higher education institutions is supporting national development and reform as part of an evidence-based agenda. Work underway across the country challenges the view that there is no research, or no research of value, happening in Myanmar or in similar developing countries.

Decades of under-investment and civil strife over 70 years resulted in the slow and steady decay of Myanmar’s state education system. In 1964 under the socialist regime, all private schools and universities were closed.

After the reopening of universities and colleges in 1999, the government relocated universities to different regions and the undergraduate programmes were moved to campuses away from urban centres to avoid further student protests.

This extreme version of domestic and international isolation means that the quality of higher education has slipped to dramatically low levels and reforming universities has become a government priority since the country started to open up again after the 2010 elections.

Reforms led to the development of the National Education Strategic Plan (NESP), which includes strengthening higher education governance and management capacity, improving the quality and relevance of higher education and expanding equitable access.

Research is cited within the central NESP goal. It mentions “improved teaching and learning, vocational education and training, research and innovation leading to measurable improvements in student achievement in all schools and educational institutions”.

However, research is almost absent from the more detailed plan and it is unclear how the 171 higher education institutions in Myanmar are to meet this goal: to “develop a world-class higher education system, where universities have autonomy over their own curriculum and governance and the ability to conduct independent research”.

Research challenges

Myanmar academics at local universities are not research active in the same sense that Western universities would understand the term. There are multiple reasons for this – not least the state-mandated job rotations every few years where academics are assigned to a new university anywhere in the country.

This makes developing a personal research portfolio challenging and makes it almost impossible to develop a stable research team with doctoral students and colleagues.

However, this does not mean research is not taking place at universities. Senior staff of 11 diverse universities from around the country took part in a one-year Transforming Higher Education Leadership and Management Programme led by the United Kingdom’s UCL Institute of Education, commissioned by a consortium consisting of the Myanmar Ministry of Education, Irrawaddy Policy Exchange and the British Council.

Institutions were asked to present on research projects that either had been published or were going to be published as well as develop research ethics policies. The results were surprising in their diversity and depth.

Some research was part of newly established international collaborations, other studies were led by individual academics and other research focused on engaging local communities.

Some examples are highlighted below.

There was a focus on the national context and the role of culture and moral values: Myanmar’s education system has historically been closely linked with Buddhism and Myanmar’s traditional values reflect Buddhist values of serving society by serving the community and the country.

The University of Yangon presented social science research on ‘Conflict Management and Peacemaking in Myanmar: Efforts and effects’ that had been conducted by a single academic, but with departmental support for her promotion, leading to a publication in a Myanmar journal.

Taunggyi University developed an ethics mission statement which stated it is “committed to conducting research that respects the fundamental freedom of people (especially the cultural rights of minority ethnic groups), animal rights and the ecosystem”. It added that “the researcher must abide by national policy and respect intellectual property rights”.

These two projects recognise the ethnic disparities across the country that have emerged as a result of more than 60 years of civil war, with an as yet incomplete peace process.

Concern for development

The reforms have engendered a lot of discussion about the kind of development that is going to bring Myanmar on a par with other neighbouring and regional countries. Universities are seen as a key driver in this process, both in terms of improving industry and improving the underemployment issues that plague the economy.

Yangon Technological University showcased the research of one of their academics who had worked on an experimental project on a ‘Textile Dye Wastewater Treatment Process’ and had received funding from the U Nyi Hla Nge Foundation in addition to government-allocated institutional research funds. The research results were presented at a conference on ‘Sustaining Chemical Engineering Ingenuity of Breakthroughs Towards a Successful ASEAN Integration’ in the Philippines.

Yangon University of Education presented on analysis of emotional intelligence in teachers across different regions of the country and highlighted tailored interventions.

Yangon University of Economics showcased a study on ‘Employers’ Perception of Graduate Employability’ that attempted to investigate the level of satisfaction of private sector employers in local areas with regard to graduate employability.

Exploring sustainability and the environment

Buddhist values also encompass respect for the environment in which humans live. These two projects presented by regional universities link to the concern of developing the country by serving the nation in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way and allowing staff and students to better understand the local environment where they live and work.

Myitkyina University presented a project on the ‘Analysis of Soil Samples Collected from Banana Fields in the Myitkyina Area’. Their main concern was the local relevance of the project so that students would be able to learn from the fields close to the university and then share the knowledge gained with local farmers who depend on the banana crop.

Sittwe University developed a ‘Seasonal Assessment of the Physicochemical Properties of Sea Water from Point Beach in Rakhine Coastal Area’, which they had undertaken in 2015 by collecting seawater samples from the coastal zone in the wet and dry seasons to determine the physicochemical properties as well as the microbiological properties and trace elements of the seawater samples in order to identify pollution hot spots in coastal sea waters.

Yezin Agricultural University presented a project that had been internationally funded, on the use of natural fertilisers and crop enhancement. It is entitled ‘Evaluation of Rhizobium Use Efficiency in Legume Production and Identification of Rhizobia in Pigeon Pea (Cajanus cajan) and Green Gram (Vigna radiata)’.

The first two universities are located in conflict-affected ethnic states, while Yezin is Myanmar’s only agricultural university. Their research projects showcase a concern for their immediate local environment where priorities are different from the dense urban centres of Yangon and Mandalay.

Developing university-community partnerships and research-teaching links

The two projects below link research and teaching, something quite new in the Myanmar higher education sector.

University of Medicine 1 in Yangon offered an example of how their research project, ‘Effect of Open-Book Exercise Practice on Closed-Book Tests’, had been developed to improve learning and teaching because they felt that the self-learning ability of students is gradually declining and students are tending to neglect reading prescribed textbooks. The results were published in the South East Asian Journal of Medical Education.

Mandalay University worked with Japanese colleagues on a feasibility study on ‘the Production of Bio-Ethanol from Food and Non-Food Parts of Myanmar Cassava’, which focused on the benefits to local farmers. The research area connects with the curriculum adopted for chemistry and industrial chemistry.

The Mandalay project encompasses both an international collaboration as well as benefiting the local farming community, similar to the projects offered by regional universities Sittwe and Myitkyina described above.

Collaboration with international partners

The overriding goal articulated by the Comprehensive Education Sector Review was an improvement in “systemic quality” that included employability, targeting the skills needs of the workplace and the expansion of the private sector and internationalisation. A number of universities see a way of improving quality through collaboration with international universities, sometimes beyond the region.

For example, Mandalay Technological University worked with colleagues from an Israeli university to explore the ‘Isolation and Identification of Pectobacterium carotovorum from Soft Rot of Zantedeschia’.

This collaboration has allowed some Myanmar academics to get published in international journals for the first time and to experience how research is evaluated at an international level.

The diversity of projects is startling, as is the fact that despite the poor lab facilities most research is science-based and spread across the sector. These projects highlight research that is driven from in-country needs and academic interest and expertise, avoiding the pitfalls and challenges that can accompany efforts driven by dominant countries and international organisations.

The increased internationalisation agenda is helping as key institutes have been singled out by international, though mainly Asian partners, who bring funds and push for the research to result in publication.

However, the projects identify tensions between aiming for research to be published in international journals and that based on cultural principles of sustainability and respect for the environment which meet in-country needs.

Moving forward, the shift towards greater institutional autonomy as part of the reform process provides opportunities for research and for increasing the independence of academics. However, a push for wider access to higher education and increasing student numbers will present challenges over how to balance research and teaching efforts.

Dr Camille Kandiko Howson is associate professor of education at Imperial College London and Professor Marie Lall is based at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, United Kingdom.