Myanmar in Transition: Higher Ed a Likely Priority for the NLD-led Government

Editor’s note: On March 15, Htin Kyaw, a long-time aide to Aung San Suu Kyi, was named president elect of Myanmar. Suu Kyi will serve in his cabinet, overseeing foreign affairs, energy, and education. In the past, Suu Kyi has said that, in the new administration, she will be “above the president.” 

This spring, as the power transition to Myanmar’s newly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) is completed, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and political activist Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to become Myanmar’s de facto head of state. (Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from becoming president.) The shift, which comes on the heels of the nation’s first democratic election in generations, will usher in a long-anticipated era of reform.

Where will higher education fit into the new government’s packed agenda? If Suu Kyi’s personal past [1] can be viewed as any kind of guide, it will be a priority. A graduate of Oxford with early academic ambitions, Suu Kyi has long championed the role of education as key to Burma’s future since the earliest days of her involvement in politics. The topic ranked high on her list of concerns in a series of defiant speeches she delivered over her back gate, early on in her almost 15-years stint under house arrest in Yangon.

“A country’s international standard cannot be measured in terms of the number of hotels and bridges; it has to be measured in terms of education,” she said in one September 1990 speech. “A country of inferior education won’t be able to catch up with the world.”

Aung San Suu Kyi [2]
Nobel Peace Prize Winner and political activist Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to become Myanmar’s de facto head of state. Myanmar higher ed will likely be an early focus of reform.

Back then, Suu Kyi urged listeners to go abroad to get the educations they needed, since institutions at home had been gutted by military rulers. “If the schools and universities cannot provide a good education, [individuals] must take the initiative,” she said. The students who could, mainly the wealthy, responded. Over the last decade, U.S. higher ed institutions received, as estimated by the IIE [3], an average of 717 outbound Burmese students per year – a small number both in the face of the country’s current scale of need and of its overall tally  of 6,000 to 7,000 outbound students seeking education abroad each year [4].

If Myanmar is to succeed in its transition to democracy [5] and fulfill its economic and international potential, it will require a much deeper bench of highly educated citizens. Accordingly, the new government will need to focus on systematic reforms, the fate of which will depend, in no small part on international partnership and the development of an authorized and high-quality private higher education sector.

Systematic Destruction

Once home to one of Asia’s great university systems, Myanmar’s status as a bastion of higher learning is now in tatters. A violent and erratic military regime strategically dismantled and neglected the nation’s higher education system, and routinely targeted youth, monks and educated adults as enemies of the state. In one telling example, the military emptied Yangon University, the country’s flagship institution, of its undergraduates in the wake of 1962 campus protests [6] which led to a student massacre. The student union was immediately demolished. The rest of the campus, an iconic architectural symbol of education and independence, was left to crumble [7], and only recently escaped being auctioned off to the highest bidder and demolished.

Viewing higher education as a locus of political dissent, the military government went far beyond efforts to dismantle Yangon University, implementing a systematic, decades-long effort to fragment and dissolve opposition by isolating faculty and students from one another. To this end, military leaders dispersed oversight of 169 state institutions among 13 ministries. Like Yangon, all the schools are now in desperate need of physical and administrative upgrades.

In terms of educational attainment, the toll has been just as stark: As of 2013, only 11 percent [8] of the nation’s young people had any kind of higher education. And in most cases, the quality of that education is suspect, since learning materials are often dated or unavailable, and instructors ill-prepared to teach or unable to deliver up-to-date information. (A 2013 IIE report [9] noted that “most of the curriculum being offered in Myanamar’s universities is seriously outdated” and raised “serious questions” about the quality of training other faculty had received.)

A Plan to Rebuild

Troubled history aside, optimism about the prospects for rebuilding [10] the sector is real. Both at home and abroad, the nation’s higher education system is now widely viewed as key to economic development [11].

And the work has already begun. Since the end of military rule in 2011, both dollars and assistance have begun to flow into efforts to address Myanmar’s educational shortfalls at every level. Between 2011 and 2013, Myanmar’s interim civilian government nearly tripled education spending [12]. (The increase represented a nod to the need to address the broken educational system, albeit one that was widely critiqued as insufficient [13].)

International assistance is also at the ready.  In 2013, The New York Times [14] noted that “foreign universities are pouring into the country to try to find ways to help.” As part of the IIE’s International Academic Partnership Program [15], for instance, 10 American universities visited Myanmar in 2013. Their goal was to meet with government officials, administrators and educators and to establish a framework for helping to strengthen and repair Myanmar’s higher education sector.

In a follow-on report [16], the committee called for:

U.S. members of the partnership program each committed to specific actions to support these recommendations. For instance, Arizona State University committed to investigating the possibility of a joint certificate in the study of religions with Myanmar universities, while Rutgers University agreed to financially support faculty members from key science faculties to make short-term visits to lecture at universities in Myanmar.

The report also sounded a strong note of caution, however, noting how difficult and long term the process of rebuilding is likely to be. Success, it warned, was likely to take decades, not least because “[a]fter decades of relative isolation… [t]here is little to no infrastructure in place to support international academic partnerships.”

The (Bumpy) Road Ahead

The new NLD government plans to take practical steps quickly, say insiders. One early focal point is the restoration of Yangon University [17], the symbolic heart of the nation’s independence movement. The NLD also plans to bring the nation’s 169 departments and campus branches back under the single umbrella of the Ministry of Education, a move that insiders say may provoke some pushback among institutions concerned that centralization will compromise their interests and prestige.

Given the disarray of Myanmar’s public higher education sector, private institutions [18] will likely have a formal role as well, although that has yet to be defined. At present, there are no legally recognized private higher education institutions in Myanmar, nor any mechanism to recognize one with a “not-for-profit” status. A quick survey of the billboards cluttering Yangon’s roadways illustrates the need for such reforms. Private education, once a viable alternative to a broken public system, has now become a crowded, profit-driven market [19], enticing students with novel degrees and partnerships with foreign universities. Students flock to these centers to improve their English language proficiency, hoping to land a dream job at a multi-national corporation or to win a golden ticket to study in the U.S or U.K.

Well ahead of the transition, at least two private entrepreneurs have begun the effort to establish the nation’s first reputable private universities. U Tin Maung Win, managing director of the International Language & Business Centre (ILBC), one of the largest and longest-established international schools in Myanmar, has already launched the American University of Myanmar [20] (AUM.) The private research institution seeks to kick start the nation’s notoriously low scholarly output. Coursework is slated to begin in the fall of 2016. Another private institution, the Parami University of Liberal Arts and Sciences is now in planning stages. Kentucky’s Centre College and other U.S. institutions are acting as consultants to its founder, Kyaw Moe Tun. (Now a teacher at the Pre-Collegiate Program [21], Moe Tun earned his doctorate at Yale.)

How will the reform process move forward? No one is certain, and to-date the pattern has often had a two-steps-forward-one-step-back quality. In 2014, for instance, Johns Hopkins [22] pulled out of a high-profile project with Yangon University when its concerns about academic freedom could not be addressed. Such concerns remain unresolved.

The hope, of course, is that the democratically elected NLD will, as part of its overall higher education reform effort, provide such assurances. But given the instability inherent in the transition to a new government, all expectations about the new government’s ability to rebuild such a badly broken system remain exactly that: A hope.

For one thing, Suu Kyi is, although beloved, untested as the leader of a formal government [23]. (She is also, although the effective head of the NLD, constitutionally barred from acting as president [24] since her two sons are British citizens.) For another, “fifty years of terrible, often brutal, government has left the country,” as commentators Mitchell Wigdor and Stephen Moore recently observed in the Toronto Globe & Mail, with a deficit of the educated people who will be needed to turn its institutions around.

Still, there has already been incremental progress on the higher ed front. As early as last year, legislators were drafting a private education law in consultation with prominent educators and businessmen. Observers now expect a concerted effort over the summer to produce a new comprehensive education law that will address criticisms of the last administration’s proposed reforms [25], and include, among others, sections addressing reform in both the public and private sectors.

In early 2016, with the transition to an NLD-led government underway, uncertainty and optimism surrounding the power transition were both apparent. One close advisor to Suu Kyi, U Tin Hlaing, a survivor and witness to the tragic events of past decades, says he is optimistic about what’s to come. As a former professor who witnessed the destruction of Myanmar’s higher education sector first hand, his hopefulness, which is tempered by a somewhat rueful sense of humor, carries weight: “Of course I am hopeful for the future,” he says. “We have already been through the worst.”

Kyle David Anderson is an Assistant Professor of Chinese and Asian Studies at Centre College in Danville, KY. He serves as a board member of the Cetana Educational Foundation, an organization that provides schooling and teacher-training in Myanmar, and is currently working with a group of academics in Yangon to help establish the nation’s first residential liberal arts college. He recently returned from a two-week visit to Yangon, where he met with politicians, educators and businessmen to understand the current state of higher education in Myanmar.