Academic Freedom, but Perhaps No Degrees, at Rangoon University’s First Int’l Program

By Yen Saning 18 December 2013

RANGOON — Academic freedom was not a problem for the first-ever internationally run program at Rangoon University. Somewhat surprisingly, the biggest headache for students has not been too much government interference, but rather too little interference, which has created major questions around accreditation.

The commencement ceremony is on Saturday for the first class of an international relations program run entirely by US-based Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and South Korea’s Chung-Ang University through the International Center of Excellence (ICOE) at Rangoon University. But as graduation day nears, administrators say it is unclear what qualifications students will walk away with.

“There was no plan for which degree level would be given initially,” said Sai Khaing Myo Tun, a Rangoon-based chairman of the University Teachers Association, a national teachers union that has dealt with complaints about the ICOE and other student issues.

Rangoon University is the oldest and best known university in Burma, and its prestige was once known regionally. But the country’s former military rulers saw education as a threat, and after failed student uprisings in 1988 they shut down urban campuses and restricted what could be taught.

Since a quasi-civilian government took power in 2011, there has been a push to revitalize Rangoon University. The ICOE was seen as a way of bringing outside knowledge and expertise back to the university after decades of government neglect, and its international relations program, which launched earlier this year in January, was seen as an early success in academic freedom.

After the ICOE signed a memorandum of understanding with Rangoon University to operate on campus grounds, the university agreed to allow complete independence to the program. American and Korean professors taught 16 graduate-level courses on international relations and development to the first graduating class of 33 fellows. A second, larger class began courses in November and will graduate next year.

Although the program was advertised as master’s level, the ICOE lacks accreditation to offer master’s degrees. As an independent center, it can only hand out diplomas—which in Burma signify the completion of one year of study but serve little use in the job application process. The ICOE can also give lower level certificate of attendance.

The authority to offer master’s degrees lies with Rangoon University, whose department of international relations is reluctant to get involved in the ICOE program now, after being removed from the application, teaching and grading processes.

“The department is in a difficult situation to decide whether to take [responsibility], as they were not initially part of the plan,” said Sai Khaing Myo Tun of the teachers union, adding that the memorandum of understanding was signed by a university administrative body and not by the department of international relations.

Students preparing for graduation are not pleased.

“They should have specified that this course was a diploma certificate course when they called for applications. …The rector also referred to the program as a master’s program when he talked to us. Students from this batch do not know what we will receive at graduation. We are looking forward and wondering what we will get,” Aung Kyaw Phyo, a student in the program who also works as a tutor at the Yangon University of Foreign Language, told The Irrawaddy.

Another student, Kyaw Swa Hein, agreed. “They announced that this was a master’s equivalent program but we are not sure whether we will get an MA [Master of Arts] or a diploma,” said the student, who is also a tutor at East Yangon University.

Kim Taehyun, director of the first class of the ICOE program, said students graduating this year would likely receive a diploma if they had submitted a thesis, and a certificate of attendance if they had not.

May Htet Hlaing, a spokeswoman for the ICOE press team, said on Tuesday that the question of degrees was still up in the air. “We can’t confirm what they will get yet, as they [the center] are in the process of initiating with Yangon [Rangoon] University’s Senate,” she told The Irrawaddy. “The program is MA level but they are making decisions on what degree qualifications to give because this is the first time.”

She said that after the problem was sorted for this year’s commencement, there would not be a question over degrees when the second batch of students who began classes in November graduate next year.

Some have criticized the university’s unwillingness to offer degrees for graduates of the international program.

“They say they really want to reform education—they should avoid their ego. They have not considered how this [program] is benefiting the country’s education. They don’t want to accept international academics. Their lack of willingness to accept this is quite bad,” said Chaw Su Mar Win, assistant lecturer at Rangoon University’s Burmese linguistic department.

Karl Jackson, head of the ICOE program and director of the Asian and Southeast Asian studies programs at SAIS, did not responded to email requests for comment.