Autonomy Coming for Burma’s Universities

By Nyein Nyein 11 July 2013

Autonomy for universities in Burma is likely to be granted soon, though the extent to which higher education will be allowed to operate free of state interference remains unclear in a country where students have long agitated against unpopular governments.

Ahead of the education reform, which will be part of a national education bill drafted by the Ministry of Education, Parliament’s Education Promotion Committee has been reviewing the draft legislation.

“The details of how much freedom they can practice will not be known until it [the bill] is enacted,” said Zaw Htay, director general of the ministry’s Higher Education Department.

He told The Irrawaddy recently that ministry officials “have been planning for the universities to be autonomous institutions [empowered to make decisions on university affairs].”

A discussion on autonomy for higher education institutions was one of the main topics during an “Empowering Higher Education” policy workshop in Naypyidaw during a two-day conference organized by the British Council late last month.

After the education bill becomes law, it will grant all 168 universities in Burma, including the once-prestigious Rangoon University and Mandalay University, autonomy over curricular and administrative decisions. Higher education institutions have lacked that freedom for more than half a century.

Rangoon University, founded in 1920, and Mandalay University operated freely until their autonomy was revoked soon after the coup by the late Gen Ne Win in 1962.

Still, these institutions served as flashpoints through much of Burma’s turbulent political history. Rangoon University was a center of student activism during British colonial rule; student demonstrations in July 1962 against Nay Win, which saw the Student Union building dynamited by the government; the 8888 student uprising in August 1988; and student demonstration in 1996.

In 1996, undergraduate classes were discontinued at the Rangoon University campus, and the ex-military regime opened numerous universities on the outskirts of the cities all over Burma.

For 17 years, Rangoon University has been used by just a handful of master’s and doctoral students. The campus was only renovated ahead of US President Barrack Obama’s visit in November of last year.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged revitalization of Burma’s universities late last year. The National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman and parliamentarian heads the legislature’s Higher Education Law Reform Committee.

This December, Rangoon University will reopen classes for 19 subjects in undergraduate studies for the first time since 1996, but only 15 “outstanding students” will be chosen for each subject.

Education reform advocates and academics have pointed to autonomy as an issue that authorities have approached with caution.

“The autonomy must be allowed, so that the scholars and education practitioners will be trained professionally in terms of curriculum,” said Aye Aye Thin, an education consultant at an NGO focusing on the non-formal education sector and a former lecturer at the Institute of Education.

“Universities will stand in dignity when there is no repression of the students or teachers, like at foreign universities,” said Than Oo, chairman of the Myanmar Academy of Art and Science and a former education researcher. “We must prioritize gains to academic freedom.”

But not everyone is eager to see Burma’s universities unconditionally unshackled.

“There is much to think about whether the universities be given 100 percent autonomy or not. What’s different between our universities and those in other nations is we have to focus much more on peaceful learning. We still have to worry about political influence at the university campuses and closures of the institutions,” said Zaw Htay from the Ministry of Education.

“Reform to grant autonomy should be in practice sooner,” countered Ko Tar, a prominent writer and member of the National Network of Education Reform (NNER), a civil society body comprised of the NLD, 88 generation leaders, student activists, and Karen and Shan education committee members. The NNER also pushed their recommendations for educational freedom and improvement of academic quality at the policy workshops in Naypyidaw last month.

“We focus on the improvement of academic quality, which a university should have. They must have trust in youth, fear will not change the current condition,” Ko Tar added.

Additional reporting by Yan Pai.