Burma's 'Lost Generation' of Students

By Denis D. Gray 28 June 2012

RANGOON—The dormitories are empty, the once charming bungalows of professors overgrown with vines and weeds. Only grass grows where the Student Union building stood before soldiers obliterated it with dynamite.

This is Rangoon University, once one of Asia’s finest and a poignant symbol of an education system crippled by Burma’s half a century of military rule. Only graduate students are still allowed to study here. Fearful of student-led uprisings, the regime has periodically shut down this and other campuses and dispersed students to remote areas with few facilities.

Now, as the nation also known as Myanmar opens its doors to the outside world, it is paying a heavy price. The crackdown on universities has spawned a lost generation. The pace of development will be slowed and Burmese exploited, educators say, as the poorly schooled populace deals with an expected influx of foreign investors and aid donors, along with profiteers looking for a quick dollar.

“To catch up with the rest of the world we will need at least 10 years. We have to change our entire education culture, and that will be very difficult,” said Dr. Phone Win, a physician who heads Mingalar Myanmar, a group promoting education.

Initial steps are being taken. President Thein Sein, a former general who has loosened the military’s vise on power through unprecedented reforms, pledged in his inauguration speech last year to improve education and seek foreign expertise to lift standards to international levels.

The education budget, though still dwarfed by military spending and widely criticized as inadequate, was increased in April from US $340 million to $740 million. For years, about 25 percent of the budget went to the armed forces, compared to 1.3 percent for education.

Burma is saddled with two generations of chemistry professors who have never conducted a proper laboratory experiment and mechanical engineers yet to handle hands-on equipment, said Moe Kyaw, a prominent businessman involved with education issues.

From MBAs to lawyers and accountants, shortages abound. Of particular concern, Moe Kyaw said, is the lack of skilled technicians and workers, who will be sorely needed if an investment boom does come. Government officials at a recent conference on the future of Rangoon, the largest city and former capital, said the country has only about 50 urban planners but needs 500.

“You could say Myanmar might be exploited, but they will also lose out on lucrative job opportunities because, if locals aren’t qualified to fill positions, the foreigners will bring in their own,” said Sardar Umar Alam, a UNESCO education expert.

Although the government boasts 160 institutions of higher learning, many graduates scoff at their own degrees, often saying they are “not worth the paper they’re printed on.”

Many also lament the loss of English skills in this former British colony since xenophobic former leader Gen. Ne Win banned its teaching at lower school levels in the mid-1960s.

“I have a very capable woman staffer in Mandalay with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but she can’t even spell the word in English,” said Moe Kya, the British-educated head of Myanmar Marketing Research Development Company.

The opening salvo in what many here call “a war on education” came when troops blew up Rangoon University’s Student Union, regarded as a hotbed of dissent, after the military seized power in 1962.

But probably the darkest days followed a failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising, led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi with students as the driving force. The regime began shutting down universities and sending students to the countryside to prevent more anti-government protests.

“University life has been shattered because of a perceived need to keep students in order,” Suu Kyi said in a recent speech before the British Parliament.

The education system is “desperately weak,” she added in another speech at Oxford University. “Reform is needed, not just of schools and curriculum, and the training of teachers, but also of our attitude to education, which at present is too narrow and rigid.”

Even attendance at the rural campuses was discouraged in favor of distance education, still the road to a degree for some 70 percent of students. Typically, they are given audio cassettes and a few simple take-home assignments and only need to attend classes for 10 days or less each year.

“We had to learn a lot in the streets, not in the classrooms,” recalled Phone Win, who took 10 years to finish his medical degree because the faculty was closed for three of them.

His generation, people now mostly in their 40s, should be moving into senior positions in government and business. Those who have are shortchanged by their schooling, while others, disillusioned, slumped into jobs well below their potential or joined an exodus to foreign countries.

Throughout the years of authoritarian rule, the education system spiraled downward. Cheating on exams became widespread. Poverty induced a staggering dropout rate: some 70 percent at one time did not finish their primary schooling. University standards plummeted.

“In Myanmar, professors don’t need to research, write papers or attend conferences. On Friday you apply to the government and on Monday you can be a professor,” says Phone Win.

With the recent easing of military rule, the public is venting its anger. On one popular blog, Ministry of Education officials are accused of being ignorant military officers using their positions to get rich.

But the government appears to be trying to improve the lot of the country’s 9 million students.

Salaries of teachers, while still at the poverty level, have been raised to $30 a month, with those in rural areas receiving double that.

Long-severed links with foreign universities are being re-established. America’s John Hopkins University plans to set up a Center of Excellence at Yangon University focusing on graduate students and teacher training.

“The president is really pushing for educational reform. But it’s top-down and often stops at the director-general level,” said Thaw Kaung, a former chief librarian at Rangoon University and one of the country’s most respected scholars. “The government is also listening to the MPs and they are asking some hard questions that the ministers have to answer.”

Many educated Burmese are eagerly waiting for the leadership to respond to a passionate open letter this month from U Myint, a presidential adviser who urged that Rangoon University be reopened to undergraduates and the Student Union rebuilt through public donations. He described the university as “an important landmark in national reconciliation and a memorable way to start a new chapter in our history.”

The outcome could prove a key test of the seriousness of the regime’s intent—and whether it has shed its fear of student power.