Graduate Program Breathes New Life Into Rangoon University

By Naomi Gingold 23 September 2013

Rangoon University will be accepting a broad range of applicants for a new graduate-level program in international relations this fall, in a trilateral partnership breathing new life into Burma’s once-suffocated higher education system.

The university’s International Center of Excellence (ICOE) was started in conjunction with the Ministry of Education and is run entirely by US-based Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and South Korea’s Chung-Ang University.

Karl Jackson, the head of the ICOE, as well as the director of Asian and Southeast Asian studies programs at SAIS, told The Irrawaddy recently that the program would be free from interference by the government, which has a long history of tightly controlling Burma’s universities.

“The guarantee from the minister of education was that we’d have complete academic freedom and autonomy,” he said, adding that this has also been true for the entirety of the program’s first run, when classes have been “indistinguishable from the kinds of interactions you would have had from teaching the same course at SAIS.”

The one-year program first started in January 2013 with 35 fellows, recruited from junior faculty members at universities around Rangoon. This upcoming academic year, for the first time, administrators will be recruiting applicants on a wider scale for the program that is set to begin in November.

Once one of the most prestigious universities in the region, Rangoon University was the scene of intense protests and subsequent crackdowns during decades of military rule. Junta authorities shuttered the university for long periods of time, eventually allowing in only graduate students and sending undergraduates to satellite campuses in far-off places to limit the ability of students to gather and protest en masse. In the process, the quality of Burma’s academic programs deteriorated dramatically.

The center was created in an attempt to bring in outside knowledge and input to the university, which was for decades the victim of government neglect and outright suppression of academic freedom.

“What we hope to do,” Jackson said, “is to get enough people exposed to amounts of knowledge from the outside world, so that they can then train the next generation of students. The concept is to train the trainers.” He explained that, in potentially two years, ICOE would mainstream the international relations program back to the university and move on to other subjects.

On a recent campus visit, fellows were fanned out across classrooms and a new computer lab donated by South Korea’s International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), hard at work on theses whose topics ranged from ethnic conflict in Burma to changes in international relations education in the country.

When asked how classes might differ from those they have had in the past, one fellow who wished to remain anonymous remarked, “Some past times, we were not allowed to talk about whatever we thought. All our thoughts were like imprisoned,” but in the ICOE classes, she continued, “We can express whatever we think and we can discuss whatever we have in our minds.”

Although they do have state-of-the-art machines to work on, Peter Birgbauer, a consultant for SAIS who is facilitating the thesis process at the ICOE, said the computers alone were not always enough.

“High-speed Internet is a problem for us,” he said. The painstakingly slow connection has been crippling students’ ability to download and print academic articles, as well as hampering the center’s plans to build a virtual library.

Because all current and future fellows must already have a degree to apply, the center does stand the risk of excluding people who have been denied higher education in Burma for political reasons, as well as those who did not wish to attend military-backed higher education programs. When asked to comment on that risk, Jackson said the center would remain open to people who were qualified.

“Let’s hope that the future of higher education in Myanmar will also have a place for those people who’ve missed a step on the escalator, so to speak, so that they can get back in the game,” he said.

Access to the campus has been restricted for years, especially to foreign visitors who are usually turned away at the gate. Although the ICOE says interested individuals are now allowed on campus, including foreign ones, this journalist was denied entry on one out of two attempts to visit the main campus.

The ICOE is offering a certificate degree in international relations. The 12-course program, with classes on everything from economics to theories of international relations, is meant to provide a graduate-level education in international relations, and is housed in the old science center on campus, recently refurbished by the Ministry of Education.

Internet troubles and long hours aside, Jackson said the program is well worth the effort.

“It is just exciting as hell to watch a great institution begin to get to its feet again,” he said, adding, “If Myanmar can push through over the next couple of years and really open up society and build capacity in its universities, then it will join the ranks of Asian tigers.  It should have been there to begin with.”