Oxford University Strengthens Ties in Burma

By Samantha Michaels 17 July 2014

RANGOON — Less than one year after reopening its doors to undergraduates, Burma’s most prominent institution of higher education is strengthening ties with the University of Oxford in England, where opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi studied in the 1960s and earned an honorary degree in 2012.

The renowned British university signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Tuesday with the University of Rangoon, pledging to increase collaboration over the next three years in a wide range of activities, from research and faculty training to the development of curriculum.

With funding from the British government, Suu Kyi’s health and education trust fund, the Open Society Foundations and other organizations, Oxford has already spent US$150,000 on projects at the Rangoon university this year and hopes funding will keep pace through 2017, according to Nick Rawlins, pro-vice-chancellor of development and external affairs at the British university, who says the partnership will likely be extended after that. “We’re in it for the long run,” he told The Irrawaddy in Rangoon on Wednesday.

Before a military dictatorship took control of Burma in 1962, the University of Rangoon was one of the most prestigious centers of learning in Southeast Asia. Over the next half century, however, military regimes invested little in education and eventually shut down urban campuses, in a bid to stop student activists from organizing protests. Undergraduates were only allowed to return to the Rangoon university in December last year, after a quasi-civilian government took power in 2011 and pledged to reform the country’s education system.

Oxford was asked to assist with that effort by Suu Kyi, who studied philosophy, politics and economics at the English university between 1964 and 1967. She also lived in Oxford for years with her late husband Michael Aris, who was an Oxford scholar, and their two sons.

In a speech to accept her honorary degree from the university in 2012, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said she drew strength from memories of student life while she was held under house arrest by Burma’s former regime.

She recalled a happy outing with friends on the River Cherwell and hours spent reading on a campus lawn. “These were very precious memories—because I had lived a happy life. And this made me understand so much better the young people of Burma—who wanted to live a happy life and who had never been given an opportunity to lead one,” she said.

“University life has been shattered because of a perceived need to keep students in order. I would like to see university life restored to Burma in all its glory. And I would be so grateful if my old university, the University of Oxford, could help to bring this about once again.”

In March this year, heads of departments from the University of Rangoon traveled to meet their counterparts at Oxford. Now, with funding from telecoms giant Ooredoo, which has supported various education initiatives in Burma, eight students from Oxford are visiting Burma this month to teach English language classes to incoming freshmen at the Rangoon university. Oxford also plans to facilitate faculty exchanges and to help more Burmese students study in England on scholarships.

In a bid to improve library resources, Oxford has donated 6,000 modern law books to the Rangoon university and plans to ship another 3,400 science books, while its university press has made some resources freely available to the Burmese students.

On Thursday, a delegation from Oxford will travel to Burma’s second-biggest city to sign another MoU with the University of Mandalay, for collaboration in the sciences and geology departments. Later this week the delegation will meet with Burma’s deputy minister of education in Naypyidaw. Rawlins, the pro-vice-chancellor, said Oxford was encouraging the government to allow universities greater autonomy, and added that he believed the Ministry of Education also wanted universities to take more responsibility.

Since 2011, the University of Rangoon has forged partnerships with other institutions of learning, including universities in the United States, Australia and Japan. But Khin Mar Mar Kyi, a social anthropologist and gender scholar, says Oxford holds a special place in the minds of Burmese academics.

“If you ask Burmese people, we don’t really think about any other university, Oxford is our dream,” said the scholar, who began a fellowship at the English university this year. She added that the extra assistance for education was warmly welcomed in Burma. “Everyone has a dream of moving back up to the status that Yangon [Rangoon] University used to have.”

Oxford has also established partnerships with universities in other countries, with major programs focused on mathematics and the physical sciences in the Middle East and China, but Rawlins said the partnership in Burma was broader and that it targeted the needs of the Burmese. “Helping teach English skills to students, helping to develop the curriculum, helping with policy and strategy, and carrying out research programs—there’s nowhere else in the world where we do this,” he said.

Rawlins, who has traveled to Burma twice before, says the Rangoon university has already “changed spectacularly” over the past year. “When I arrived,” he said of his first visit, “the buildings were blackened on the outside, there was scaffolding. The library had great people in it but not many resources. There were no undergraduates and I had to have a special letter of invitation from the ministry to be allowed in. …This third time, more buildings are looking good, the campus is looking better, and there are undergraduates all over.”

He said he was confident the university would one day be able to reclaim its reputation as a premiere institution of learning in the region. “It was that good, and it can be at least that good again,” he said.