RANGOON — The campus is overrun by a tangled web of weeds and vines. Many of the books in the open-air library are ancient, their pages yellow. Students will have to share a handful of donated computers and put up with slow-speed Internet, at least at first. And professors are struggling to catch up with developments in their fields.
This is Rangoon University, once among Asia’s most prestigious institutions of learning. It reopens to undergraduates Thursday for the first time in nearly two decades, finally emerging from a crackdown by military rulers who considered education a threat to their supremacy.
“It’s a start,” Thaw Kaung, one of the country’s most respected scholars, said with a smile.
The junta that ruled Burma for half a century gutted education, which received 1.3 percent of the budget, compared to 25 percent for defense.
Education spending has shot up since President Thein Sein was inaugurated to lead a nominally civilian government, jumping from US $340 million in 2011 to $1 billion this year. But experts say more needs to be done.
“We need educated people to run the country,” said Thaw Kaung, an octogenarian in thick, black-rimmed glasses who long served as the university’s chief librarian. “We can’t just rely on foreign aid and experts. Without a university producing capable persons, it will be difficult to sustain development in the long run.”
Foreign investors are eager to do business in this desperately poor nation of 60 million that only recently opened up to the rest of the world. They are no longer hindered by U.S. and European sanctions, but now must figure out how to deal with an enthusiastic but utterly unprepared work force.
Even finding English-speakers for five-star hotels can be a challenge, investors say, let alone business and information technology professionals, lawyers or accountants.
The onslaught on education in Burma began when Gen. Ne Win seized power in 1962. Troops blew up Rangoon University’s Student Union because of protests and tightened control over classes. Soldiers stormed the campus again in 1974 to quell protests.
The biggest blow came in 1988, following the failed student uprisings that put a global spotlight on pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta shut down urban campuses, seen as hotbeds of political dissent, and restricted what could be taught.
Rangoon University produced many of Burma’s leaders and its most famous dissidents and intellectuals, including Suu Kyi’s father, independence leader Aung San. The school closed repeatedly for long stretches under the junta, and up until this week, only a handful of graduate students could be seen roaming the 200-acre campus.
“It’s a dream come true,” said 16-year-old May Thin Khaing, clutching the straps of her backpack as she looked for her name on the board near registration.
“My parents both went here in the 1980s and often spoke nostalgically about those days,” said the teenager, who will study chemistry. “I hope I can feel the same sense of pride that my parents once enjoyed.”
The school once had 60,000 students, but it’s a long way from that now.
Initially, only 300 students — 15 from each of the 20 disciplines — were supposed to head to class on Thursday. Following criticism from academics and lawmakers, the number was boosted at the final hour to 1,000 — or 50 for each discipline.
That left professors scrambling to prepare extra lab equipment and clean up vacant classrooms. Workers were frantically putting in light bulbs ahead of the reopening and sweeping away thick, dusty cobwebs.
Dr. Phone Win, a physician who heads Mingalar Myanmar, a group promoting education, said enrollment should be even higher: “Why only 50 for each discipline? Who came up with that number?”
He said that despite economic and political reforms in the last three years, the government maintains a top-down approach across almost every sector, including education.
“It’s very hierarchical,” Win said. The ministry is reluctant to give too much control to the university rector, and the rector limits professors’ autonomy, he said.
“What these students need now is academic freedom,” he said.
Students also may be skeptical that such freedom has arrived. Political science has returned to the curriculum, but so far only six students have signed up.
With urban campuses closed, 70 percent of the country’s students have in recent years relied on distance learning, with graduation depending largely on their memorization skills. Others made long, daily commutes to newly built sterile institutions on the outskirts of bustling cities.
Nay Oak, a professor of English at Rangoon in the 1960s and ’70s, said that as the military closed down universities, its answer to education was to allow students to take crash courses. Many walked away with degrees after just six months of study.
“In many cases, they didn’t have to learn a thing,” Nay Oak said.
Rangoon University is getting international help to remake itself. Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Oxford universities and the Gates Foundation are among the groups that have provided assistance or expressed interest in doing so.
Charles Wiener, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has taken part in several recent workshops for university faculty. Training intended to draw 25 or 30 participants regularly attracted 70 to 100, he said, and many in the packed rooms impressed their instructors with their academic rigor.
They knew they had a lot of catching up to do, he said, but were clearly excited.
“The metaphor of a starving child,” he said, “is not that distant.”