RANGOON — There are few countries in which education is as contentious and politically fraught as Burma, a fact that one American university learned the hard way after a ground-breaking program with Rangoon University withered on the vine in its third year running.
The international relations and comparative politics program, run entirely by US-based Johns Hopkins University, was housed under the International Center of Excellence (ICOE) at Rangoon University. An initiative of Johns Hopkins’ prestigious School of Advanced International Studies, the ICOE accepted its first program applicants in 2013.
Despite uncertainty surrounding its accreditation and what type of diploma graduates would receive, the program ran smoothly for its first two years, with ICOE graduating a total of 60 students in 2013 and 2014.
Problems arose when the program began accepting its third year of students, admitting 32 students out of 67 applicants in June 2014. Johns Hopkins was told by Education Minister Khin San Ye that the program’s memorandum of understanding, signed by the late former Education Minister Mya Oo, was no longer valid.
“Before, the program had a guarantee of academic freedom; self-autonomy; subject cooperation in teaching; a chance for teachers from other universities to join even though the program is held at Yangon University,” said Phone Win, director of Mingalar Myanmar, a local nonprofit that was assisting the ICOE program.
“When we tried to sign an MOU again for the third year, they [the Education Ministry] didn’t want to grant some of those provisions. [The ministry] asked to eliminate self-autonomy because the education law is still being discussed. The Ministry of Education said the MOU could not be signed with them and they asked us to do it with Yangon University. Yangon University asked why they should guarantee academic freedom when even they don’t have it,” Phone Win told The Irrawaddy.
The 2014-15 academic program was due to begin in November 2014, but classes have not been convened to date.
The pro-rector of Rangoon University, Prof. Kyaw Naing, said the university rector had been notified by ICOE’s main funder, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), that the program would no longer receive money. There has not been any official communique from Johns Hopkins University to Rangoon University indicating the program’s termination, according to Kyaw Naing, who claimed that an MoU with the Ministry of Education would not be necessary for Johns Hopkins’ continued involvement in the ICOE.
A coordinator who worked for the ICOE program confirmed an end to Johns Hopkins University’s involvement in the program.
“The ICOE was an institution that suffered from lack of ‘buy-in’ from all of the institutions which were ostensibly supporting the program,” she told The Irrawaddy, saying the Ministry of Education, Yangon University, USAID and Johns Hopkins University itself had all failed to follow through on initial commitments to the ICOE.
Phone Win said the pullout of the US university was a great loss for Burmese students because the ICOE was the only internationally assisted university-level program that was operating a full one-year program inside Burma. Other international assistance in education typically involves short-term programs such as one-week seminars in Burma or short trips overseas.
“Sending people overseas for long or short periods of time to get education they cannot otherwise get here is not the best option,” said the ICOE coordinator, who asked for anonymity. “There need to be programs like the ICOE that allow for higher level/adult education that works to address Myanmar’s development needs.”
For now, the future of the program remains unclear, she said, describing the ICOE as “something of a zombie.”
“There are others who have expressed interest in taking up the program. We are still working to see if that will be feasible,” she said.
The rector of Rangoon University, Aung Thu, told the Myanmar Times this week that “Yangon University has it own standards while the international university Johns Hopkins has its suitable educational standards.”