Enthusiasm and Caution in Myanmar

New report offers recommendations for forming partnerships with universities in rapidly changing country.

April 15, 2013

In the wake of President Obama’s historic visit to Myanmar in November, American universities have begun to engage with the country’s higher education institutions.  A report released Friday by the Institute of International Education, which led a delegation including representatives from 10 U.S. universities to Myanmar in February, describes the extensive needs of the country's higher education system and offers recommendations for universities interested in forming partnerships.

“The climate for partnership is more favorable than it has been for 30 years,” Meghann Curtis, the deputy assistant secretary for academic programs at the U.S. State Department, said in a conference call coinciding with the report’s release. Curtis accompanied the delegation, as did representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon.

“We met with a spirit of optimism regarding future reforms that would allow for more academic freedom for faculty, more autonomy for universities, and more choices for students," she said. (Myanmar's higher education system is highly centralized and top-down in nature, and student choices regarding majors are determined by their performance on an achievement test.)

The U.S. government began normalizing relations with Myanmar in 2012 after a new civilian government replaced the repressive military junta and enacted a series of democratic reforms, ending a decades-long period of isolation for the Southeast Asian nation. The IIE report is frank about the “dire” state of higher education in the country, stating that "the needs of higher education in Myanmar are extensive. The entire system requires nothing less than a complete renovation – from the physical infrastructure to the academic curriculum." Specific areas cited as needing attention include information technology, administration and governance, and the quality of faculty; the report quotes one senior administrator as saying “there are chemistry faculty who have not conducted an experiment with proper laboratory facilities and mechanical engineering professors who have yet to handle hands-on equipment.”

“We believe given the long isolation, the long separation of U.S. and Myanmar higher education, a first critical step is to reestablish and expand person-to-person networks,” said Chris McCord, a contributing author of the report and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Northern Illinois University.

“We need to inform people who have had very limited access to international standards, to make those standards available to them,” he said.

Northern Illinois is one of four U.S. universities that have formed a consortium to help train Burmese university librarians. Northern Illinois has also committed to fund four faculty members to give lectures in Myanmar in the coming year. Among other commitments made by U.S. universities that participated in the delegation, Samford University is sponsoring one of its technology specialists to visit the Myanmar Institute of Theology and assist in upgrading its technological capacity; American University is providing at least two fellowships, funded by the Nippon Foundation, to Burmese students who enroll in a predominantly online master’s of international affairs program; and Northern Arizona University has agreed to host one English instructor for up to a month for an introduction to its intensive English language program and curriculum. The report identifies improving the English language proficiency of faculty and staff in Myanmar as a pressing need.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has reestablished its mission in Myanmar and Fulbright exchanges have resumed. Curtis, the deputy assistant secretary for academic programs, noted however that neither universities nor individual students in Myanmar are likely to have the financial resources to fund exchanges themselves. One limitation to engagement will surely be that those institutions interested in hosting Burmese students, scholars and staffers will have to identify their own sources of funding. 

The report concludes with a note of caution given the extent of challenges faced by Myanmar's universities and the “apparent fragility” of the political changes.

“Enthusiasm for engagement, therefore, has to be accompanied by a hefty dose of both patience and perseverance. It was clear to the members of the IIE delegation that even in the midst of the renaissance-like atmosphere that seems to be prevailing at this time, it is important to proceed with appropriate cautions to ensure that the university sector is not overloaded with duplicative requests or projects that simply will never be carried out due to shortages of qualified staff or financial resources.”


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