Progress in Myanmar

Universities appear to be gaining some autonomy.

July 29, 2016

How is the ongoing reform program in Myanmar impacting higher education?

During a recent briefing in London, Kevin MacKenzie, British Council country director in Myanmar from August 2012 until this month, provided some answers.

He arrived 15 months after the military junta was dissolved, during “the early days of the reform agenda.” The election of Aung San Suu Kyi as a member of Parliament and an amnesty of political prisoners in 2012 “helped convince skeptics the government was serious,” although it was still dominated by “the same faces without military uniforms.” It was a time of “power cuts, empty roads, taxis with holes in the floor and scarce mobile phones.”

Much has happened over the past four years. MacKenzie mentioned “a notable change in basic infrastructure” and the election of a government led by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in 2015, even if three of the main ministries and a quarter of the parliamentary seats are still controlled by the military.

The British Council played its part by working with civil society and opposition groups, for example, offering courses in democracy and human rights taken by many who are now in government.

Higher education also came under the spotlight. Suu Kyi, who studied at the University of Oxford, specifically encouraged an opening up to British institutions. This led to a study tour allowing parliamentarians to look at the English and Scottish models of higher education. Policy dialogues were convened to bring together government and opposition, ethnic groups, and teachers’ and students’ unions. And geoscientists from Oxford and Heriot-Watt University traveled to the country to offer their expertise.

MacKenzie also pointed to “a drive towards greater autonomy for the higher education sector,” citing the case of a rector who was free to appoint a gardener but nobody above that grade. This topic had been much discussed during the period from 2012 to 2015, with capacity-building initiatives such as training offered by Oxford to both academics and administrators, although it had inevitably become less prominent in the immediate run-up to last November’s election.

Now that the first nonmilitary president of Myanmar since 1962, Htin Kyaw, has been elected and Suu Kyi has taken on the new role of state counselor (roughly equivalent to prime minister), MacKenzie reported that “rectors are more accessible” and “the new government is open for business and has a better idea of what university autonomy is.”

Nonetheless, he stressed that “it is still early days” and that real reform would require “structural changes.” Since universities currently “fall under 13 different ministries” representing sectors such as health and agriculture, “it is a government priority to rationalize that.”

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