Myanmar: a new future through higher education?

May 10, 2013

Yesterday I participated in a ‘Myanmar-UK policy dialogue’ organised by the British Council entitled ‘Myanmar: a new future through higher education?’ This got quite a lot of coverage yesterday because the keynote address was given remotely by Aung San Suu Kyi who asked for Britain’s help in reconstructing Myanmar’s dilapidated university system (BBC, Times Higher, FT). The event was attended by a Myanmar delegation who had been on a 10-day study tour of the UK, and included the deputy education minister, a senior official and two parliamentarians.

Compared to Suu Kyi’s impassioned plea for assistance in rebuilding a sector ‘destroyed’ by military rule and in helping to foster ‘vibrant’ and ‘robust’ citizens, I found the first half of the day lamentably abstract and of very little relevance to the Myanmar context. To watch two UK vice-chancellors spouting the usual technobabble about partnerships, transparency, reciprocity, the knowledge economy and so on – always excruciatingly painful – felt like being on another planet. It was particularly galling to listen to them say that university autonomy was always a bit of a myth; it was a ‘privilege’ that had to be ‘earned’; and because we were ‘accountable’ to ‘stakeholders’, the best we could hope for was ‘responsible autonomy’. The message this sends out to a semi-authoritarian state that is deeply afraid of conceding freedoms to any institution not directly under its control is an appalling one: our institutions aren’t free either, and that’s a good thing, so don’t worry that you have to actually liberate your universities.

The other-worldly atmosphere persisted with a panel on how universities could contribute to economic growth – an incredibly UK-centric agenda, with universities being pressed to convert themselves into handmaidens of business in the context of a busted economy. I really felt – as did the other Myanmar experts there – that the discussion had to be brought down to earth in the Myanmar context. The question, I pointed out from the floor (when, after 2hrs of talking from the platform, we were finally allowed to contribute), is not what universities can do for the Myanmar economy but rather how the economy can be harnessed to revive the universities. Although education spending has risen in absolute terms, because the overall size of the government budget has grown, it is still the case that the military gets in excess of 20% of government spending whilst education gets just 4.4% – one of the very lowest in Asia. Until these figures are reversed, we cannot hope for significant improvements in HE.

I was invited to speak on a panel on ‘university leadership – what will this involve?’ I was later asked if a copy of my remarks was available, so I thought it might be worth writing the bullet-points up here. I say all this with the caveat that most UK vice-chancellors often fail to live up to these standards.

  • Leadership has a strong political dimension and is about intervening within a very specific political economy context – so attention to that context is critical instead of general abstractions and fast policy transfer. Leadership has both an internal dimension – leading groups and individuals within your institution – and an external one – trying to unify people beyond your institution behind you.
  • Fundamentally, university leadership in Myanmar must be inverted. Currently, university rectors are arms of the state used to penetrate, regulate and police university staff and students in the name of security and public order. In future, they must carve out autonomous spaces for teaching, learning and research in which academic freedom is cherished and defended from external attack, i.e. rectors must defend universities against the state (and others hostile to these values and activities). If you do not have such an autonomous space, you do not have a university.
  • What does this mean concretely?
    • freeing staff from ‘policing’ duties to perform teaching and research. Much staff time is wasted because lecturers are made to patrol campuses, check who is entering and exiting, and essentially spy on their students (or each other). This is totally inappropriate.
    • re-establishing and then defending academic freedom as an absolute value in both research and teaching. This must be promoted both as an internal culture and defended from external attack.
    • advocating externally for policy changes necessary to make these things possible, e.g.:
      • de-regulation of academic travel. Currently, if a scholar wants to go abroad to study, research or teach, they require permission not only from the higher education department but a cabinet meeting; thereafter they must have a passport approved by the ministry of foreign affairs, clearance from the ministry of home affairs, and so on, and are often required to leave financial bonds and/or family members behind. Lecturers must not be treated as potential enemies of the state.
      • students must be empowered to select their own courses of study. Currently they are simply assigned to degree programmes based on their school exam results (e.g. if you come in the top X%, you are assigned to medical school, whether or not you want to be a doctor). Students need autonomy and academic freedom, too.
      • Above all else, rectors will need to lobby for additional funding to enable them to rebuild their dilapidated institutions. This is particularly critical to resolve the chronic underpayment of lecturers. Currently, no one can survive on a lecturer’s salary. You must either be supported by your spouse (which is why 85-90% of lecturers are women), have your own family business or work one or two other jobs, or find other sources of income, e.g. private tuition or even taking bribes from students to assign them particular grades. The suggestion made in an earlier session – to use academics to help tackle corruption in other areas of life – is all well and good, but corruption within universities is itself rife and needs tackling first.
  • University leaders also need to help foster and work in partnership with other autonomous groupings within university communities. They must assist and support staff in organising unions, and cease the reported practice of union-busting by dispersing organisers (which is linked to the equally terrible practice of rotating lecturers around posts arbitrarily every few years). As the constitution of the recently-formed University Teachers’ Association at Yangon University shows, staff unions are interested in helping to rebuild the capacity of staff and should be treated as partners, not enemies. Similarly, they should be conceded collective bargaining rights. Student unions – forcibly crushed and even physically destroyed in the 1970s – should also be restored.
  • Advocating a positive, dynamic and progressive mission for the university will help mobilise staff, students and local communities behind university leaders, attract funding from government, international donors, and possibly alumni – who could be a useful set of allies, particularly for institutions like Yangon. Such a vision will be critical in building the socio-political coalitions necessary to effect the political and economic changes required to create a bedrock for university reform.
  • Finally, university leaders must engage in collaboration with each other, and with local communities. They must not – despite what the VCs had said earlier in the day – seek to ‘compete’ in the misguided sense that this will drive up standards. This typically only duplicates efforts, wastes resources, and destroys collegiality.

In response to questions and comments from the floor, I made a few other suggestions.

  1. Q: How can university leaders achieve these goals? What can the government do? A: The current generation of rectors will find this very hard to do, because they have been selected for compliance with the government’s security goals, not their skill in dynamic leadership. Leadership can be made more collective through the use of external councils and powerful senates. Importantly, the mistake the UK has made in handing over control of councils to majorities of externals – largely meaning businessmen – should not be repeated. Instead, local community leaders with more experience of enthusing and leading bodies of people should be drawn upon, whilst powerful senates enable the wider academic body to exercise leadership. The best thing the government can do is to step back, identify clear and inviolable rights for universities and then uphold them rigidly. People are afraid to use their autonomy if the space to do so is vague and flexible according to political whims.
  2. Q: Is there a danger that the rural population (70% in Myanmar) will be neglected, particularly in the focus on elite, urban institutions like Yangon? Q: what about ethnic minorities, whose experience of Myanmar education systems is often oppressive and marginalising? A: Both of these areas are major problems. Rural access to universities can only be enhanced by fixing the basic education system. It was asserted throughout the day by Myanmar delegates that the language of university instruction is English and it must stay that way. In reality, although some slim and outdated course texts may be in English, even in ‘elite’ institutions, the students’ English language skills are so appalling that courses are actually taught in Burmese, or some mangled form of Burmglish. If Myanmar insists on English – which may be sound for business reasons and may even be less oppressive for minorities who do not wish to/ cannot speak Burmese – then it must radically improve English instruction in schools. As for ethnic minorities, leadership would involve designating one university in each minority state as a national flagship institution and building it up as rapidly as possible to a truly excellent standard. This would show that the state was serious about providing avenues of advancement for all Myanmar’s people.
  3. Q: Is there a risk that the pace of change is too fast? Can we just give out academic freedom and free speech when people are not used to using these freedoms? Is there not a risk of paralysing the education system if we allow party politics onto campus? A: This last point, ironically, was made by a very senior British attendee, and thus echoed the authoritarian sentiments of the Myanmar delegate on my panel, who warned against creating ‘violent’ youths and keeping party politics off campus. Personally I do not fear freedom of speech, academic freedom, or politics. I am often asked about the violence against Muslims in Myanmar and whether it is a byproduct of the new freedoms people enjoy. In reality, anti-Muslim sentiment runs very deep in Myanmar and anti-Muslim agitation was occurring even under military rule: Wirathu, the monk who leads the hyper-nationalist, anti-Muslim ‘969’ campaign, was imprisoned by the military precisely for whipping up religious hatred. But what we have seen recently is Buddhist leaders who do not subscribe to his perverse reading of Buddhism speaking out against the violence. What is required is more free speech, to allow these alternative voices of reason to be heard, not less free speech. Similarly, what passes for academic research in Myanmar universities is lamentable and leads to dodgy assumptions about, e.g. the Rohingya, to go unchallenged. Wouldn’t it be better if scholars could research and publish on such controversial topics, to enable a more enlightened debate? As for politicisation, the problem in Myanmar is not too much politics but far too little. Myanmar society has been totally depoliticised and atomised by decades of one-party and military rule, leaving it virtually bereft of organisational structures and sophisticated political thinkers – and this in a country that was once at the forefront of anti-colonial liberation struggles in Asia. It desperately needs time, resources and freedom to explore and rediscover political ideas.

As to what the Myanmar delegation will take away from their visit to the UK, we can only speculate. The delegates’ closing remarks did not give me too much optimism. In the final session, one delegate observed that rectors lacked the experience of running their universities autonomously and so could only be granted semi-autonomy (because, presumably, the current leadership from the 12 ministries involved in running universities is so fantastic); he also supported the reintroduction of student unions, but only if they could receive training on how to conduct themselves responsibly, e.g. from our own NUS; and by this he seemed to mean they should focus on organising student societies rather than being involved in politics. Finally, the deputy minister showed that he was absorbing the British technobabble by agreeing that universities needed to engage with ‘stakeholders’ and more public-private partnerships would be necessary. The main requests for assistance were around capacity-building for administrators and English teachers; provision of research facilities and equipment; assistance to update teaching and research methods; HE partnerships; and advice on student union formation. That is, unsurprisingly, the technocrats want to focus on technical assistance. But if they neglect the broader political economy context and, crucially, the values that universities are meant to embody, they will not get very far.

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