Challenges for tertiary education: options

Many comments have been made about university education in Myanmar, most of them negative. Too much stress has been placed on a very rapid quantitative expansion with quality standards and control lagging behind. The number of higher-education institutes functioning under various ministries and the Civil Service Selection and Training Board increased from 32 in 1988 to 156 in 2008 (Table 7.1).

The rationale behind this expansion is to promote equitable educational development and access among the various regions in Myanmar. Today every state and division has a minimum of three higher-education institutes to cater to its needs. This is highly laudable, but the running costs of such institutes are extremely high and the budget allocation for most ministries is limited. There are inequities among the ministries resulting in institutes under the better-funded ones—such as defence, forestry and agriculture and irrigation—being better staffed, better equipped and better organised. As for the higher-education institutes under the Ministry of Education, the budget allocation is limited. Furthermore, this budget has to be distributed among the 10 departments under it. The reallocated budget for the two higher-education departments is then shared by the 64 universities, institutes and colleges under them.

Table 7.1 Number of higher-education institutions in Myanmar (2008)
 

Ministry

Number

1

Education

64

2

Health

14

3

Science and technology

56

4

Defence

5

5

Culture

2

6

Forestry

1

7

Agriculture and irrigation

1

8

Livestock, breeding and fisheries

1

9

Cooperatives

5

10

Civil Service Selection and Training Board

1

11

Religious affairs

2

12

Progress of border areas and national races and development affairs

1

13

Transport

3

 

Total

156

Source: Compiled by author.

Shortages of equipment and teaching materials, and more importantly the shortage of teaching as well as support staff, have adversely affected the standards of the new universities and higher-education institutes under the Ministry of Education. Much investment and effort will have to be made in order to regain the high standards achieved in the 1950s and 1960s by the two national universities of Yangon and Mandalay. Previously, degrees from these two universities were recognised internationally and their graduates were accepted for postgraduate studies by universities in the West and elsewhere. To achieve the high standards of these universities once again and to gain recognition and accreditation for their degrees would be beyond the present capabilities of the new universities. Recognition of some degrees has become problematic, even within the country itself. University of Distance Education graduates, for example, are finding it increasingly difficult to be competitive in the job market.

Research and development have also lagged behind due to inadequate funds. Although Myanmar’s universities and tertiary education institutes have neither the time nor the money to engage in a ‘theoretical treasure hunt’, they should still try to recruit the best brains in the country.

The present trend towards computer literacy and the emphasis on information technology (IT) should be further strengthened. The establishment of Myanmar Information and Communication Technology Centres in Yangon and Mandalay is a progressive step. The proximity of Myanmar to India, and the extremely cordial relations that exist between the two countries, makes it attractive to tap the international ‘outsourcing market’, which has boosted the Indian economy. To do so, however, will require a steady and reliable source of energy. International assistance and loans would be essential to set up a national electricity grid. It is in the interest of the world community to strengthen the IT industry in Myanmar, as it will allow the country to make a quantum leap into the twenty-first century. As in its neighbour China, in Myanmar, free access to the Internet has yet to occur; however, ‘cyber cafes’ in the major cities have made email links with other countries possible for the general public.

According to Kyaw Than (2006), the Yezin Agricultural University is better staffed than most other institutions. Fifty-two per cent of its faculty have postgraduate degrees from various foreign countries. Furthermore, 180 of its new graduates are being sent annually to Arava Company Limited in Israel for 11 months’ on-the-job training and to undertake a diploma course in agribusiness studies. Surely, such a program could be replicated for other universities and tertiary education institutes.

Sanctions and threats from some quarters of the international community are not working and should not be allowed to continue because the plight of the people of Myanmar is getting worse day by day. It is time to move forward. In this matter, could not the Association of South-East Nations (ASEAN) play a leading role? Cooperation and assistance from other nations should be increased. The main thrust should be in the sectors of health and education. The constructive engagement policies of Australia, Japan and ASEAN nations should be taken further.

Commonwealth countries initiated the ‘Colombo Plan’ after World War II to provide cooperation and assistance to South Asian nations. It was later enlarged to embrace other South-East Asian nations. The plan contributed much towards the development of member nations and Australia took an active and leading role in it. Myanmar was one of the Colombo Plan nations. If a similar plan could be initiated by the ASEAN states, with inputs from developed nations together with the two economic powers of Asia—China and India—much headway could be made.