x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Myanmar pays steep price for its 'lost generation' of students

Yangon University was once one of Asia's finest but it is now a poignant symbol of an education system crippled by half a century of military rule.

A Buddhist monk takes pictures of fresh graduates after a ceremony at Yangon University in 2008. Only graduate students are allowed to study there.
A Buddhist monk takes pictures of fresh graduates after a ceremony at Yangon University in 2008. Only graduate students are allowed to study there.

YANGON // The dormitories are empty, the once-charming bungalows for professors now overgrown with vines and weeds. Only grass grows where the student union building stood before soldiers obliterated it with dynamite.

This is Yangon University, once one of Asia's finest but now a poignant symbol of an education system crippled by Myanmar's half a century of military rule. Only graduate students are still allowed to study here. Fearful of student-led uprisings, the regime has periodically shut down this and other campuses and dispersed students to remote areas with few facilities.

Now, as the nation also known as Burma opens its doors to the outside world, it is paying a heavy price. The crackdown on universities has spawned a lost generation. The pace of development will be slowed and Burmese exploited, educators say, as the poorly schooled populace deals with an expected influx of foreign investors and aid donors, along with profiteers looking for a quick dollar.

"To catch up with the rest of the world we will need at least 10 years. We have to change our entire education culture, and that will be very difficult," says Dr Phone Win, a physician who heads Mingalar Myanmar, a group promoting education.

Initial steps are being taken. President Thein Sein, a former general who has loosened the military's vise on power through unprecedented reforms, pledged in his inauguration speech last year to improve education and seek foreign expertise to lift standards to international levels.

The education budget, though still dwarfed by military spending and widely criticised as inadequate, was increased in April from US$340 million (Dh1.24 billion) to $740m.

For years, about 25 per cent of the budget went to the armed forces, compared to 1.3 per cent for education.

Myanmar is saddled with two generations of chemistry professors who have never conducted a proper laboratory experiment and mechanical engineers yet to handle hands-on equipment, says Moe Kyaw, a prominent businessman involved with education issues.

From MBAs to lawyers and accountants, shortages abound. Of particular concern, he says, is the lack of skilled technicians and workers, who will be sorely needed if an investment boom does come. Government officials at a recent conference on the future of Yangon, the largest city, said the country has only about 50 urban planners but needs 500.

"You could say Myanmar might be exploited, but they will also lose out on lucrative job opportunities because if locals aren't qualified to fill positions, the foreigners will bring in their own," says Sardar Umar Alam, a United Nations education expert.

Although the government boasts 160 institutions of higher learning, many graduates scoff at their own degrees, often saying they are "not worth the paper they're printed on".

Many also lament the loss of English skills in this former British colony since xenophobic former leader Gen Ne Win banned its teaching at lower school levels in the mid-1960s.

"I have a very capable woman staffer in Mandalay with a bachelor's degree in psychology, but she can't even spell the word in English," says Moe Kya, the British-educated head of Myanmar Marketing Research Development Company.

The opening salvo in what many here call "a war on education" came when troops blew up Yangon University's student union, regarded as a hotbed of dissent, after the military seized power in 1962.

But probably the darkest days followed a failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising, led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi with students as the driving force. The regime began shutting down universities and sending students to the countryside to prevent more anti-government protests.

"University life has been shattered because of a perceived need to keep students in order," Ms Suu Kyi said in a recent speech before the British parliament.

The education system is "desperately weak," she added in another speech at Oxford University. "Reform is needed, not just of schools and curriculum, and the training of teachers, but also of our attitude to education, which at present is too narrow and rigid."

Many educated Burmese are eagerly waiting for the leadership to respond to a passionate open letter this month from U Myint, a presidential adviser who urged that Yangon University be reopened to undergraduates and the Student Union rebuilt through public donations.