Hard lessons in bid to bring back glory days of Yangon University

The institution is a ghost of the hotbed of student activism and political opposition it once was and efforts to revitalise it are facing roadblocks thanks to what critics say is the government's refusal to decentralise power

Yangon University - which has been at the heart of Myanmar's intellectual and political life for over 75 years - is undergoing a transformation, but for many the changes are cosmetic and too slow.

KEEPING UP APPEARANCES: Workers repair sidewalks in front of Yangon University’s Convocation Hall late last year prior to President Obama’s visit.

Yar Thet Pan, a lecturer in the university's linguistics department, is ashamed that teachers are still given red arm bands and assigned "security duty" to monitor the movement of pupils - a throwback to the paranoia over the student uprisings in 1988.

"Instead of reading papers or doing research to improve our teaching skills, we are assigned to duty as security guards in our department and on the school campus," Yar Thet Pan said.

"How can we improve our qualifications if we have to do this?"

But the newly minted civilian government needn't worry too much as the academic institution - which earned its fame under the name of Rangoon University - is a faded memory of the political hotbed it once was. In the 1920s and 1930s civil discontent emanated from the halls of the university where three nationwide strikes against the British colonial rulers started, and on Aug 8, 1988 students played a key role in the uprising against the dictatorial regime of Gen Ne Win.

The military junta renamed it Yangon University in 1989 and it was closed regularly during the 1990s. New universities were established on the outskirts of the city to cater for undergraduates in different faculties, but also to stop mass student gatherings on one campus. Yangon University restricted its admissions and all student accommodation at the campus was closed.

Tin Hlaing, a former academic at the university and a member of the Hluttaw (parliamentary) committee for upgrading Yangon University, says it is now only a university in name.

When he worked there from 1967 to 1978 the student body numbered on average more than 20,000 full-time students each year from all over the country studying a variety of subjects.

"Yangon University is open just to give the appearance the university is running normally, but almost none of the students are full-time," he said.

There are 800 students in postgraduate, diploma and honours classes, but there are no undergraduates.

"Those postgraduate classes are not a regular part of the university. They're just a side business," Tin Hlaing added.


The impetus to restore the university to its glory days as the most prestigious learning institution in Southeast Asia came a month before US President Barack Obama's highly publicised visit to the campus last November.

Opposition leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi proposed parliament improve the country's education and health sectors. Her motion passed and two committees were formed, one to draft education bills and the other for the upgrading of Yangon University. Mrs Suu Kyi chairs the upgrading committee.

Myanmar's education budget was also doubled from US$340 million (9.94 billion baht) to $740 million, which accounted for 5.84% of the national budget.

During his speech at the university's convocation hall, Mr Obama was well aware of the physical and symbolic importance of the university to the people of Myanmar.

"I came here because of my respect for this university," Mr Obama said. "Here, scholarship thrived during the last century and students demanded their basic human rights. Now, your parliament has at last passed a resolution to revitalise this university and it must reclaim its greatness, because the future of this country will be determined by the education of its youth."

Tin Hlaing said Myanmar should welcome the opportunity to upgrade Yangon University after a long period of isolation.

"It means the government is favouring the educational reform process," he said.

However, Tin Hlaing, who writes regular newspaper articles on the weaknesses of the country's higher education system, is adamant that reform must happen across the entire education system.

He identifies the major problems in the university system as; "long neglect of quality in favour of quantity, lack of resources and a long period of isolation".

"Actually we first need to modify the whole mechanism and organisational structure," he said. "If we start the reform process without modifying those, it will be like pushing a broken car."


A major problem to be addressed will be the proliferation of poor quality higher education institutions across the country which mushroomed as a result of the former military regime's strategy of scattering students to prevent strikes and uprisings.

In his 2008 paper "Myanmar education: Challenges, prospects and options", Han Tin, the former rector of the Institute of Education, Yangon, stated that "too much stress has been placed on a very rapid quantitative expansion with quality standards and control lagging behind".

From 1988 to 2008 the number of universities and higher education institutions increased five-fold from 32 to 156, according to the report.

Of those 156, only 64 are run by the Ministry of Education while the others came under the authority of 12 other ministries.

Both lecturers and students say the decline in learning standards at the new universities was accompanied by a lack of security on campuses.

Yar Thet Pan said that when she studied in the early 1980s, students felt like a university was their home.

"All entrances were open and we felt protected once we stepped onto the campus," she said, adding there were no security guards at the entrances.

However since the "military government moved the universities away to secure their power, students don't feel safe when they are away from home", she said of the atmosphere at the new campuses.

Kyaw Satt Naing, 24, who studied at Yangon Western University, established in 2002 to offer undergraduate courses in liberal arts and sciences, said it was an unsafe study environment. He said it was common to see students getting drunk or taking drugs on campus.

"I don't want to remember my time at university because there is nothing to be remembered except that it was somewhere we could easily find a place to drink or play cards," he said.

While lecturers had been forced to act as security guards, students Spectrum spoke to said they were ineffective and the practice was an embarrassment.

They said as the new campuses were located on the outskirts of the city there was little the teachers could do to control unruly student behaviour in isolated locations.

"The government is not doing this for educational reasons, but to put security first," said former student Khin Lay Muang who now works as a tour guide. "The authorities are really afraid students will take action to raise political issues in the school compound. I feel embarrassed when I see a university teacher wearing the red security scarf on his or her arms."


Yangon University sits in a green enclave of old tress on the banks of glistening Inya Lake _ the campus adorned by historic buildings including Judson Church, the convocation hall, lecture halls and student lodgings.

Established in 1878 by the British colonial administration, the university underwent several administrations and amalgamations before it became Rangoon University in 1920, modelling itself on Oxford and Cambridge.

All subsequent universities established in the country then called Burma came under the administration of Rangoon University. In the 1940s and '50s it earned a reputation for being one of the leading academic institutions in Asia, attracting students from across the region.

However, after Ne Win's military coup in 1962 and the introduction of his "Burmese way to socialism" the university was put under the control of the Directorate of Education and its medium of instruction changed from English to Burmese.

Students staged peaceful rallies against the changes in July of that year. Gen Ne Win responded by sending in troops to disperse the students, which resulted in the deaths of dozens and the dynamiting of the student union building.

The university's educational standards plummeted and overseas institutions refused to recognise degrees obtained there.

Ne Win's resignation speech in July, 1988, which triggered the pro-democracy protests before his loyalists in the army seized power, included the sinister warning: "When the army shoots, it shoots to kill."

Today, small steps are under way to take Yangon University back to its glory days.

The university secured the help of a local engineering association to help with renovations. Buildings have been painted and classroom equipment upgraded from paper, blackboards and chalk to computers and projectors.

"Classroom facilities are getting better," said Sai Khaing Myo Tun, an assistant lecturer in the department of international relations.

"Now we have modern teaching equipment such as computers, projectors and so on. We can invite visiting professors from international universities and we have signed memorandums of understanding with different international universities."

Tin Hlaing, of the parliamentary committee for upgrading the university, said renovations had been divided into two parts they called "hardware" and "software", meaning they needed an intellectual blueprint for the university as well as a physical one.

He added that the absence of Mrs Suu Kyi as the chair of the committee due to her other responsibilities as an MP meant they were not yet working as effectively as they could.

But Thein Lwin, an official from the National Network for Educational Reform (NNER) and a member of the opposition National League for Democracy's education committee said the renovations only represented temporary change.

"The first step is to make Yangon University an autonomous university. It shouldn't be controlled by the ministry but should be controlled by the university's governing council. All universities should have autonomy," Thein Lwin said.

He said despite all the talk, no reform initiative had been announced by the Ministry of Education.

Thein Lwin said the ministry had sole control of state schools and 64 universities and made decisions on duty assignments, transfers, promotions and demotions. This had encouraged huge corruption in the ministry, he said.

"While the country is undergoing its transition to democracy, the education sector is still under centralised control. We the want the education system to be decentralised."

The NNER has set up a countrywide network to develop a national education policy to submit to parliament.

"Reform cannot be achieved by one person's attempts, it can only be done through policy," he said.

YES, MAYBE WE CAN: President Barack Obama’s speech at Yangon University last November gave a fillip to moves to revitalise the institution.

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Writer: Mon Mon Myat