Wednesday, 10 June 2015

A University in Desperate Need - Mandalay University, Myanmar.

I have just returned from a three day visit to Mandalay University where it was revealed to me the devastating situation universities within Myanmar find themselves in. I even struggle to use the word ‘university’, due to a lack of students, resources, facilities and knowledge. However I will continue to use the word due to the immense hunger local academics have for improvement, increased knowledge, academic independence and foreign assistance. 

The appalling state universities are in, within Myanmar, is the result of decades of deliberate neglect due to a fear of students and uprisings, during the period of military rule. There is still a lack of understanding of the necessity to reform the education system and there is an underlying fear from the current government that a strong education system means dissent and rebellion. During the time of the military junta universities were seen as little more than problematic havens of protest and left-wing influence, thus most of them were restricted, monitored or shutdown.     

Before entering the grounds of Mandalay University, one is reminded of the brutal surveillance the military had (has) over academia in Myanmar, with a large military barracks boarding the University perimeter. The all seeing eye of the Tatmadaw (Burmese Military) has strategically located itself next to a potential ‘hub of dissent’, always ready to travel one hundred meters to put a stop to ‘problematic youth’, who may attempt to ‘threaten their power’ or the ‘balance of power’.  

Upon entering the campus it is obvious there has been little investment in the University for numerous years. Many buildings are in a decrepit state and a few look completely abandoned. The main administration building is aesthetically colonial with a British officials name engraved onto stone near the entrance. Such grandeur, demonstrating Mandalay’s once colonial past, is almost lost in a jungle of ‘mess’, a desolated campus, and a almost ‘desperation’ the University radiates. A glimmer of hope is found in the recently opened ‘recreation center’, where there are signs of student life slowly becoming a reality, and a large on-campus guesthouse that numerous academics speak of with a sense of pride and joy. 

After a brief walk around the campus, we were introduced to our host, a senior Professor in Anthropology. Her warm smile, the elegant way she wore the traditional Burmese Hta-Mein, and nervous enthusiasm for our arrival, all clearly demonstrated the University’s desire for external visitors and assistance. We were taken into a large well decorated conference room, with one small portable air-conditioning that struggled to cool down a room situated in a building constructed in the early 20th Century (keep in mind it was 44 degrees centigrade outside). In the room there were over twenty academics, incredibly eager for foreign scholars to impart and share knowledge to them. 

The reason my team was there was to share and teach academic skills, in regards to an up-and-coming conference Chiang Mai University is co-hosting with the University of Mandalay. Although local academics from Mandalay University are wise and have a wealth of wisdom, it is clearly evident their learning style is archaic and they have little ability to provide critical analysis. Much of their knowledge is determined from no more than a few books due to a lack of funding, decades of restrictions, and a lack of research ability. 

All academics and scholars, no matter if they are a lecturer or senior professor, earn a standard wage of $300USD per month. They also get a university car, however many complain that university cars are in dire conditions. It is evident that with little or no financial incentive it is challenging for academics to be career focused, driven or inspired to continually improve themselves. 

On day two we conducted a workshop on essay writing so the senior academics could have a better understanding in how one writes for a international conference. It was clear that although we were talking to senior academics, they had little understanding of the ability to be critical or provide positive criticisms. There was also a lack of knowledge on recent events, which made analysis in the field of economics and social sciences very difficult. One Professor in Anthropology was still working with theories that were outdated in the 1970’s. Another Professor pleaded with me to return to Mandalay and attend her International Relations classes so I can help her teach students in an internationally acceptable way. Her passion was evident and encouraging, yet it was incredibly sad how senior staff had such a lack of knowledge. Of course, all blame must be directed toward the former junta. 

Myanmar is developing and the democratisation process is slowly underway, however it is obvious a significant roadblock to Myanmar’s development is and will increasingly be, education and the lack of it. Mandalay University has only recently reopened to students, having been shut down for decades by the government, and academic staff have little experience teaching and understanding academic material. Customs prevent academic debate and discussion amongst academics, let alone students debating or discussing issues with academics. Learning dates, facts and figures are paramount to the learning style, with no interpretation, argument or the challenging of historical discourses. 

Through their politeness, academics at Mandalay University understand the need, hence the enthusiasm in our attendance and participation. Much attention is given toward democratisation, security, ethnic rights, and health and sanitation by local and international organisations, and numerous countries, institutions and organisations focus on education, however if Myanmar is going to continue to develop, empowering its younger generation, more attention needs to be given to the significantly lacking tertiary system. There also needs to be pressure put on the government to give university’s like Mandalay University more independence, thus enabling the University to have enhanced credibility in the academic world. It is with little doubt I will be back to Mandalay University soon, as the journey the University is on and the impact it will have on Myanmar, is exciting, challenging and overwhelming.

Delivering a presentation on academic writing 

The team from Chiang Mai University conducting a workshop for local academics 

Mandalay city is expanding rapidly 

Conducting a presentation on abstract writing 

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