RANGOON — Representatives of Burma’s University Teachers’ Association (UTA) are boycotting talks this week to discuss a government-drafted law that is supposed to free higher education from central control.
A five-day seminar, which began Monday at Rangoon University’s Diamond Jubilee Hall, is being held in response to various groups’ rejection of a draft of the Universities’ Central Council Law, which is supposed to legislate for a new council to replace the Department of Higher Education as the agency responsible for universities.
The UTA, as well as the Students’ Union and the National Network for Education Reform (NNER) argue that the proposed law does not do enough to free up the country’s stifled education sector.
The secretary of the Dagon University branch of the UTA, Zaw Myo Hlaing, said the organization had decided to boycott this week’s seminar because the organizer, the Department of Higher Education (Lower Burma), did not give enough recognition to the UTA’s role in discussing education policy.
Specifically, he said, the invitation extended to the UTA was worded in a way that suggested the association was not a central player in the talks.
“The wording from the invitation from [the Department of Higher Education] says, ‘We are inviting you as we have come to know that university teachers want to attend the seminar,’ and that they will ‘allow [teachers] to attend if it does not affect their duties.’ That’s why we boycott,” Zaw Myo Hlaing told The Irrawaddy.
“Our original duty is to teach. We devote our personal time toward future higher education policy, without financial support. There’s no recognition, and they belittle us with the invitation saying they can ‘allow’ us to attend the seminar as long as it doesn’t affect our duties.”
The UTA has in the past notified the department to address such invitations to the association, instead of naming an individual, as it has done in this instance, he said, adding that the wording seemed to indicate a lack of willingness for officials to engage with teachers.
“If they can’t even recognize the existence of the association and forming of the association by writing ‘the University Teachers’ Association,’ we can guess the mentality of those who claim themselves as reforming the education policy,” said Zaw Myo Hlaing, who is also an assistant lecturer at Dagon University.
About 30 university teachers left the meeting Tuesday announcing that they have boycott it and the results of the seminar will not reflect UTA involvement. Teachers from the state universities will no longer join the seminar and are joined in the boycott by students from the All Burma Federation of Students Unions (ABSFU).
The replacement of the Department of Higher Education is part of broader reforms, and a new National Education Law, that are meant to see the education sector released from central government control. That control grew over the period of Burma’s military regimes, with the junta in the 1990s dismantling universities that were seen as a hotbed of political opposition.
Thu Thu Mar, a member of NNER, said the content of the proposed National Education Law had not been distributed for participants to study ahead of the seminar.
She added that the seminar’s formal agenda included discussion of the “education principles,” and the presentation of the results of the work of an education reform implementation committee, which has 18 working groups. But the seminar was not designed to encourage open discussion, and instead mainly involved participants listening to presentations, she added.
“We can’t study the National Education Law, [we got it] one day before the meeting. There are some basic principles that conflict with the educational policy drafted by NNER,” she said.
The principles at issue include the decentralization of control over education; academic freedom for schools, teachers and students; and educational philosophy,” she said. Thu Thu Mar said the draft states the approach of educators to be, “‘To raise citizens with the right thoughts,’ which conflicts with our philosophy, ‘To raise citizens who can think freely.’”
Pyae Soe Kyaw, assistant lecturer at Rangoon University’s archaeology department, said the draft Universities’ Central Council Law was just another way for the government to control education. “When they don’t want centralized [education], they just try to control it with a different form,” he said.
“It’s not useful to have dialogue and discuss reforming education unless those who have authority have good will and the courage to do so.”
The Ministry of Education recently distributed the Universities’ Central Council Law draft to universities, but did not consult with teachers or other groups before drafting it, opponents say.
“[At present], education policy makers are not those who are representing the fields that they are related to, but the professors and director generals,” said Zaw Myo Hlaing from Dagon University.
“It is not realistic if someone who is rarely out of Yangon is drafting education policy for migrant education, for example. Also with non-formal education, where someone who has never been working on the issue is drafting the policy from an office.”
He added that national education policy should be the priority, before the details of the new council are discussed.