Chris McCord vividly remembers the earnest questions that faculty had about research and their frank disclosures about program needs.
“It mattered so desperately to them that I understand what their research questions were and that I give them an idea of how NIU could help them move forward,” he says. “I have never visited a university where people were so urgently seeking a glimmer of hope.”
The delegation, which also included Catherine Raymond, director of NIU’s Center for Burma Studies, consisted of 10 U.S. universities and representatives of the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon and the U.S. Department of State.
As part of IIE’s Myanmar Higher Education Initiative, the delegation focused on strategies to help the country rebuild its higher education system. Participants visited universities, organizations and government agencies throughout Myanmar to provide workshops and lectures, explore potential partnerships and assess the infrastructure needed to build Myanmar’s higher education system.
IIE recently published a new briefing paper, “Investing in the Future: Rebuilding Higher Education in Myanmar,” based on the delegation’s February visit. The report presents findings from the visit, along with commentary on the context of higher education in Myanmar, infrastructure needs, and recommendations for supporting partnerships and academic exchanges.
McCord authored the section of the report focusing on partnerships and exchanges, and he discussed those recommendations with IIE and the EducationUSA advising network during a bi-national conference call April 12.
“The conference call attracted universities from across the United States,” he said. “From the questions people asked, it’s clear that there’s broad interest in U.S. higher education in engaging with Myanmar – and it’s also clear that there’s a lot of uncertainty about how to proceed.”
Several areas of need were identified as a result of the delegation’s activities:
- English language training for teachers;
- Sharing of best practices;
- Capacity-building for university administrators to develop international programs and partnerships;
- Training and curriculum development in the areas of law, international relations and public administration; and
- Skills development in research proposals and collaboration, quality assurance and teaching methodologies.
The initiative comes at a time when Myanmar is taking tentative steps toward a more open society after decades of military rule. This country of more than 48 million people is poised for significant economic growth, but for that to happen, Myanmar will need to develop and retain talent from within. One way to do that is to forge partnerships with western universities.
Providing the underpinnings to develop those partnerships is the focal point of IIE’s International Academic Partnership Program (IAPP), which assists U.S. colleges and universities in developing strategic plans for partnerships with other countries. China, India and Brazil have benefited from past programs, and IIE is expanding to offer future programs for Vietnam and Cuba.
According to IIE, institutions involved with the Myanmar initiative were selected based on “significant prior experience with the country, whether through students and faculty on campus, diaspora communities, or through previous work in the country.”
As home to the only Center for Burma Studies in the United States, as well as a thriving Center for Southeast Asian Studies, NIU has significant experience in the region and is uniquely positioned to engage meaningfully with institutions in Myanmar.
In a recent column in University World News Global Edition, IIE President and CEO Allan Goodman praised NIU and Raymond, noting “Dr. Raymond’s university has the only Center for Burma Studies in the U.S., and it has been operating since the 1980s. She is one of only a handful of scholars who studied Burma during all the difficult years and is now part of opening its educational space.”
In his foreword to the IIE report, Goodman observed, “This is a real opportunity, and IIE is ready to work with corporations and investors who are interested in developing talent to support this growth. Myanmar clearly needs a higher education system that can produce students capable of critical thinking and innovation, as well as an investment in infrastructure – Internet, libraries, teaching and laboratory facilities – and the kind of applied research that will benefit students and industry alike.”
McCord concurs with Goodman’s assessment, noting that after decades of neglect, needs in Myanmar’s higher education sector are “extensive and systemic.”
“It’s clear that this is going to be a long, gradual process. The faculty and leadership in Myanmar are eager to move forward. However, they are very candid about the challenges they face, and they know that initially they must focus on making small, but critical, changes that will ensure long-term sustainability,” he said.
“They need curricular models, they need access to materials, and they need equipment and supplies. Even a small step, such as a visit from a U.S. faculty member to discuss curriculum with them for a week, in something they cherish, because that will help them further identify the path forward – something they have not had until now.”
In regard to supporting partnerships and exchanges, McCord noted two key issues that must be addressed: local autonomy for organizing exchanges and funding to support those exchanges.
“The basis of the higher education system in the United States and the developed world has been as a market place of ideas, with the freedom to try different curricular approaches, different pedagogy, different messages, and to develop and evolve those in light of experience. A foundational change that Myanmar higher education needs is the freedom to make those kinds of choices. Academic exchanges with the scholars from the rest of the world will help inform their choices and will enable them to exercise local autonomy effectively.”
As a result of the visit, several American universities made commitments to help Myanmar higher education. NIU specifically pledged to:
- Form a consortium, along with Rutgers, University of Washington and Arizona State University, to assist university libraries in Myanmar;
- Host librarians for up to a month to support the development of academic libraries in Myanmar; and
- Fully fund four faculty members to travel to Myanmar to give lectures in the coming year.
by Deborah Fransen
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