Opening up opportunities for students in Myanmar

Jon Gregson reports on his meetings with current International Programmes students and graduates while attending a symposium in Myanmar
Naw Lah Say Wah and Jon Gregson
BSc Economics and Management graduate Naw Lah Say Wah pictured with CDE Fellow Jon Gregson

At the end of October, I had the pleasure of visiting Myanmar for the first time as part of a UK delegation led by the University of London, contributing to a two-day symposium in Yangon on the future of Higher Education in Myanmar.

I attended in my capacity as a Fellow of the Centre for Distance Education, part of the University of London International Programmes, and as Head of the Knowledge Services Department of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), where I now work.

As an alumnus of the University of London International Programmes – I completed a Masters in Managing Rural Change in 2001 while living and working in Nepal, under the academic supervision of what was at the time Wye College – I have continued to maintain a keen interest in open and distance learning, and have a particular interest in the student experience.  It was therefore a great pleasure to be able to meet with several students who had been studying recently with the programme in Myanmar.

The Myanmar context is an interesting one, with a lot of optimism regarding the opening up of the country, set against a backdrop of new elections planned for 2015. I discovered that there were a large number of Universities in Myanmar (over 150!), spread across the country and often specialising in particular subject areas. University entry takes place after 10 years of schooling, and interestingly over one million students have benefitted from local distance education, provided primarily at the undergraduate level through either Yangon University of Distance Education (YUDE) or Mandalay University of Distance Education (MUDE). Both of these Universities have over 150,000 currently registered students enrolled for social science, humanities and science courses.

"It was particularly interesting to find out more about the experiences of those who I met who had taken courses from the University of London International Programmes, who represented a mix of Burmese and expatriate students."

There are seven states and divisions in Myanmar, with over 130 different minority ethnic groups and a wide range of languages spoken, and at the University level English and Burmese are the main languages for study. YUDE has study centres in different parts of the country, and makes good use of radio and TV broadcasting facilities to deliver teaching. It has also just initiated its first online course in law. Up to now, however, the scope for studying on campus or to study international courses at postgraduate level have been limited. So it was particularly interesting to find out more about the experiences of those who I met who had taken courses from the University of London International Programmes, who represented a mix of Burmese and expatriate students.  

Moe Mya Darli (known as Darli) and Naw Lah Say Wah (known as Lah Lah) are both from Myanmar, but had taken their undergraduate LSE-supported courses (BSc Banking and Finance, and BSc Economics and Management respectively) while living in Singapore, and consequently had the benefit of support from institutions teaching University of London programmes (Darli at Singapore Institute of Management and Lah Lah at Stansfield College). Darli returned one year ago to Yangon, and is completing her course by self-study, while Lah Lah completed her course in 2006.

Lah Lah credits the course with benefitting her work in the management of a Church-related, non-profit centre offering an enrichment programme for primary and secondary school students, with the economics component also being useful in enabling the centre work to be more business oriented. More recently, she has been involved in audits of schools and has been working as an office manager in executive recruitment. She is hoping to return soon to Myanmar and set up a pre-school.

Darli has already returned and should complete her course next year. She has been sitting exams in the Yangon British Council office; she recalls, smilingly, that for her exam last year she was the only student in a big hall! Darli is excited by the opportunities for working back in Myanmar and is interested to use her international experience in a business context where the banking system needs to be strengthened. Use of English and understanding of business law is becoming ever more essential to support an increasing number of acquisitions and mergers.

Makiko Fujita is from Japan and Philippe Hamel from France. Both are currently studying the MSc in Public Health courses led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). They are both balancing study with family life, and are using this chance to develop their knowledge and qualifications to support a focus on public health as a future career direction. Makiko is back in Myanmar for the second time having worked in Laos and studied International Relations in Colombia. She is now in a consulting role with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) where she is doing some work for the HIV and Health Development Section. After a number of years in Afghanistan, Philippe, who enjoys study and has done a number of courses, has been in Myanmar for several years. For three years he was country director for a small French NGO focussed on health and is now coordinating the international NGO forum in the country.

"Philippe found course modules on ‘managing health services’ and ‘health policy’ particularly useful in his current work, noting that the learning is often transferable to other sectors."

It was particularly interesting to note how both were finding ways to relate their studies to the Myanmar context. In Makiko’s case she sees a direct link from what she is studying to the work she does with UNDP, and highlighted an upcoming socio-economic study for HIV households where she will be able to draw on learning from her course in the areas of statistics, epidemiology and social research. Philippe found course modules on ‘managing health services’ and ‘health policy’ particularly useful in his current work, noting that the learning is often transferable to other sectors. He also thought it was great to have the flexibility to defer a module and adjust the study plans depending on the workload and needs of family life.

Davie ChannonDavie Channon (pictured left) has been working with the British Council in Myanmar for the last 11 years. For the last four months he has been working in a programme at Yangon University where he is providing lecturer training and curriculum development for English language courses. He completed his MA in Citizenship in 2006, gaining a distinction and winning an anniversary award prize. He took the course to upskill and support his work in Myanmar and found the course so helpful to his work that he is now progressing on to a Doctorate in International Education with the University of London’s Institute of Education.

As we chatted, he recalled how the MA dissertation had given him the chance to study child-centred approaches to learning, which are widely implemented in Myanmar. He was able to secure UK Department for International Development (DFID) funding to carry out the dissertation research, and trained investigators and researchers to go to schools in state and monastic centres to interview children and ask them what they thought about child-centred approaches. The report was published and widely circulated with recommendations for how child-centred approaches could be better implemented.

There are always amusing stories told by distance learners. Davie recounted how he had submitted assignments from beaches in Thailand and mountainous areas in China, where he had to upload his work using a Chinese keyboard. The main problem was not being able to identify the word count command and having to do a manual count of the entire essay!

The most inspiring aspects of all the conversations I undertook were the enthusiasm all the students had for their learning and the commitment they had shown as distance learners, not just to study for a demanding qualification but to use this education as a life-changing opportunity both to enrich their careers and to contribute through their work to the wider benefit of the country.

"Communications and use of mobile technologies benefitting from 3G networks are likely to rapidly transform the delivery and potential reach of distance education."

I asked them to reflect on the potential for courses from the University of London International Programmes in Myanmar to become available to more students and particularly to local students, in a manner that complements the local provision from YUDE and MUDE. The response was unequivocally that the time was right for this, as students wanting international qualifications can remain in the country and continue to work on their projects. With many students attending international schools in Myanmar and the economy growing, there was the feeling that demand would increase, as this is a very affordable option compared to going to a different country to study. It was also suggested that staff training in relevant organisations in Myanmar could also develop local capacity for academically rigorous courses with clear, up-to-date materials and learning objectives.

Two new cell phone network licences have recently been awarded in Myanmar, so communications and use of mobile technologies benefitting from 3G networks are likely to rapidly transform the delivery and potential reach of distance education. There are exciting times ahead for Myanmar as the country opens up to new opportunities and new possibilities.