In this blogpost, Edgard Rodriguez discusses the potential of online higher education to empower disadvantaged populations, with a focus on Myanmar’s displaced youth.
The number of forcibly displaced people worldwide has exceeded 100 million, coming from countries like Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. Only 5% of these refugees have access to higher education, exacerbating their vulnerability.
By December 2022, forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals stood at more than one million in neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, India, and Thailand, with almost 2 million internally displaced within Myanmar by July 2023.
Strategic investments in higher education are needed to provide Myanmar’s displaced youth with the opportunities they deserve. Innovations in online education provide a viable and immediate solution to empower them. Online education offers an opportunity to bypass geographical constraints and gives immediate access to quality learning materials, potentially reaching thousands of students, including communities like the Rohingya refugees, who face additional hurdles due to their lack of identity documents and citizenship.
The success of online education hinges on factors beyond technological implementation. Accreditation, international recognition, faculty quality, academic freedom, and collaboration with institutions beyond Myanmar’s borders are all critical elements.
Myanmar’s Parami University, which launched a full online US-accredited program in 2022, provides a good example of how this approach can work. Graduating students at the university will receive an associate degree in general education after two years of study or a bachelor’s degree after four. They can major in philosophy, politics and economics, or statistics and data science. The inaugural class of 2026 will comprise 57 students from all over the country, including Rohingya students.
While the fear of retaliation by authoritarian regimes remains a significant hurdle to open discourse, the online environment offers a measure of protection for individuals to engage in meaningful discussions without immediate repercussions, fostering a dynamic intellectual community.
Is higher education a humanitarian or a development issue? This question, often asked by policy makers reflects the intricate relationship between personal growth and societal progress. While education is widely acknowledged as a human right, it also carries latent development potential. Higher education nurtures future leaders and underpins governance reforms that can significantly enhance a country’s overall well-being. The Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar (K4DM), an initiative of Canada’s International Development Research Centre and Global Affairs Canada, recognizes that investing in higher education catalyzes localized knowledge ecosystems, thus contributing to informed policymaking and sustainable development.
However, the road to establishing effective alternative higher education is complex. It necessitates meticulous consideration of institutional dynamics, curriculum relevance, technology integration, and accreditation pathways.
Myanmar’s complicated education history
Myanmar’s past relationship with educational institutions offers some insight. During pre-coup Myanmar, progress in the higher education sector was slow due to administrative and financial dependence on the central government. For most of 1988 to 2000, universities in Yangon, the centre of student protests after the 1988 revolution, were closed. The military regime dismantled university independence, centralizing budgets, staff movements and even curricula.
In 2015, the newly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government endorsed the National Education Strategic Plan 2016-21, which acknowledged the important role higher education plays to foster a globally competitive society. In September 2020, the Ministry of Education granted autonomy to 16 universities out of 174. This was an important step towards improving standards among higher education institutions.
But the February 2021 military coup closed higher education institutions. Many university staff and students participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement in protest and were suspended or arrested. Few came back after government universities reopened in 2022. Many did not return and some have fled the country in fear for their lives.
Since then, new online universities such as Spring University Myanmar (SUM) and Parami University have stepped forward. They offer access to education for students but their future remains precarious. Should the military regime continue to rule, it is unclear how these alternative, private educational platforms would fare.
Empowering Myanmar’s youth: The path forward
International support is needed for innovative educators to continue supporting Myanmar students. The situation in Ukraine provides an example of how timely interventions by countries such as the UK, Hungary, and Finland, minimized the educational disruption for Ukrainian youths. Accredited courses offered to the students, demonstrated the potential an alternative higher education can provide to nurture intellectual growth and foster resilience among young individuals who face adversity.
For Myanmar, international support for addressing higher education gaps remains disproportionate to the scale of the crisis. The potential impact of higher education investment is often overlooked due to its long-term horizon and lack of immediate tangible outcomes. Donors tend to gravitate towards immediate needs like shelter and food, inadvertently sidelining the transformative potential of higher education. Also, Myanmar’s tumultuous history, marked by political interference and repression within the higher education sector, has discouraged donors from investment.
Empowering Myanmar’s displaced youth through alternative models of higher education represents a tangible pathway towards building a resilient and informed society. The transformative potential of education, particularly in a digital age, cannot be underestimated. To capitalize on this potential, donors must recognize the value of higher education in driving long-term societal change.
By investing in online education platforms, promoting academic freedom, and fostering collaboration, the international community can contribute to Myanmar’s journey towards democracy and empowerment. The digital realm can serve as a platform for unity, collaboration, and innovation, nurturing a generation of informed leaders who can guide Myanmar towards a brighter future.
About the Author:
Edgard Rodriguez leads the Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar Initiative at the International Development Research Centre, Asia Regional Office, Delhi, India.