Hundreds of university students protested on Tuesday against a proposed law that civic groups say allows centralized control of universities and curtails efforts to bring about autonomy of the country’s institutions of higher learning, according to student leaders.
The protests at Dagon University in the northeast of Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon and Dawei University in Thaninthary region in the country’s south were the latest by universities against the National Education Bill passed by parliament in July.
At the protest in Dagon University, student leaders gave speeches about the bill and demanded a meeting with the government, parliament, and the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), a group of civil societies pushing for reforms in educational institutions.
Under the bill, the government would establish a National Education Commission (NEC) that would “control the entire country’s education sector, make policies for it, and determine its budget,” Zayar Lwin, chairman of the student union at the Yangon Institute of Economics, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“If each university had autonomy, we wouldn’t need the National Education Commission and the Higher Education Coordination Committee, which would be established by the commission,” he said.
The Yangon Institute of Economics is another key university in Myanmar’s commercial capital.
“We’re protesting today to point out that we won’t have any autonomy at universities if we have these two organizations,” he said.
President Thein Sein last month sent the bill back to parliament, saying 25 points in the proposed legislation needed further discussion, according to The Irrawaddy online journal.
Myanmar’s constitution permits the president to send bills back to the legislature within 14 days of their passage, but if lawmakers approve them once again, they automatically become law in seven days.
The student protestors in general want decentralized higher education that gives more authority to schools themselves to run their own affairs and relaxes rules on curriculum.
Under the proposed changes, the Department of Higher Education which supervises universities in Myanmar would be abolished, according to Yin Yin Nwe, head of President Thein Sein’s Education Reform Advisory Group.
“The curriculum will be controlled [by the Ministry of Education] at the beginning,” she told RFA in July, although other reports pointed out that the universities would operate independently under their own boards and have a uniform curriculum during a five-year transition period.
Myanmar’s more than 150 colleges and universities are mostly located in the regions of Yangon and Mandalay and currently are organized according to fields of study which fall under the direction of relevant ministries.
The NNER, comprised of educational, political, and religious organizations, rejected the New Education Bill last month because it allows the government to retain its control over universities even though it is supposed to overhaul Myanmar’s education system, The Irrawaddy online journal reported.
The organization, which has held nationwide talks over the past two years on education reform, had criticized the bill for excluding many of its key recommendations.
“Universities and colleges must be autonomous and, by necessity, they may cooperate on democratic principles. For academic quality to be assured, assessments must be done by a team of independent specialists,” the NNER said.
It called the move to set up the NEC and the Higher Education Coordination Committee unnecessary, saying they would maintain the government’s centralized control of education.
Among the NNER’s complaints about the bill are that it ignores calls for local languages to be used in instruction in ethnic states, is discriminatory in articles dealing with special-needs children, and provides a definition of higher education that harkens back to the country’s authoritarian regime, The Irrawaddy said.
The NNER recommended that the Ministry of Education be a “facilitator” and leave school management to respective school boards, which include principals, teachers, parents, and respectable citizens.
Students at universities in Sagaing, Mandalay, and Monywa had protested against the bill last week.
Students at Yatanarpon University in Mandalay had said that the bill restricted their rights, reinforced a centralized system, ignored ethnic literacy, and relied on an outdated point-based grading system, according to the Myanmar Eleven media group.
The students also criticized the bill for lacking transparency as it moved through parliament, because information about it in state-run newspapers did not match with what was passed by the lower house, the group said in a report in July.
Nyan Htein Lin, the head of Yatanarpon University’s student union organizing committee, also criticized the bill’s provisions for strengthening the government’s control of higher education, ignoring ethnic literacy, and continuing the current grading system.
He also pointed out that only government officials, ministers, and professors participated in drafting the bill, while other experts and student representatives were left out.
The student union called for student representatives, teachers, and nongovernment experts to be included in the process.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei of RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.