In a country whose primary economic activity is agriculture, does higher education for the majority of the population really matter? Once there are enough doctors to keep farm workers strong enough to produce crops, enough vets to keep cattle healthy and enough teachers to get the brightest students to university, where they can qualify as doctors, vets and teachers, what more does Myanmar need?
A few years ago, there was significant debate in the UK about the purpose of university education. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the organisation responsible for the quality of UK higher education internationally, offered a list of ‘behaviours, attributes and skills’ students should acquire from higher education, regardless of their discipline. The QAA believes that students should be able to:
• Recognise and achieve goals and ambitions, especially in response to challenge
• Demonstrate perseverance, resilience and determination to achieve goals, especially within challenging situations
• Recognise that they are in control of their own destiny and use this understanding effectively
• Innovate and offer creative solutions to challenging and complex problems
These are the attributes needed for the generation of entrepreneurs, citizens, problem-solvers and nation-builders that will shape Myanmar’s future, ensure a diverse economy and cement an effective democracy. The ability to persevere and innovate in challenging situations is arguably more important in Myanmar than in the UK. And these abilities are every bit as important as technical skills, which is why it is crucial that organisations like Prospect Burma continue to support students to study arts and humanities as well as science subjects. If Myanmar is to take its place in a 21st-century world, it needs people to interpret and learn from its past, bring hope, joy and determination to its present, and look to the future with purpose and ambition.
“What if these graduates could bring together their technical skills, resilience and creativity, enhanced by a deep understanding of all areas of Burmese society as well as the wider world? What could these people achieve – and what could stop them?”
Knowing that the current generation of students will go on to lead the country in a crucial time in its history, it is also vital that the opportunity of a university education is not limited to an elite. As well as earning more, graduates throughout the world tend to experience better health and wellbeing, to influence policy and practice in all spheres and generally make decisions that affect their less-educated peers. These privileges are then passed down from generation to generation.
What could this cycle of inherited privilege mean for Myanmar? There are definite advantages to building an educated middle-class with greater economic and political power, but there is also a serious risk of widening inequalities if minority groups are not able to take up the same opportunities. In Myanmar, these groups certainly include the Rohingya people, as well as women, people from rural areas and disabled people, all of whom are under-represented in all aspects of decision-making in Myanmar, and who are less likely to complete a secondary education, making university unattainable.
What if it were possible to ‘design in’ equality, making sure that a diverse cadre of graduates with a wide range of skills were available to take the country forward? What if these graduates could bring together their technical skills, resilience and creativity, enhanced by a deep understanding of all areas of Burmese society as well as the wider world? What could these people achieve – and what could stop them? Only time will tell.