Burmese lawmakers in the Lower House last week took over the drafting of a higher education bill while also chiding the Ministry of Education for not allowing universities freedom to govern their own affairs.
After critical statements by a string of lawmakers, Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann announced he would bypass the Ministry of Education and have a new education bill drafted by Lower House bodies and interested lawmakers.
The critical statements by lawmakers and Shwe Mann’s decision was a major blow to the Ministry of Education’s attempt to retain some control over universities, which in past decades were seen as a threat to stability, largely because of a fear of student groups.
Shwe Mann’s decision came after Lower House lawmakers voiced objections to the ministry’s 2012 Higher Education Bill after representatives, including National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, called for universities to be granted administrative independence to handle their own affairs.
The bill, which was in the final stages of being approved, will now be replaced by the lawmakers' draft, which will then be voted on, according to an article in the Myanmar Times on Monday.
Shwe Mann said if the bill were drafted by the Ministry of Education it would “take ages.”
The new bill will be drafted by the Lower House Bill Committee, the Legal Affairs and Special Issues Assessment Commission, the education ministry, and MPs who are interested in this issue and then submitted to the speaker, Shwe Mann said.
He said the new procedure would be an opportunity to draw on the expertise of people outside the ministry.
“There are people who worked as ministers for education and as rectors. Some are former senior officials of the Department of Education. In fact, there are MPs who assumed quite substantial duties in the education sector,” he said.
He made the announcement after Minister for Education Dr. Mya Aye on July 31 responded to criticism from three representatives: Aung San Suu Kyi of Kawhmu, Aung Ko of Kanpetlet and Tin Nwe Oo of North Dagon.
The bill was due to be approved, but after discussing amendments, and hearing the objections of the MPs and the minister’s response, the representative for Thingangyun, MP Thein Nyunt, submitted an impromptu motion to suspend passage of the bill under section 158(e) of the Lower House rules, said the article.
“The 2012 higher education bill is important for the future of the country and the people. The minister’s response today is not enough,” Thein Nyunt said.
The move was seen by observers as a striking example of the new Parliament's initiative to play a more significant role and to take legislative matters into its own hands when called for, rather than rely on government or ministry-drafted legislation.
Suspending the bill would “enable the hluttaw to discuss a higher education bill that is more comprehensive, brings more benefit to the country and represents the voice of the students,” Thein Nyunt said.
MPs who spoke out against the bill blamed government control of university management for the “degeneration” of education standards in Burma over the past five decades. Burmese universities are widely regarded as mere shadows of their once prominent position in Southeast Asia.
In her remarks against the bill, the newspaper said MP Tin Nwe Oo said universities should be “autonomous bodies … free of the government’s control.”
“If higher education, which is crucial to build the capacity of the younger generation, remains under the shadow of the old system of government, it may pose a danger to political and economic stability. Therefore the higher education bill presented today should be thrown out by the hluttaw and a law that enables universities to become self-administered should be enacted,” the National Democratic Force representative was quoted as saying.
The new bill should allow universities to freely form a council to administer the university, to form a teaching faculty who would draw up their own syllabus and curriculum, to freely contact and seek support from government bodies, to freely raise funds and spend them as they see fit, to hire foreign academics and teachers, to accept foreign students and to include dormitories at the university. The university council should also be allowed to draw up its own by-laws and procedures, she said.
Union Solidarity and Development Party MP Aung Ko called the Ministry of Education bill “merely a revised version of the 1973 socialist-era law.”
Suu Kyi said she had planned to submit more than 40 amendments to the ministry-drafted bill.
“However, this is not enough,” she said. “I believe we should review the whole bill as the MPs who discussed it before me also said. Therefore, I request the speaker and all MPs to bring about a bill that is more suitable for this country, this period and this world,” she said.
In response, the education minister explained the ministry’s accomplishments, as well as plans to upgrade the country’s higher education institutions to Asean standards and link up and partner with foreign universities. He also outlined the ministry’s plan to renovate the laboratory at Yangon University and its long-term goal to turn out “international-standard” scholars.
“According to our country’s situation, there are 165 universities and 64 degree colleges under 12 ministries. They’re not far off being autonomous as Daw Tin Nwe Oo recommended,” Dr. Mya Aye said.
Suu Kyi thanked the minister for his clarification but said the MPs were not concerned about partnerships between Burmese universities and foreign institutions.
“What we mean is the [need for] free authority of the universities. My understanding is that we are mainly saying that the influence of the Ministry of Education will have to be scaled down to let each university have its own freedom,” she said.
“The two MPs said that earlier," she said. "I share their views. I submit with due respect that however the linkage with foreign universities is done, free universities cannot appear if the ministry exerts considerable influence on them.”
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