Can we fix our deficient higher education system?

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The author says we need people who have knowledge, expertise and competence in all walks of life and disciplines to make social and national progress and development

OBVIOUSLY, the entire educational system from basic to higher level is quite deficient. This deficient system is the result of the past five decades of international isolation, misunderstanding and mismanagement of the nature and role of education in terms of national development. As often said, the fundamental basis of development for a nation or country lies in health and education. Evidently this problem is highly complex and complicated. It is intricately related to all other sectors of society, especially, with the sociopolitical and socioeconomic sectors. Now, the present government is doing all it can to rectify and reform this broken system. However, it is a monstrous task because other spheres of national life such as the economy, governance, health, etc., also suffered from half a century of malpractice. This cannot be rectified within a brief period.

The historic Yangon University’s convocation hall. The Rangoon University, as it was known then, was founded in 1920 and became one of the most prestigious universities in Southeast Asia and one of the top universities in Asia, attracting students from across the region. Photo: AFPThe historic Yangon University’s convocation hall. The Rangoon University, as it was known then, was founded in 1920 and became one of the most prestigious universities in Southeast Asia and one of the top universities in Asia, attracting students from across the region. Photo: AFP

All aspects of education such as governance, funding, curriculum, medium of instruction, English language teaching, pedagogy, human and material resources, etc., were seriously damaged. With the breakdown of the very basis of society, corruption to the entire system occurred. Authoritarian interference and manipulation to all aspects of the system led to its failure to fulfil its fundamental functions. Standards and quality of education were lowered with no regard to its integrity and quality control. Overflow of graduates of both the basic as well as higher education institutions came to face unemployment and/or unemployability.

Now we are faced with dire consequences. The quality and integrity of the curriculum of both basic and higher education is in question. International isolation means one cannot keep up with developments in education at an international level. Deterioration occurred in quality of both the content and delivery of the curriculum, methods of ‘Teaching-Learning,’ components and system of academic assessment, and the whole field of pedagogy.

 

Proficiency of English language

At a time when the country desperately needs human intellectual, professional resource and capacity, we are unable to fulfil this need. In our context, we need proficiency of English language to both interact with the world, as well as to acquire knowledge and skills in all spheres of work. Moreover, the 21st century is characterized as the century of ‘knowledge and skills’. The world is dominated by those countries with the highest degree of knowledge and skills in science and technology.

Progressive nations are all modifying their curriculum towards emphasizing science and technology or so-called SME/SMET (science, mathematics, engineering and technology) disciplines. Also, academic disciplines are encouraged to channel towards commercialization. In this context, many social science disciplines (example, psychology) are also categorized under the life science group of disciplines. Additionally, education is now an industry like any other kind of industry. Where do we stand as a country in this international context?

Obviously, the standard and quality of higher education of a country and its people begins from basic education. The present situation in higher education in the universities is quite deficient to say the least. It is true that an attempt to rectify and reform is beginning to occur in this sector. But it seems that the situation may seem to be irredeemable due to the state and degree of its deterioration. The past action of proliferation of higher educational institutions throughout the various regions of the country may also be largely or partly be responsible for this deterioration. There was no academic resource or capacity to conduct and deliver higher education in many dozens of colleges or universities in the whole country. The same situation is most probably true today.

 Somewhere about the time when the number of highly qualified academic staff had dwindled, universities were instructed to initiate higher academic degrees, especially doctoral degrees. Photo - StaffSomewhere about the time when the number of highly qualified academic staff had dwindled, universities were instructed to initiate higher academic degrees, especially doctoral degrees. Photo – Staff

Conferring doctoral degrees

The worst damage was the implementation and escalation of sub-standard higher education in the entire sector. With international isolation, further postgraduate studies and training abroad for academics ceased. Hence, the number of highly qualified academic staff from developed countries began to dwindle with the passing of time. Before international isolation, academic disciplines were staffed by overseas trained academics with high credentials from internationally known educational institutions (for example, from the UK and US, etc.). However, there would be differences in terms of which disciplines had larger or smaller number of students and therefore respectively, the number of highly qualified academic staff. Somewhere about the time when such academic staff had dwindled, universities were instructed to initiate higher academic degrees, especially doctoral (PhD) degrees. All disciplines were made to deliver and confer doctoral degrees.

In the context of lack and paucity of suitably qualified academic staff and significantly lowered academic standards, disciplines were made to confer doctoral degrees. As a result, now the country is swamped with every ‘Tom,’ ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’ in all academic disciplines, bearing the title of “Dr So and So”. This also applied to proliferation of professorial positions in the universities and to some extent in the public where many people came to be known as professors. The public understood this escalation, and coined a phrase in Myanmar language to mock the above fact. Academic disciplines with very much less number of students and staff suffered most notably. But it is understood that even some natural science disciplines have produced over a thousand or so PhDs. Disciplines with small number of students and dwindling staff, with just locally trained academics themselves without doctoral degrees, were producing PhDs. At least in many disciplines, people bestowed with PhDs have absolutely no clue of their subject matter at the higher degree, or even at a graduate level. Such is the kind of catastrophe we face today. In short, this whole phenomenon is the most outright infringement of academic integrity and credibility. In global terms, all coursework disciplines in all fields of higher education and knowledge require accreditation. This ensures internationally acceptable quality and standards. Obviously, without such accreditation, there is no assurance of quality and standards.

Educational authorities, academics and the public may need to have some basic awareness or understanding of the differences that exist between North American (US and Canada) and British type doctorate degrees. The North American doctorate/PhD consists of both course work and a dissertation (which may be regarded as a relatively smaller piece of research work). The British type doctorate, on the other hand, is a pure research degree with no course work, which requires a major piece of research and submission of a thesis. This in some way may impinge on delivery of higher education in the universities about those staff with overseas qualifications. There is some misconception about the PhD qualification in terms of teaching competency, academic promotion, etc. Teaching in universities should be conducted by academics who themselves have successfully completed post graduate coursework in developed countries. As for conducting internationally credible research and publication, generally, this may be currently beyond the reach of present academic cohorts. Internationally, curriculum design, structure, organization and delivery, is quite a sophisticated task even at the undergraduate level. The days of giving lectures to students and conducting one final examination are obsolete. So is just adding some assignment or two to create an impression that it is in line with modern practice. 

 Although the government is doing all it can to rectify the broken education system, it is a monstrous task because other spheres of national life suffered from half a century of malpractice. Kaung Htet/ The Myanmar TimesAlthough the government is doing all it can to rectify the broken education system, it is a monstrous task because other spheres of national life suffered from half a century of malpractice. Kaung Htet/ The Myanmar Times

Ignorant experimentation with the educational system

Such a situation not only affects academic disciplines in the so-called arts and science subjects in the universities. Because of ignorant experimentation with the educational system and the degradation that occurred in universities, professional disciplines such as medicine, engineering, agriculture, etc., went on to establish their own specialised, separate and independent institutions. These disciplines wished to be spared from the flagrant deterioration occurring in the universities. However, as the educational process is a developmental process, professional disciplines as well as their postgraduate training and qualifications are also adversely affected. A system in the university where all the above disciplines came under the organization of Faculties, as was the case before, ceased to exist. Some of this occurred in the context of copying the system that was practiced in the then East European socialist states. The Faculty system or even special Institutes, Colleges or Schools as known in Western countries ceased to exist in Myanmar. Doubtless, there are specialised institutions for example, in the UK and US such as Imperial College of London or Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, one can find many other disciplines which are essentially related to the basic sciences (such as for example, even liberal arts or humanities or social/behavioural sciences) in these institutions.

Even some educated people may not realize that knowledge in the 21st century is of multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary nature. No complex human, social, physical or technical problem can be solved by a single discipline alone. A complex problem requires multiple related disciplines for its resolution. (For example, traffic congestion in our cities requires the expertise of roadwork, traffic engineering, land allocation and local authority, public transport and safety, etc.) We also suffer from false impressions such as that only pursuing a course in medical or engineering studies and becoming a doctor, or engineer, etc., is the only way to become a person of occupational and social value. Moreover, we are also victims of various kinds of myths, whether political, social or otherwise. Sloganeering also plays a large part in our sociopolitical life, whereas this in itself is not of immense value.

 

Promoting meritocracy rather than mediocrity

To make social and national progress and development, we need people who have knowledge, expertise and competence in all walks of life and disciplines. We need people who possess critical thinking. People who can use rational thinking, be critical, analytical, and view all things impersonally and objectively. Then, we need to implement whatever endeavour with the utmost competence. We need to promote meritocracy rather than mediocrity.

Thus, it begs the question as to what the thousands of PhDs in the country in the various disciplines can contribute to both education and socioeconomic development of our country. The reader can draw his/her own conclusions. In the developed world, academics, whether in basic, applied or professional area, are consulted and contribute to both the public (state/government) and private sectors, regarding all kinds of problems facing a nation. They have research standing and expertise in their respective disciplines. Again, how much can our people with doctoral degrees answer this calling?

So, what are a few of the things we could do to resolve this problem of the higher education system? Obviously, how the entire higher education system functions and its management should be reformed. So far as one can tell, the present system of bestowing conspicuously sub-standard doctoral degrees should cease, until such a time as well qualified staffing and other resources are in place. Time and attrition may resolve the present cohorts of unqualified staff with doctorates in the higher education sector. There would be no magic bullet to solve this instantly or even in the very short-term future. No doubt, it will become a matter of evolution until the above situation devolves where academics with higher qualification from overseas can replace academic staff with inadequate credentials. International educational and academic aid, in the form of scholars making input into the system, as well as large numbers of Myanmar scholars being sent to pursue further studies abroad would also greatly reinforce this effort. In short, it is a gigantic and highly complex problem to reform or reverse the present state of deterioration of the higher education system.

 

 Dr Nyi Win Hman, BA, Hons; MA (Mdy.); MSc, PhD (London), CPsychol, AFBPsS, is a former Associate Professor of Psychology at Yangon University. He is a British trained clinical psychologist and has worked in Malaysia, Singapore and Australia. Views expressed are personal.

Source: Myanmar Times

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