Companies Eager to Pour In Find Dearth of Skilled Workers; Rot at Once-Strong University Embodies Leaders' Challenge
YANGON—The University of Yangon was once one of Asia's best colleges. Today, abandoned buildings rot away on its overgrown campus, with some walkways deserted except for dogs.
Its state of affairs embodies a crucial challenge for leaders as Myanmar opens to the outside world. The military junta that dominated the country for five decades all but destroyed the university system after a series of student protests convinced its leaders that schools were breeding grounds for dissent.
But now that the lifting of most Western sanctions has paved the way for an expected wave of investment, companies are finding a nation largely bereft of skilled workers. Doctors and lawyers often lack up-to-date training, and other professions are desperately short of qualified staff with even basic critical-thinking skills, employers say.
The lack of expertise in the country was sometimes used by military leaders as a justification for handing big business contracts to associates of the regime. A small number of Myanmar students went overseas to study. Only over the past year, since the military regime stepped down, has the government actively encouraged those educated abroad to return and share expertise.
"There's a huge, huge shortage" of trained workers, "and going forward it will be even more so," said Suki Singh, managing director of Myanmar Hotels International, which runs several of Yangon's most prominent hotels and has been looking to fill human-resources and engineering positions for months. Parami Energy, an oil and gas firm, has been trying since July to fill human-resources jobs and other posts, but keeps finding applicants can't speak English.
"Most of them, I'm sorry to say, are unqualified," says Tin Cho, an adviser to the company. Some computer-science students don't even know how to turn computers on, he said.
Twenty-year-old Zin Nyein Htwe wants to be an architect "to make more beautiful buildings." But she says the college she attends—the University of West Yangon, among rice paddies on the outskirts of Myanmar's biggest city—doesn't normally let students into its library and only sometimes allows access to computers. There often isn't enough water to flush the toilets. She complains that some instructors can't explain what they're teaching and rarely fail anyone. "I want a better education," she says.
The weak education system also means the government lacks enough trained technocrats to fully implement reforms. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said recently that Myanmar's "ruined" education system had made it harder to recruit talented young politicians.
In the decades after Myanmar's military regime took over in the 1960s, it closed the University of Yangon and other campuses repeatedly to keep student protesters at bay, at one point keeping schools closed for nearly 3½ years in the late 1990s. To further prevent students from congregating in urban areas, the regime scattered much of the University of Yangon to remote sites, while new schools were opened far from city centers. Funding dried up, with Myanmar spending more on defense than education and health care combined—the only country in developing Asia to do so, according to the Asian Development Bank. Instructors were told to stick to rote lesson plans vetted by military leaders, teachers say. Some students were left with 40-year-old textbooks.
When Kyi May Kaung, now a Washington-based writer, was a student at the University of Yangon, then known as Rangoon University, in the early 1960s, students hung out at poetry readings and teachers held degrees from places like Harvard and M.I.T. But by the time she became an economics lecturer at the school, professors were ordered to stop teaching political science and instead lectured on the "socialist experience" in the Soviet Union. Teachers had to borrow light bulbs to ensure there was enough light during storms.
Foreigners still aren't allowed to enter the sprawling premises of the University of Yangon—which now offers classes mainly just for graduate programs—without special permission. A recent visit by a Myanmar national found a largely deserted campus covered in lush overgrowth.
Officials at Myanmar's Ministry of Education didn't provide responses to questions. President Thein Sein has vowed to improve education, which he says is necessary to bolster Myanmar's human resources.
"The government is quite aware" of the problems and will make improvements, said Nay Zin Latt, a presidential adviser. The government "has a strong idea to support re-establishing the University of Yangon," he added, but he was "not in the position" to disclose details, he said.
Efforts to obtain comment from the University of West Yangon, Ms. Zin Nyein Htwe's school, were unsuccessful. A lecturer there said the school struggled to keep facilities open due to funding shortages, though students could ask permission to visit the library. Very few students are interested in the library, though, he said. A degree "is easy to get," he said, since teachers coach students on how to pass exams.
Fixing schools will require huge investments and a willingness to let students gather more openly and potentially debate sensitive political issues, educators say.
The government has more than doubled its education budget and increased teacher salaries, and universities have been ordered to trim enrollment to boost standards, teachers say. Officials have held discussions with Johns Hopkins University—which had a Southeast Asian studies center at the University of Yangon in the 1950s—about working together to improve university programs in the country. The government has also launched a "comprehensive review" of the education system, though the process isn't expected to be finished until 2014.
A chemistry lecturer interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said she is now more optimistic about prospects for reform than any time in years.
But many of the old problems remain. She said that while each department at her school has a computer, many of them don't work, and many teachers don't have permission to use the Internet, which must be obtained from administrators. "There is still a military-dictatorship style of rule in some departments," she said.
Another pressing question is whether schools should have independence to develop their own curriculums, which could frighten more conservative elements in the government.
Universities "one day will get full independence as the rest of the world is practicing," Mr. Nay Zin Latt said. But another official said Myanmar "needs more comprehensive review" before relaxing its grip on schools. Schools don't have the financial means to run themselves, so must rely on central government oversight anyway, the official said.
Ronald Findlay, a Columbia University economics professor who studied and taught at Rangoon University in the 1950s and 1960s, said he was dismayed when he went back to visit the school recently and saw his former two-story residence. "It was beautiful housing, and we thought surely somebody must be living there," he said. "But it was a jungle. There was nobody living there—it was abandoned. It made you cry, it was awful."
Celine Fernandez, Minh Zaw and Swe Min contributed to this article
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