August 19, 2016

Maximizing benefit from international cooperation in higher education sector

In this Knowledge Age, it is widely recognized that the quality of education of a country has a huge impact on the competiveness of its labour force as well as on the ability of workers to equip themselves with new skills being demanded by rapid changes in the national and world economy.  In turn, the quality of education is determined by the quality of teachers. The quality of teachers may be ensured through three ways. The first is by recruiting teachers from among the best graduates.  The second is to provide professional development programmes throughout their careers that will enhance the quality of teachers. The third is to obtain the services of the academically brilliant persons serving in other professions to do part-time teaching at universities.  In many countries with developing economies, the first strategy of trying to get the best from among university graduates to serve as university teachers is getting more difficult due to the emergence of professions that are more attractive in terms of prestige as well salary.  Therefore, these days, universities may not get the brightest of their graduates back to serve as teachers. They have to be contented with recruiting graduates who may not all be academically, or professionally well-prepared, to serve as university teachers.  The third strategy is also difficult to utilize as there are not many persons in other professions who are either willing, or have the time, to dedicate part of their time to do part-time teaching at universities. Consequently, the only option available is for universities to provide professional development programmes to constantly enhance the quality of faculty so that they can keep up with the ever-changing academic and skill demands of new batches of students.
As a person who has served as a head of a university department and the head of a university, I see at least five areas in which all faculty will benefit by receiving assistance for professional development. The first is English language skills as English is the medium of instruction at Myanmar universities, the language of academic dialogue and the language to gain access to most references, journals, research papers and other relevant publications.  Due to various reasons, the majority of university graduates are weak in English and a large percentage of faculty will admit that they need to improve their English language skills not only to enhance their teaching but also to carry out research.  The second need is up-to-date research methodology as Myanmar academics not only need it for their own research but also to impart it to their students, be they undergraduates or post-graduates. The need for better expertise in research methodology stems from various reasons including the majority not having had adequate training in it while they were university students. Students as well as teachers will feel more comfortable with research, will be better able to think of new areas for research, and will be better equipped to do more challenging research if they can have access to up-to-date research methodology. The fourth area is related to developing better knowledge of the content of their specialization as due to the fast development of new knowledge and skills and their easy access, they need to keep up with new findings in their field of specialization.  In addition, faculty must not forget that in this Age of ICT, flourishing private education institutions and online learning, they can be easily by-passed by bright students who can easily gain access to new knowledge through other channels.  This means that if teachers do not prove themselves to be efficient teachers, they will become irrelevant to their students and they together with the institution they work for lose the esteem of their students.  Senior faculty will also need to know about syllabus design, as their expertise is constantly sought in updating the syllabuses of existing programmes and initiating new programmes.

“In Myanmar, just as in many countries, there are no
pre-service teacher training programmes for university teachers.”

The fifth area is methodology and classroom management. In the distant past, it has been generally accepted that university teachers need no initial training in methodology but nowadays with the huge increase in the number of students, variations in student learning styles, greater insight into the psychology of students and the use of ICT, mastery of effective teaching methods, approaches and styles and classroom management have also become crucial for successful teaching.
In Myanmar, just as in many countries, there are no pre-service teacher training programmes for university teachers.  Newly appointed university faculty, who need to have at least a master’s degree, are provided a brief orientation programme which may, in some departments, include auditing lectures of senior faculty.  To remedy any shortcomings on the part of faculty, national level plans for the development of Myanmar higher education sector have consistently included programmes for higher education institutions to hold a variety of activities for the professional development of faculty.  In accordance with this initiative, universities have held discussions, presentations, forums, seminars, conferences, workshops, and short-term training programmes on a variety of areas and topics for the professional development of faculty, and all faculty have been assigned to do research. However, in practice, the quality and sustainability of professional development programmes held at various universities and colleges in the past varied from institution to institution and department to department and were very much dependent on the interest shown by heads of departments and the participants, and the attention given by rectors. To augment the professional development programmes at home institutions, faculty have also been sent abroad to both Western and Asian countries to participate in study tours and short-term and long-term programmes including master and doctoral degree courses. Some of these courses are quite innovative and include on-line, distance, sandwich and a combination of online and in-house programmes.  Moreover, within the past four years, collaborations between Myanmar universities, especially the better-known ones, and international universities and education organizations have noticeably increased.  One of the areas of cooperation is raising the quality of teachers as part of the effort to promote excellence in Myanmar universities. Collaborative activities have been held both in Myanmar institutions as well as at host universities abroad. These include English language programmes for faculty, seminars, summer schools, conferences, workshops,  training in specific areas, long and short-term courses conducted by visiting professors for both students and teachers, and assistance with opening of new  programmes, curriculum development, training of newly recruited faculty, use of ICT in teaching and learning, research methodology, and specific instructional methods.
All the faculty professional development programmes have been beneficial in one way or another, in promoting excellence in teaching and in giving Myanmar faculty a taste in innovative teaching and how classes and research are conducted abroad.  There is no doubt that Myanmar higher education sector and the Myanmar universities concerned are immensely grateful to international world-class universities and educational organizations for providing scholarships and opportunities to study the way  courses are conducted abroad, to update their knowledge on their area of specialization, to pick up innovative teaching methodologies that promote independent learning and 21st century skills, to observe the use of technology in education, and to give them exposure to the use of cutting-edge technology in research.  In return, some of the Myanmar faculty have been able to share with their colleagues knowledge about the Myanmar education sector, Myanmar society, culture, history, and Buddhism, and findings of researches carried out in the fields of arts and sciences including those on Myanmar’s wealth of flora and fauna, etc.
On their return from abroad, it is compulsory for faculty to hold open seminars lasting a few hours regarding their study abroad which are usually attended by the rector, heads of departments and interested faculty.  Some faculty, if they have the opportunity, try to incorporate in their teaching what they have learnt from their colleagues abroad. Some keep in touch with the faculty they have made friends with while abroad and continue to exchange information and ideas related to their fields of study or to conduct joint researches. Some manage to get the faculty they have met abroad to come over to their universities and share their knowledge. Some share the books and materials they have brought from overseas with their colleagues and students. A few return rejoining their institutions empty-handed and empty-headed.  It is unfortunate that in many cases, the activities held within the country with international collaboration or those activities held abroad at foreign institutions to which Myanmar faculty were invited have little long-term impact, either on the persons concerned or the institutions and departments to which they belong to.  There are a number of reasons for this “academic loss in transit”. Some of them will be discussed. The first is the need for a more systematic selection process for sending faculty abroad than the one in place to ensure that the right person is chosen for the right programme. There has been cases when both very junior faculty and professor level faculty have been selected to attend the same programme abroad.  There have also been instances when faculty who are on the verge of retirement, as reward for their services, are sent to some very useful courses to which faculty who have more years left to work to disseminate and incorporate new know knowledge in the curriculum should have been sent.  There are also programmes abroad to which faculty are sent that have no relationship to their expertise or their specialization because it had been a form of reward or because of the inability to identify the appropriate person.  There are also instances when if more capable faculty had been sent, the benefits derived would have been far greater both to the programme as well as for the institution concerned. There are also instances when if there had been better preparations in cooperation with host organizations regarding the aim and the needs of the end user at the planning stage as well by the person assigned to make the trip, better results would have been gained. There has also been instances when a programme would have been more beneficial, if the person who had been assigned was clearly briefed about the reason for being sent and what he/she was expected to achieve and to do on his/her return. More importantly, there have been several instances when little use is made of the knowledge and skilled gained by the person sent abroad for training on his/her return home.  Similarly important is the fact that little follow-up is made of how the knowledge and skills gained abroad are being made use of by the departments and institutions concerned.  This is a matter of importance, as many persons return to their institutions after some useful training but reverts to old practices as they have not been asked to, or not given the opportunity to make use of the expertise they have gained abroad.
Three suggestions are offered that may be useful in ensuring that the outcomes of the cooperation between Myanmar and international universities are maximized by the institutions and specializations concerned. The first is the need to carry out thorough review of the system and who should be the decision maker in the selection process and never to make use of training programmes to reward persons whose expertise is unrelated to the programmes. The second is to have a master plan for the whole sector and plans for each institution defining long-term and short-term needs, so that the institutions concerned will be clear about their needs and what their roadmap is and collaborating international institutions and organizations can be informed about the needs. The third is to ensure that whatever bit of useful knowledge or skill gained is shared and utilized and to have a follow-up system in place to ensure sustainability which is the key word in professional development of faculty. (In this connection it should not be out of place to remind of the need to carry over by succeeding generations whatever relevant good practices have been adopted in the past, and not to throw it out of the window in the name of change or reform, so that the same things will not have to be started afresh and valuable time, money and effort wasted.)
At a time when education expenditures are being increased by the State, when people are looking at the education sector with a critical eye, when the country is looking to education to play a bigger role in accelerating development, and contributing organizations and institutions are very much interested in how their assistance is being utilized, authorities concerned should note that that every bit of new knowledge, skill and insight gained is important, and any activity, especially those that have a strong impact on the  development of higher education such as nurturing teacher excellence, is important and time should not be wasted in making use of it.  In the matter of making use of the knowledge and skills gained from institutions overseas to promote the quality of our faculty, just as the number of activities is important, so also is the quality, usefulness and the long-term impact the activities will have on the education sector.


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