In most higher education discourse today it is not unusual to hear the claim that the world’s center of gravity is shifting toward the East. Indeed, no region has undergone as profound a transformation as Asia during the past half-century, from the 1970s to the present. Unprecedented economic growth has driven major social and demographic change and institutional reform and, in most countries, has brought about greater stability. The advent of a large middle class, coupled with openness and market reforms driven by economic imperatives, has contributed to greater interconnectedness among Asian states and between them and the rest of the world.
When we first traveled to Myanmar two years ago, there was little to no Wi-Fi, few mobile phones (SIM cards could only be obtained by lottery and cost around $1,500 each, making it unaffordable for most), no ATM machines or credit card usage, and frequent electricity outages. Fast forward just two years: consistent access to Wi-Fi, excellent 3G, and little need to bring stacks of cash anymore (credit cards are now accepted at most hotels). The arrival of telecom providers TeleNor and Oredoo has reduced the price of SIM cards to $1.50 resulting in a reported 30%+ market penetration of cell phones. Electricity outages are still common, and traffic in Yangon is worse than ever, but major change is palpable everywhere, and ATMs and 3G are just the more visible manifestations of this extraordinary transition.
Recently moving from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, I’ve found that the conversation regarding a “rising Southeast Asia” is just as lively and engaging in Thailand as it was in Malaysia. One of the key drivers of this buzz is the much-anticipated launch of the ASEAN Economic Community at the end of this year (more on that below). In the following post I’ll dig a little deeper into some of the unique features of the region, which I hope those unfamiliar with Southeast Asia will find useful, interesting, and perhaps a prompt for if or how to be invested in this unique area of the world.
Htoo Htoo Wah is the head of the English Department at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, a leading Christian higher education institution in Myanmar. After spending four intense weeks as a visiting scholar at Northern Arizona University, he had a moment to reflect on his experience of U.S. higher education.
"The way to create a really great city is to establish a university. Then wait several hundred years."
It was Mark Twain, I think, who had this important insight. Neither cities nor universities get built overnight. But having returned from visiting universities in three very major and rapidly growing cities, I had a chance to reflect on what it is taking to build world class institutions of higher education in an age of globalization.
It was the Mickey and Minnie Mouse red and pink rolling suitcases that first caught my eye as what seemed like the entire population of Beijing headed to baggage claim. Then I saw the two children that were accompanying the bags and their parents. As we waited for the trains to the exit hall, I had a chance to notice a bit more about what the parents were rolling.
Advances in technology and global connectivity have raised exciting possibilities and serious challenges for higher education. In January the Open University of Hong Kong invited educators from around the globe to examine these issues at the inaugural International Conference on Open and Flexible Education. I was fortunate to attend the conference as part of IIE's traveling fellowship, and I was eager to learn about the ways in which technology will impact the future of education and international exchange programs.
It was my privilege to be one of the keynote speakers at the China Annual Conference for International Education in Beijing. The other was a former foreign minister. As it turned out, we both never had the opportunity to study abroad. Although our jobs later gave us the chance to travel— in Minister Li's case to 183 countries—we both spoke about the opportunity we wished we had.
In September, IIE announced that it is launching a new course designed to train Ministry officials and university representatives in Myanmar on how to create and manage an effective international education office. The new course, “Connecting to the World: International Relations for Higher Education Institutions,” will be an "essential step to enable universities in Myanmar to connect with institutions in the United States and other countries so that they can build institutional capacity and prepare their students to meet current workforce needs and support rapid economic development." This project is part of a broader IIE Myanmar higher education initiative which seeks to help the country rebuild its higher education capacity.