YANGON, MYANMAR -- Moe Sat, a 23-year-old physics major at Myingyan Degree College near Mandalay, said that there were so many students in class that no one could hear the teachers.
"Mostly students just stay for the roll call and then leave," he said, adding that bribing professors for good grades and cheating on exams are common practices.
Computers are so prized that students are often not allowed to use them, while science labs often lack equipment, Mr. Moe Sat said.
Because there are no dormitories -- a legacy left over from when the former military government tried to stop student protests and activism -- many students who study far from home stay in hostels, where safety and access to medical treatment are a concern.
But the worst thing is that Mr. Moe Sat and his peers feel that their degrees are worthless. "Most of the students, after graduation, they cannot get a job," he said.
On campuses across Myanmar, students describe similar issues. At medical colleges, sometimes 50 or more students share one cadaver for dissection. Ye Kyaw, 18, who attends a computer science institute, said that students had to write programming code on paper.
But Suu Suu Linn, an undergraduate at the Yangon Institute of Economics, said that what students yearn for the most is academic freedom. "The government has cut out things they don't want us to know," she said. "It is like they tried to block our brains."
"In history classes, they always say the military has saved us from danger, that the military government saved the country," she added, referring to the junta. "In reality, it was not like that."
The higher education system in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was gutted during 50 years of military rule, which ended in 2011.
When student protests in 1988 spread across the country, the result was thousands of deaths and arrests at the hands of the military regime. The junta banished undergraduates from urban campuses to prevent more demonstrations.
Scholars lost touch with the outside world and were fired if they conducted research unacceptable to the state. The government nationalized universities, rendering administrations beholden to state ministries. Many campuses were allowed to decay, becoming overgrown with weeds.
The higher education system is "like a beautiful forest after it has been napalmed," Charles M. Wiener, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who has conducted training courses at Myanmar medical schools, said by telephone. "The generals were incredibly effective in wiping out higher education in an incredible fashion."
The question now is what will happen amid rapid changes in the country, which is transforming from a dictatorship to a budding democracy. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent decades under house arrest, has become an elected member of Parliament. Just last month, private newspapers were allowed to publish for the first time in decades.
Professors and students say there is new hope as the country begins the daunting task of overhauling higher education. "We always have lived in a dark room, but now we see a little hole of light," said Ye Thu Rein, an undergraduate at Myanmar Maritime University. "We are walking towards that light and hoping."
But there is also skepticism as to whether the new civilian government, still controlled by former generals, is willing to give up control.
Thein Lwin, an education spokesman for the National League for Democracy, the main opposition party in Myanmar, is working with nongovernmental organizations and academics on a proposal for a new national education policy. He said the government had not been receptive so far.
"I doubt whether they want real change or not," Dr. Thein Lwin said.
Education spending shot up from $340 million, when President Thein Sein was inaugurated in 2011, to $1 billion in 2013-14, currently making up slightly more than 5 percent of the national budget.
"We do know that the Education Ministry is one of the least reformed of all the ministries," said Carola Weil, the dean of the School of Professional and Extended Studies at American University in Washington who recently visited Myanmar to explore partnerships with local universities.
With support from the World Bank and other partners, the Education Ministry conducted a study of the teaching system that is expected to make recommendations in 2014. Parliamentary committees led by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, are working on higher education reform law and the revitalization of Yangon University.
One focus is university autonomy, said Kevin Mackenzie, the director of the British Council in Myanmar, which is advising the parliamentary committee. Last summer, a higher education bill was rejected by Parliament because it did not grant universities enough independence.
It is "a little difficult to coordinate all of these different initiatives," Mr. Mackenzie said. "I think there is a little bit of a disconnect at present."
Another priority is allowing students the freedom to choose academic disciplines. Now, they are required to choose majors based on test scores. As a result, it is not uncommon for graduates to be studying fields that neither interest them nor fit the job market.
Yet there are some noticeable changes. Students are reorganizing previously banned unions and hoping to contribute to laws that would protect their rights.
"No one has shut us down yet," said Ms. Suu Suu Linn, who is a member of a newly formed student union.
Teachers are also reviving associations to advocate for faculty rights. "There have been so many changes in the past two years," said Khaing Myo Tun, the secretary of Yangon University's teachers' association, which holds meetings in a tea shop across from the university's main gate. "But we still have to be cautious because we never know if things will change, if there could be a U-turn."
Change has been slow to come to the 163 universities, colleges and institutions in Myanmar -- both in terms of academic freedom and practical needs like staffing and resources.
While graduate students are allowed to study on campuses in major cities, they are still not allowed to stay on campus. Most undergraduates still study at satellite colleges. Some opt for distance learning and travel to campus just for exams. "They have lectures on TV, but we sometimes have no electricity in our homes, so we can't even watch TV," said Mr. Ye Kyaw, the computer science major.
To brush up on skills like accounting or computer programming, students often enroll in private vocational colleges or pay professors for extra classes. University administrators complain that what little staff they have are often poorly trained and badly paid.
"Our staff is overloaded," said Kyaw Min Htun, a retired prorector at the Yangon Institute of Economics. "Our campus has no division of labor."
The education system in Myanmar has been isolated for so long that it may take time for students and educators to catch up to international standards.
"Plagiarism is still an issue. Students don't understand the work you have to do, like you need to read books," said Kirt Mausert, an instructor at the American Center in Yangon, which is affiliated with the U.S. Embassy and offers English and other classes. "We are facing this massive issue that the students don't have the skills they need to do university-level work."
The American Center is working on a proposal to bring online coursework to universities to help make the transition. "The students here are the most motivated and committed students I have ever seen," Mr. Mausert said. "They can't get enough access to information."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.