YANGON, MYANMAR -- Yangon Technological University has come a long way since it was the site of anti-government student protests in 1988 that eventually spread across Myanmar. The campus has been refurbished and a sense of normality is beginning to return.
Undergraduate students, barred for about a decade, are back, although they all must leave by 5 p.m.; they cannot live on campus.
One important question is how the university is going to forge links with the outside world. Like many other universities in Myanmar, Yangon Technological lacks adequate teaching materials, research facilities and updated technology, all of which a foreign partner could bring. Nyi Hla Nge, a retired rector at the university, said he had written a letter to the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology seeking to "establish cooperation."
As Myanmar's government embarks on improving its higher education system, the possibility of assistance from foreign universities and scholars, whether in training faculty or rebuilding libraries has become a central focus. And foreign universities are pouring into the country to try to find ways to help.
"Many, many major international universities would like to have a piece of the pie," said Jacques Fremont, director of the international higher-education program at the Open Society Foundations, a nonprofit organization founded by the investor-philanthropist George Soros.
It is providing grants for scholars to teach at the University of Yangon and the University of Mandalay and to help Myanmar build an electronic library database. "It is sexy now to say you have a partnership with a Burmese university," Mr. Fremont said. "But the issue is: Will the Burmese say yes to everyone and then lose control of the reform agenda? Or will they be in a position to plan and say, 'Here is what we need?' The pressure is huge right now."
Foreign institutions say the Education Ministry is showing new openness. "Our ability to engage with them has quadrupled over the last few months," said Andrew Leahy, a public diplomacy officer with the U.S. Embassy in Yangon who is working on exchange programs. In January, the U.S. Embassy placed the first Fulbright scholar in nearly three decades at Yangon University.
In February, the European Union organized a higher-education conference with ministers, university administrators and foreign academics. The conference was "significant" because such "open and frank discussions" had not happened before, said an E.U. representative, who requested anonymity because he did not have permission to speak to the news media.
EducationUSA, the U.S. State Department's outreach program for foreign students, held its first college fair in Myanmar in February. More than a thousand students and parents attended, as did representatives of almost a dozen U.S. universities and community colleges.
Also in February, a delegation of 10 American universities, organized by the International Institute of Education, a nonprofit group based in New York, visited Myanmar to explore partnerships. In April, the institute released a report citing some of the problems in Myanmar's education system. They included inferior physical infrastructure and technology, a lack of international ties and a political and economic system that is unable to fulfill immediate needs. "I think they feel a little overwhelmed," said Carola Weil, who is dean of the School of Professional and Extended Studies at American University in Washington and was part of the delegation.
And so do the foreign universities looking to build partnerships.
While some commitments were made by the delegation, including financing faculty exchanges and helping Myanmar universities renovate libraries, many participants said there was so much need that they did not know where to start. "The situation is much more challenging than we expected," said Denis F. Simon, vice provost for international strategic initiatives at Arizona State University. "We definitely want to do something here, but how big and how large will depend on the availability of funding."
Finding financing is a main obstacle even though Myanmar's education spending has almost tripled from $340 million in 2011 to $1 billion in the current budget. So far, seeking money from outside donors has not yielded much.
Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, is planning to open a center for teacher training and graduate education at the University of Yangon, but concrete plans have been put on hold until resources can be secured. "There is a commitment and a willingness to do this, but these things cost money," said Pamela Cranston, vice provost for international programs at Johns Hopkins. "People are still reluctant to get into Myanmar yet in a big way."
The U.S. Agency for International Development began taking applications last November to finance higher-education projects in Myanmar. More than 200 organizations and individuals participated in an information session on agency grants in Washington in December. The European Union will also provide financing for faculty and student exchanges.
Yet foreign engagement still requires government approval. "The government said how hungry they are to have scholars from the U.S. come and visit," said Christopher McCord, who is the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Northern Illinois University and also in the delegation. "We said, 'You have to find a way if you want us to be able to send scholars where universities don't have to go all the way to the top to get permission."'
Improvements have come, even though in fits and starts, and in varied ways. The campus of Yangon University was spruced up a few days before a visit by President Barack Obama last November. More important, scholars from the United States are now allowed to lecture at Yangon University for the first time in decades.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.