One slice of the Thai education sector likely to see major reform in the period ahead is the technical and vocational field. The stage lights have recently swung in that direction because of widening doubts – by directors and players alike – whether the sector can meet growing demand for highly skilled graduates. This concern will only intensify as the member countries of ASEAN continue to integrate their markets. If Thailand is serious about its quest to attract investment, boost high-value-added production and build a knowledge-based society, such reforms must be assiduously sought.
“Globalisation, along with communication technology, has brought the world closer than ever before,” Jakarin Srimoon, dean of the International College at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, told OBG. “Motivated by internationalisation, our trade, industries, businesses and management methods require a labour forcee quipped with specialised skills.” To that end, higher education institutions are seeking closer links private sector enterprises.
Agents & Actions
The key body directing vocational training is the Office of the Vocational Education Commission (OVEC), an arm of the Ministry of Education (MoE). Following a 2012 consultation with sector stakeholders, including many business organisations, OVEC launched a new policy, the Vocational Education Guidelines for Policymaking, Goal Setting and Development of Vocational Manpower. This 15-year reform package is meant to overhaul programmes for vocational education and training in four areas: manpower, teachership, institutions and management. For manpower, it aims to produce vocational skills that meet market demands; to raise the quantity and quality of teachers; to develop quality and expand learning resources at institutions; and for management to boost efficiency.
The Thai education watershed has two main tributaries, and many smaller ones. The vocational stem starts for many Thais at age 15, at the end of “lower” secondary school, when students merge either into a general education stream, towards a university and a degree, or into a vocational stream, towards a higher vocational college and a diploma. At upper secondary school, students in vocational training can choose between several programmes, each leading to a certificate. The first option is the standard school-based, three-year course. The second is hybrid technical and vocational educational training (TVET), in which they spend half of their three years at school and half in the workplace. A third track offers three- to five-year programmes to those unable regularly to attend an institution, using a “Credit Accumulating System” (a sub-branch of this also offers evening classes). Last, there are informal distance learning courses available to adults as well as children.
At age 18, when most students finish upper secondary vocational school, students may choose to obtain a Certificate of Vocational Education (LCVE). After that, if they opt to continue in the vocational stream, they may earn a diploma in vocational education or, after that, a higher diploma of vocational training, from a vocational institute. Of these there are five distinct sorts: vocational colleges; industrial and community special colleges; technical, agricultural and technological colleges; and polytechnics. After receiving their diploma, a further two years’ study can earn students a degree in a technical or vocational subject. Such degrees also operate according to the split system of college- and workplace-based attendance mentioned earlier. Vocational courses typically include subjects such as trade and industry, business administration, home economics, agriculture, fisheries, textiles, and information and communications technology (ICT).
Enrolment numbers lean towards the lower rungs. Out of the roughly 1m students who were enrolled in vocational courses in 2012, according to the MoE, 69% were taking only LCVE courses; the rest were on track for diplomas. TVET, the college-workplace dual model, is offered by a mix of schools and colleges. In 2012, there were 421 state institutions offering TVET (through OVEC) and 458 private ones, recorded the MoE. These schools range from those providing a full menu of vocational subjects to those specialising in a particular area, such as business or tourism.
Channels Of Change
OVEC is moving to boost the vocational stream at all levels. A key mechanism for doing so is increasing private sector involvement, especially in the dual TVET programmes.
A new working committee will be looking at ways to improve student performance in vocational programmes, Chaturon Chaisaeng, the education minister, told OBG in October 2013. This committee is “to join forces with relevant sectors” to form its strategy, which he said would give incentives to mobilise the private sector and will strive to create stronger links between private enterprise and educational institutions in TVET and HE. “Vocational and higher education institutions will be required to shift the paradigm from supply-driven to demand-driven provision of education,” Chaturon told OBG. The ultimate aim, he said, is to balance out the distribution of students between the two main branches of Thailand’s education system, bringing the ratio of vocational to general students to 50:50. This target is an ambitious one – in 2012, there were about 10 times as many students in general education as in vocational – but shows strong intent.
One challenge at the secondary level is the shortage of modern facilities at TVET schools. Many students are learning their vocation on systems and equipment that are out of date. The dual TVET programme helps overcome this by sending students to workplaces where they get to use newer machines. Training is tailored to the current state of their particular industry, increasing the programme’s relevance.
One sign of the gap between supply and demand in higher education is the relatively high level of graduates who are unemployed. Figures from the national statistics office for 2012 reveal that the unemployment rate increases as students ascend the education ladder, from 0.3% for those with an elementary education to around 1% for those with a university degree.
To steer more HE students towards the vocational route, and so boost their prospects of employment, OVEC is pushing universities to offer more four-year BA degrees for vocational studies. It is also trying to encourage HE institutions to expand their programmes for cooperative education. “Universities in Thailand must take a more proactive approach to cooperation,” Tawil Paungma, president of King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, told OBG. Such courses currently offer four-month work placements. The MoE wants that period to be even longer.
Also at the HE level, the MoE is trying to encourage more private sector involvement in R&D. The main initiative in this area is the University Business Incubator project, whose specific goal is to bring university level research to bear on business idea development. Much of this activity is in the science and technology field, particularly in ICT.
In this vein, some private businesses are making progress on their own. There is a growing trend for firms to move outside the conventional TVET framework and establish their own educational institutions, and at a variety of levels. CP Group, a big Thai conglomerate, operates its own training college in retail, logistics and marketing. PTT, a big oil and gas firm, is running its own R&D university, the Rayong Institute of Science and Technology, which will teach mainly TVET courses related to the energy sector. A third vocational agency is the Bangkok Municipal Authority, which has set up a hospital and nursing college that eventually expanded into a university with medical and nursing schools. It is currently adding a faculty for studies in urban development. “Corporate universities represent a new wave,” Krissanapong Kirtikara, second vice-chairman of the Quality Learning Foundation governing board, told OBG. “This is perhaps a trend unique to Thailand.” Such corporate institutions aim for high standards and relevancy, achieved faster than the often sluggish pace of national change. The impact of these private initiatives, however, may be mixed, particularly given efforts to bring the private sector into the formal education system.
Wholly school-based programmes are likely to be increasingly replaced by dual TVET. Private businesses, in addition, are likely to play a bigger role in shaping course material. In matching skills to needs, the private sector must be urged to take on more students, and become more directly involved in education schemes.
Quality & Relevance
Quality assurance continues to be key to enhancing TVET. Teachers of vocational courses have seen some improvement in their employment conditions in recent years, but the link between pay and performance is still marginal (see overview). The same is true of institutional management. How to train the trainers is one of the biggest challenges to reform in any sector. In education, it is especially so.
So are strategies for raising relevance. Vocational training, as such, is especially vulnerable to swift changes in technology and organisation. This requires adaptability and a quick institutional reflex. Such responsiveness is one of the most powerful lessons the private sector can teach as its involvement in the sector expands.
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