Thailand's education system is one of the big winners from the government's recent economic stimulus package, while other reforms due to be implemented in May will encourage parents to keep their children in school and ease their financial burden.
The country already has one of the highest levels of spending on education in the region at 25% of the state budget and 4.3% of GDP, according to a report issued by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation on March 24.
Education is one of the main pillars of the government's second economic stimulus programme that was unveiled on March 25. Along with making investments to assist small-scale agriculture, tourism, Thailand's three Malay Muslim-majority southern provinces and the infrastructure of public services, education was made a priority under the $40bn package.
The government hopes the initiative, which will be spread over the 2009/10 and 2010/11 fiscal years, will boost GDP by 5% annually and create 1.6m new jobs over a three-year period. Of the total planned expenditure, $1.7bn will be directed towards improving education, with additional funding to be set aside for upgrading infrastructure.
The economic package was the second stimulus programme launched by the government. Out of $3.2bn earmarked in January, $500m has been set aside for improving existing schools and universities and speeding up the construction of new facilities, as well as subsidising education costs.
One of the key components of the government's plans to bolster education was formally launched by the Education Ministry on March 15. Under the scheme, all educational costs for students from early learning to the end of secondary school, a period of 15 years, will be met by the state.
The programme, which is budgeted at $546m up to the end of the fiscal year in September and $840m for the 2009/10 financial year, will cover the costs of tuition fees, textbooks, uniforms, education tools and materials, and school activities for Thailand's 12m students.
According to Jurin Laksanavisit, the education minister, the increased spending will have benefits far beyond improving access to education. "It will help alleviate the financial burden carried by parents in millions of families, and at the same time it will help stimulate the economy," he told local media on March 18. This has been key element of the government's economic revival policies, which are based on stimulating consumer demand through a series of tax breaks and a one-time payment of $56 per person to low-income earners.
It is not just the formal education system that is to benefit from increased state spending. The prime minister announced on March 22 that special training programmes would be provided for up to 1m adult Thais who were expected to be unemployed due to the economic downturn.
The programmes would provide training in computer and service industry skills, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said, with at least some of those taking the courses being eligible to receive funding to set up their own business after completing their training. "It will help restructure the economy in our country," Abhisit said of the scheme. "The economic structure in many provinces will expand and grow."
However, while willing to assist those out of work by the economic crisis, the government will have to find the resources, both in trained educational personnel and materials, to put its plans into practice.
In late 2007, a report by the Education Ministry said at least 24,000 teachers were required to meet the needs of the country's primary and secondary schools, with this gap set to rise as the school age population grew.
While successive governments have worked to overcome this shortfall, this gap has not been plugged. In a speech given to mark World Teachers' Day on March 23, Abhisit said that more than 13,000 schools, mostly in rural areas, were experiencing what he called "serious shortages of qualified teachers".
Though the prime minister announced that a further 12,000 teaching staff would be recruited, the increasing demand being put on the education network through the government's plans to encourage students to stay in the classrooms, as well as the promised expansion of vocational training, will put a further strain on the system, despite the additional support coming through the economic stimulus packages.