Thailand has a long tradition of valuing education, with 12 years of free schooling, a high literacy rate and a government that invests substantially in the sector. Yet the educational system is not functioning as well as it should, nor are the resources committed achieving the desired results. According to the 2014-15 World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report, Thailand ranks poorly in international education surveys, with some figures indicating further potential decline. Years of reform have been judged to have little overall impact on a system that is now seen as expensive and inefficient.
The government is making efforts to address the problems, and using the special administrative powers it has, has managed to make changes that would not before have been possible. A number of initiatives are being undertaken to improve the system in a measured way, and progress is being made.
Education in the country traces its roots to the 13th century and the old capital of Sukhothai. Reform of the system, and the teaching of English, started under the reign of Rama IV when the country faced increased contact with Western powers in the 19th century. Education became even more formalised under Rama V. A school was originally established at the Royal Pages Barrack in 1871, and that school later became Suankularb in 1872. That same year, the king formed the Army Cadet School, the Cartographic School, the School for Princes, and the School for Dhamma Studies. The Civil Service Training School was later founded, which became the Royal Pages School in 1902, and then the Civil Service College of King Chulalongkorn, in 1911.
Thailand’s first university, Chulalongkorn, was founded in 1917, after the Civil Service College of King Chulalongkorn was upgraded. Thammasat University, which was formed to prepare students for politics and law, was founded in 1943. Also in 1943, a university was opened specialising in agriculture (Kasetsart) as was an institution for the fine arts ( Silpakorn). Mahidol was opened in 1964, and specialised in medicine, although its first origins date back to 1889 with the beginning of medical instruction at the Siriraj Hospital. By the end of the 1960s, the country had a total of eight universities, three of which were outside Bangkok: Chiang Mai University, Khon Kaen University and Prince Songkla University.
Currently, the sector is guided by the National Education Act of 1999 and the National Education Plan 2002-16. The Constitution of 1997 states that Thai people have the right to 12 years of education and the 1999 Education Act was a major transformation that restructured administration, set national standards and made education student-centred. The Education Act, along with the Decentralisation Act of 1999, also called for more local administration. This is overseen by the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment (ONESQA), founded in 2000. ONESQA is an independent body tasked with evaluating each school in the country every five years.
Education has been compulsory through the age of 15 since 2003, and a basic education core curriculum was established in 2008. Higher education was reformed in the wake of the 1997 financial crisis, when it was felt that the system needed to be significantly restructured if the economy was to prosper. Universities up to this point were bureaucratically run, and as a result suffered from brain drain as high-achieving students became frustrated with the red tape. The system that had been in place was also designed mainly for the education of civil servants. The public universities later became autonomous in 2002. This reduced bureaucracy and it also forced the institutions to undertake activities that could generate funding, especially from private sector.
By some measures, the country does well in education. Its “education life expectancy” is 13.57 years, more than Laos (10.1), the Philippines (12.75), Indonesia (12.9) and Malaysia (13.4), but less than Japan (15.34), China (13.85) and the US (16.54). According to some surveys, the country has 12 of the top 100 universities in Asia, with Naresuan University at number seven, Kasetsart University at 10, and Prince of Songkla University at 17.
Yet by other measures, the sector performs less well. In a study of the math and science skills of 15- year-olds conducted by the OECD, Thailand was ranked 46th in the world, while Singapore was first and Vietnam was number 12. In the 2014-15 WEF Global Competitiveness Report, the quality of primary education was ranked 90th out of 144, and Thailand’s universities are ranked 8th out of 10 in ASEAN.
The rankings of Thai universities in international surveys have also been falling, with all of the country’s major institutions dropping in the QS World University survey. Critics say that the schools need to focus more on quality rather than quantity, and point out that without top-ranked universities, it will be difficult for Thailand to be internationally competitive.
The amount of funding is not the problem. The country spends about 4.9% of its GDP on education, slightly lower than Malaysia (5.9%) and Vietnam (6.3%), but higher than Singapore (2.1%) and Indonesia (3.6%). By some measures, Thai education is among the most expensive the in the world. As a percentage of the national budget, education spending takes 20% more than in most other countries. So while Thailand is committing great resources to education, it is not achieving results commensurate with its investment.
“We have spent about 4% of our GDP on education,” said Somkiat Tangkitvanich, president of the Thailand Development Research Institute. “But the results are rather disappointing.” A Thammasat University study found that a central problem is that too much focus is placed on equal support for all students rather than directing funding to where it is most needed and most effective. The study also concluded that too much was spent on teacher salaries and not enough on improving educational quality. Yet despite the fact that the system is well funded, teachers are finding it difficult to get by, given high levels of personal debt and the fees they have to pay for the education of their own children. School expenses can run parents BT25,000-30,000 ($$753-903) per year.
The current government is taking decisive aim at the sector and making a number of policy changes. In early 2015, three education boards were shut down and senior officials at the Ministry of Education were removed. The government then moved to change the system itself and introduced the “12 Core Values of Thainess” as a means of re-focusing the sector. The values, which emphasise tradition, national identity and honesty, have to be recited each day by students. They have also been made into a popular song and incorporated into the curriculum.
In early 2016, the government used its special administrative powers to undo decentralisation and return the educational system to a more top-down style of management. The centralised system had in the past been blamed for the poor education of Thais, but according to the Bangkok Post the decentralised system as it stands did not work as hoped. Rather than reducing bureaucracy, the policies simply increased red tape and localised it, while innovation is still lacking and rote learning continues to be the norm. The newspaper argues for more decentralisation, but the government has opted for a return to the traditional, more hierarchical, structure, arguing this will improve efficiency and make it easier to implement policy.
The government is also working to specifically institute a number of modest, incremental changes over time. It has devised a plan to cut the hours per week for elementary school students to 22 from the current 30-35. Secondary school hours will be reduced from 35 to 27. Students will finish classes at 2pm so they will have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities. The reform programme is being trialled at 4000 schools. Education officials worry that students spend too much time in the classroom, an estimated 86% of the total school day, and want to see that drop to 70%. At present, Thai students spend five times more time in the classroom than their counterparts in the US.
The new government is trying a wide range of other programmes, campaigns and initiatives aimed at transforming education. Prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has called for a database to be built that would allow the country to forecast future employment needs, thus enabling the education system to adjust for demand. The Ministry of Education’s (MoE) permanent secretary, Kamjorn Tatiyakavee, adds that the system needs to focus on English-language skills, science, engineering and math, and that these subjects should be emphasised from the primary level.
The government plans to open 3300 schools in 2016 and 14,000 by 2018, and the World Bank has called for the merging of smaller schools. According to their research, the country at present has 110,725 schools with only a single teacher. That number can be reduced to 12,600. Over time, testing methods also will be changed, moving away from an all multiple-choice format and toward more subjective testing. This particular change will begin at the lower grades so that students who are currently at higher grade levels will face minimal disruption and not have to learn to adjust to a substantially different method of evaluation so far into their education.
The Charter Drafting Committee (CDC) had called for a reduction of free education from the current 12 years to nine. This resulted in widespread criticism, so the CDC opted to allow the 12-year approach to continue. However, they adjusted how the years would be calculated, beginning the count at pre-school. They are also pushing to reduce the coursework that prepares students for university.
The evaluation system is seen by some as a major problem. ONESQA has faced criticism from the Office of Higher Education Commission after it was reported that the evaluation process did not adequately reflect the quality of schools, and that it was inconvenient and time consuming. The paperwork is such that it interferes with teaching, and reform of the institution has been suggested. Opposition became particularly strong after it was announced that the body would undertake another round of assessment and that institutions will be penalised for not cooperating.
In 2015 the Bangkok Post says that efforts to universalise education so far have been superficial and that they are insufficient to undo years of poorly thought out and poorly implemented policy. It believes that a “state of emergency” exists in the educational system and that new measures need to be taken to drive improvement. In influential editorials the newspaper has suggested that Thailand should look abroad for help. It recognises that the country is already working with Cambridge English language schools to reform the country’s English-language programmes. Thailand is introducing the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which will give students and teachers a more objective and accurate standard by which to measure English skills. Other commentators have called for the International Baccalaureate to be introduced, as it would make Thai education better harmonised with international standards and drive systemic change.
Soliciting assistance from abroad is also an idea that is being floated more frequently. A number of international bodies are already cooperating with the country in education. The OECD says it will be assisting Thailand in preparing its students to work more creatively and analytically. The process started at the end of 2015 with a research programme at 13 schools involving 1000 students and 50 teachers. The programme results will be evaluated in mid-2016. International educational experts are calling for a complete overhaul of the Thai school system. It has been argued that the country needs a new curriculum, a more modern teaching style and better-trained teachers. It is argued that learner-centric and cooperative learning result in better educational results.
In another example, Learn Education, a private education company, is conducting a pilot programme in 30 schools across the country which it hopes can improve test scores by nearly a third. In this innovative programme, a computer system is introduced to aid the students in their studies, and it is available to them at all hours. The content is broken down into “learning units” so progress is easy to gauge and follow. Illustrations and infographics are used to help the students better understand the materials.
The private sector is seen as playing a leading role in the development of education. It has been suggested by the MoE that companies should admit more students as interns and work directly with the Ministry of Science and Technology to drive innovation and research.
Vocational education is also seen as an important part of the mix. Many good jobs in the country do not require university degrees and can be done by those with a basic education or with some specialised instruction. Salaries in the trades can offer a fair standard of living – welders for example earn BT40,000 ($1200) per month after three years of experience. The vocational education segment is focusing most on sectors where most job growth is seen. These include the automotive and food sectors.
Public-private partnerships are also active and concentrating their efforts on professions where the greatest opportunity exists for vocational training. These include: merchant marines, rail transport, the petrochemical industry, electricity generation, tourism, food safety technology, and the moulds industry.
Thailand’s universities were late adopters of research and development (R&D), with little serious discussion of the issue until 1982. Teaching was their sole focus, and there was little funding for research. Research budgets were also put under strain by cutbacks following the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Critics blame weak links between industry and universities, noteing that existing links are based more on personal relationships than on formal commitments.
Yet these trends are changing. For example, the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) maintains close contact with players from relevant sectors to update its curriculum and research priorities in line with the changing technological, development, environmental and management needs of Thailand. AIT students regularly benefit from partner university exchange programmes for short-term study abroad in countries such as France, Germany, Japan, India, South Korea and China. To further encourage global links, AIT partners with around 80 international and domestic firms every year at its AIT Career Fair, where businesses, consulting companies and others come to attract highly skilled Thai and Asian graduates. Focused on advanced training in key growth sectors such as energy, infrastructure, industry and ICT, the AIT is also part of the government’s R&D Incentive Programme, which allows private sector investors to claim a 300% tax deduction on funds used to support R&D at academic institutes. AIT is also in the process of launching “Climate Change Asia at AIT”, which will be a regional centre to take on climate change adaptation and mitigation issues looming across the continent.
Much recent progress in R&D has been driven by state policies designed to spur its growth. “The Thai government has played a strong role in encouraging R&D, especially among technical institutions, through measures that include purchasing intellectual property from universities generated through research, as well as tax waivers for industrial research support,” Prasert Pinpathomrat, president of Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi, told OBG. Universities are also partnering more with the private sector.
In another example, King Mongkut’s University of Science and Technology has set up a “knowledge exchange” programme designed to link with the community, especially small and medium-sized enterprises. The aim is to help companies gain from university research and students to gain business knowledge first-hand. A dedicated building is being established for the project, located in Wong Wian Yai. The university also has a joint venture with the Hi-Tech Industrial Estate, known as the Ayutthaya Technical Training Centre. With support from the Japanese state, the centre trains workers for high-skill employment at industrial estates.
The government of Thailand is highly focused on reforming education, and has made decisive moves to achieve this. It is also starting to lay foundations for the long term, pushing initiatives that will help education move into the future – for example, by working to boost R&D spending from 0.46% of GDP in 2015 to 1% in 2016. This is central to making universities more sustainable, competitive and relevant in a global context. While the system has its problems, and despite its low rankings, its educational infrastructure is large, well established and generally well respected. Ultimately, the country may find that education can become a driver for economic growth.
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