Thailand's education sector struggles to produce positive results


Selected headline numbers generated by the Thai education sector have been encouraging. The country has a high rate of literacy, an increasing number of top-rated universities, long school-life expectancy, a strong history of education and a large education budget. Globally and regionally, it compares well by these measures. The country also has ambitions to become a major educational centre, undertaking cutting edge research and attracting students from ASEAN and beyond.

At the same time, the sector suffers from a number of structural weaknesses. It is not getting the results that would be expected given the money that has been committed to it. Students are not on average scoring well, while the country as a whole is producing fewer super achievers than it would like.

The current administration is committed to addressing these issues, and views educational achievement as being critical to Thailand’s success both in the region and worldwide, and also sees it as vital for the country’s political stability. Better schooling is essential. While reform has been ongoing for decades, and in that time scores have markedly deteriorated, the commitment currently being made could have significant and lasting effects. The government is using its powers to change the sector in a fundamental if not permanent way. It is trying for a true, ground-up transformation.

Significant Potential

Thailand’s education system was historically centred around Buddhist temples. However, in the 19th century European’s began to establish schools in the country. Bangkok Christian College, the first foreign-sponsored school, was established in 1852. Early government schools were focused on the royalty and the military, though English instruction was introduced as Thailand began to have more contact with the West. Medical courses were made available as early as 1889. The country’s first university, Chulalongkorn University, was established in 1917, and in 1921 education became compulsory. After the 1932 coup, the pace of development accelerated. The aim was to have a society that was more literate and better able to participate in the new democracy. Thammasat University was founded in 1943, and specialised universities were opened in the years following, offering courses in agriculture, fine arts and other subjects. The National Education Act and the Decentralisation Act were promulgated in 1999. They were major reforms, setting standards and modernising education.

By many measures, Thailand has done well over the years. The youth literacy rate stands at 98.6% and school life expectancy for primary and secondary education was 13.6 years in 2015, up from 9.6 years in 2001, while overall literacy is about 95%, up from 50% in the 1950s. Thailand has had seven universities in the Times Asia University Rankings, and three more were added in early 2017. The three newest additions to the list are: King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, Kasetsart University and King Mongkut’s University of Technology North Bangkok. Thailand commits a great deal of resources to the sector, spending 18.9% of its total budget on education in 2014, according to the World Bank, compared with a world average of 14.1%.

Thailand’s neighbours also spend more than the global average on education. Malaysia commits 19.5% of its budget to education, Singapore 20%, Vietnam 18.5% and Indonesia 17.6%, while Laos spends only 12.8%. Great potential is seen at the tertiary level. The Higher Education Times has identified Thailand, along with Argentina, Chile, Turkey, Iran, Colombia and Serbia, as a country that has the potential to become a major centre for higher education. All the markets highlighted tend to have a high percentage of their populations enrolled in university and conduct more research than in the so-called BRIC bloc of countries comprised of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Not Adding Up

However, by many objective measures, Thailand is not achieving expected outcomes in education. In the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the country was ranked 55th out of the 70 participants in the survey. It was number 54 in maths, 57 in reading and 54 in sciences. Results for Thailand have fallen from 2012, the last time PISA was conducted.

PISA scores have not increased in 16 years, indicating that the country has made only marginal improvements, despite the resources being deployed. And while the averages are low, the peaks are also unimpressive. Thailand produces a small number of high performers, or students who demonstrate superior skills. Only 1.4% of those taking the PISA tests were in this category, compared with 35% in Singapore. Thailand has also dropped in other surveys directly and indirectly measuring educational achievement.

Of the 19 Asian countries listed in the Education First Language Institute’s 2015 English Proficiency Index, Thailand was number 15, behind Kazakhstan, Indonesia and Vietnam. In the Switzerland-based International Institute for Management Development’s World Talent Rankings, Thailand fell from number 31 in 2007 to number 37 in 2016, peaking at 24th place during that period.

Falling Behind

Malaysian students have improved considerably in all categories, with the country now within about 50 points of the global average. Vietnam’s achievements are also regarded as significant; the country has not only sustained a high international ranking, but has also been able to do well across the economic spectrum, with students from both lowand high-income backgrounds achieving high marks. A 15-year-old student from Vietnam is 1.5 years more advanced than a Thai student of the same age. When more thorough research is conducted, it becomes apparent that some of the headline numbers mask significant weaknesses. Thailand has excellent published rates on reading ability, but the reality on the ground is seen by some observers to be different, with youth literacy rates reported as being below official statistics.

Trends in tertiary education are also of concern. While more Thai universities are making the prestigious lists, those previously rated have fallen in the rankings. This is attributed to the fact that the government has not done enough to upgrade the universities from strong local institutions to world-class institutions. The plan to make Thailand an education centre has not been followed up with sufficient investment and action.

The consequences of educational deficiencies are significant. The lack of a strong system and sound institutions will make it difficult for the country to achieve its development goals as set out in Thailand 4.0, while it will ultimately be difficult for Thailand to compete effectively in the world markets.

Factors At Work

A number of factors have been identified to explain Thailand’s lagging performance. Problems often cited include the emphasis on rote memorisation, a shortage of maths teachers, overly strict educators and poor management structures.

More broadly, researchers say that the low scores are in part the result of a failure on the part of the schools to teach logical and critical-thinking skills. Students there lack problem-solving abilities. Others blame the quantity over quality approach. Thai students tend to spend much more time in the classroom than their counterparts in other countries — between 1000 and 1200 hours per year compared with the UNESCO-recommended 800 hours.

Thailand has a surplus of schools, many of them very small. This results in inefficient and expensive education, a problem that has only worsened over time. As the student population declines, the cost to educate on a per pupil basis increases. The number of schools with fewer than 20 children per class has risen from 15,000 in 1993 to 19,800 in 2010.

Rural Thailand faces a number of disadvantages. For example, children in rural areas tend to get less care and cognitive stimulation when they are very young. They are behind even before they start their formal education. The other major problem is that rural schools have trouble hiring quality teachers and retaining them. An estimated 20% of educators in Bangkok have graduate degrees, but only 9% of teachers have relevant credentials in Mae Hong Son, a province in northern Thailand.

Critics note that while education is considered a right and everyone is entitled to free schooling, as a practical matter the situation is complex. The lack of mechanisms to ensure quality results in the poor implementation of that right. Proper funding, despite the greats sums being spent at the national level, can be a factor as well. Research has found that students from families with incomes that allow for the hiring of private tutors tend to do better than those from poorer families —a problem that exacerbates the rural-urban divide further. University education is out of the reach of most Thais. According to the Thailand Future Foundation, two-thirds of households cannot afford the BT500,000 ($14,090) it costs to send a child to university.

Waves Of Reform

Government policy in the past has been inconsistent, contradictory and at times unproductive. With more than one education minister on average per year, the school systems have been subjected to frequent and dramatic changes in course, according to local media. More hours have been called for, than fewer. For a while Mandarin was being pushed, then that fell by the wayside.

With policies changing so often, it can be difficult to make plans, teachers argue. At the same time, old policies often remain on the books despite conflicting with newer policies. This leads to confusion and the lack of clear direction. Government programmes, celebrations and cultural activities can also eat into the teaching day, while bureaucracy can consume valuable time that could otherwise be used for instruction.

According to the Thailand Future Foundation, reforms to the Thai education system in recent years have been expensive and often times ineffective. They have cost the education sector an estimated BT1.5trn ($42.3bn) in lost opportunity. That loss is equivalent to 11% of the GDP. Poland, on the other hand, transformed its education system successfully in 11 years.

Universities in the country are still operating as if they are in the Thailand 1.0 era, the time when the country was predominantly agricultural. Typically, technology is employed unevenly throughout the country, while rote learning is still too common. Even the most advanced institutions are still oriented towards publishing papers in international journals rather than winning patents.

Teachable Moment

The current administration has focused on the sector and is initiating policies designed to address the relevant problems and provide long-term solutions. Immediately upon gaining power in 2014, the government turned its attention towards education. Its efforts have been decisive and bold, suggesting that this time reforms may have a lasting impact.

The first budget from the current government — the 2015 budget, set the largest increases for education and defence spending. In addition, the government initiated a wide range of more creative measures. The government introduced the 12 core values of Thainess, designed to recentralise the educational bureaucracy. There were also calls for the development of a database so that education can be adjusted to meet future skills.

In April 2015 Article 44 was invoked in order to fire a number of civil servants at the Ministry of Education (MoE) and disband three existing educational boards. The boards in question were the Teachers Council of Thailand, the Welfare Promotion Commission for Teachers and Education Personnel, and the Business Organisation of the Office of the Welfare Promotion Commission for Teachers and Educational Personnel.

The work of these boards was taken over by the ministry, concentrating power and allowing for the more direct implementation of desired changes. The misuse of funds was seen as one of the targets of the shake-up, with a more transparent system set to be implemented over the course of the next few years.

In June 2015 Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered the government to provide 15 years of free education to all students in the country. Previously, 12 years was guaranteed by the state. In the past, 15 years of education was introduced, but the initiative failed due to lack of funding and mismanagement. The new law is designed to survive over time so that the 15-year minimum becomes permanent.

Suggestions had been made at one point to reduce the number of years of education guaranteed by the government to nine so that the authorities could fully fund the years students are in school. Under the existing government programmes, parents are often charged additional fees by schools, leading to suggestions that the term “free” is misleading.

Fewer Schools, Less Time

The government is changing the way teachers are promoted and randomly checking teaching hours claimed, with violators facing the possibility of disciplinary action. The government is also dramatically altering the way English is being taught in the county’s schools and increasing the number of hours of instruction, introducing new text books and putting some teachers through intensive and rigorous training. The school day is also being shortened so students can finish their studies earlier and return home.

In terms of overall structure, Thailand plans to upgrade the Office of Higher Education Commission to a full ministry in order to further improve tertiary education. As of June 2017 the authorities cannot directly intervene in the operations of the universities. However, if a ministry is created along with a Universities Law, governance could change significantly. The responsibilities of the MoE are seen as far too broad — from basic to higher instruction — and it is thought that it would be better to have a body that focused solely on the higher portion of the whole.

The ministry is working to merge schools in order to reduce inequality and class size, improve education and make funding more consistent, according to local press reports. It hopes to combine schools with fewer than 120 students, merging a total of 10,971 by 2020. A number of small schools will not be merged: 975 already of very high quality, 336 in mountainous areas or on islands and 3295 that do not have a magnet school within 6 km. In 2011 mergers were also attempted, but parents resisted the move.

The Constitutional Drafting Committee has recommended that an independent panel be created, which will work to pursue educational reform. Importantly, this panel would include people from outside of the educational establishment in Thailand. The sense is that those currently guiding the sector are stuck in their ways and need independent voices to help lead them towards new solutions.

A wide range of policies have been initiated and many assumptions tested, but the message all along has been that the government will take sufficient control over the sector to ensure that the reforms called for will actually be implemented and that the administrators will be effective. This is perhaps the most significant change and the one that could ultimately have the most impact. Previously, the system was decentralised to the point of becoming unmanageable; the education minister could not even fire a junior teacher.

Effective Policy

For the long term, the government has introduced a 20-year Strategic Education Plan, in line with its 20-year National Strategy. The education plan will focus on raising Thailand’s scores in international rankings in the following: reducing the disparities between schools, making the allocation of resources more equitable, increasing research and development spending at the university level, increasing vocational spending, improving test scores, improving continuing education opportunities and bringing broadband access to 90% of the country’s schools. Other targets of the programme are the fixing of schools in need of repair and fighting corruption in the education system.

Teerakiat Jareonsettasin, minister of education, argues that much of the sector is still operating at Thailand 1.0 level. To help improve education, the ministry will focus first on the so-called intensive-care unit schools. These are the 3000 or so that are in the worst shape. One important task is to encourage instruction on issues related to corruption and conflicts of interest.

Teerakiat has taken a modern, hands-on approach, holding unscripted digital town hall meetings across the country and going on unannounced inspection tours. Rather than trying to completely reshape the bureaucracy, the minister has made clear he will look for practical solutions that will result in real, lasting improvements in a short period of time.

Other incremental but important changes are being pursued. The MoE is introducing an app for vocational students. It will be called Echo English V and help students learn English vocabulary deemed to be important in vocational fields. The Energy Conservation Fund will provide BT40m ($1.1m) to the Office of the Basic Education Commission for distance learning in remote areas. While distance learning is already provided to 3000 schools, about 300 cannot receive the satellite transmissions due to a lack of reliable power. The fund will help provide assistance for the set up of solar systems to power receivers.


UNESCO and the OECD have offered specific policy advice. The groups have called for a transparent curriculum review process and the establishment of minimum criteria for teachers. They would also like to see more of an emphasis placed on the use of ICT in order to reduce inequality and help students gain modern skills. The OECD argues that there are no easy fixes, and that the challenges facing Thailand are not just about money, but about implementing a long-term, coherent strategy. The OECD adds that respect for the profession is as important as pay and that education is as much about the future as it is for the present.

The Institute for Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology, a Thai governmental agency, argues that better education can be realised in part by following the examples set by other countries, examining how they pay their teachers, the attention given to education by press and the public, and whether parents encourage their children to study hard. It notes that the test scores in Bangkok are about the same as those in the US, and adds that if the education system of the capital can be replicated nationwide, the situation would be much improved. “In order to grow Thailand’s scientific output, we must keep the best minds in the country,” Pailin Chuchottaworn, chairman of the council at the Vidyasirimedhi Institute of Science and Technology (VISTEC), told OBG. “Apart from offering good faculties and a conducive setting, we must truly incentivise students through steps such as full scholarship offerings for the brightest, giving an alternative to foreign scholarships.”


In June 2017, utilising the emergency powers granted under Article 44 of the constitution, the government said that it would allow some foreign universities to operate in Thailand. According to the government, the existing system for approving foreign tertiary education institutions is too slow, and that unless the process is reformed Thailand will not be able to improve its human resources base fast enough. The introduction of non-Thai universities is especially urgent as the country pursues new priorities under the Thailand 4.0 initiative. Vocational courses will be particularly favoured by the authorities.

The new rules only allow for the establishment of foreign university branches in special economic zones. Admitted institutions will be limited to offering courses not currently available locally, and they will have to comply with local regulations pertaining to university courses. Foreign universities are seen as helping to keep the education sector competitive, but critics note that Thai universities are already under pressure from demographics. Enrolment is falling as a result of declining birth rates. Some local observers believe that if foreign universities are allowed to enter the market, three-quarters of the local institutions could close within the next decade. In 2016 only 80,000 students applied for 150,000 tertiary education vacancies.

In early 2017 US-based Carnegie Mellon University formed an alliance with King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang. It is said to be the first such collaboration. The first step will be the formation of a research institute utilising management principles from the US. That will be followed by the introduction of a dual-degree programme. A research component will eventually be added. The venture will involve the establishment of a physical presence on the campus of the Thai university and the awarding of degrees equivalent to those of the US partner institution.


The education sector in Thailand faces a number of real challenges. It lags by some important measures and has been unable to institute sufficient reforms to turn the tide. However, the current administration seems to be making real progress. It has increased control over the educational bureaucracy and is endeavouring to implement policies that will both work and last. If it is successful in accomplishing what it has set out to do, Thailand could experience an upswing in scores. The country already commits the needed funds. It only needs to direct the resources effectively and make sure that waste and misuse are limited.


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The Report: Thailand 2017

Education & Health chapter from The Report: Thailand 2017

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