Stair-steps: Major reforms are needed to improve performance and competitiveness

After years of rapid economic expansion and population growth, Thailand’s education system is facing strong challenges in areas such as quality and enrolment, the rural-urban divide, links between business and academia, and policy continuity. Recognising the scale of these challenges, the education minister, Chaturon Chaisaeng, commented in September 2013 that Thailand would need reforms to “push through a revolution in education” in the years ahead.

Whether or not its potential improvements are realised, the system faces a period of substantial change. This will give rise to the political, economic and social challenges of resetting and redirecting forces currently in place. It will also open many doors for investment in education and training. Thai teachers, administrators and government authorities are well aware that the speed and skill with which they reform their sector will have vast and long-term consequences for the kingdom’s development. This is all the more so as Thailand seeks to build a more knowledge-based economy and to open up to regional and foreign markets.

Ministries & Laws

Since 2003, a single ministry has overseen Thai education: the Ministry of Education (MoE). This overarching department absorbed previous bodies that were dedicated to higher education (HE) and planning via several laws – notably the 1999 National Education Act (NEA) and its 2002 amendments, the 2002 Bureaucratic Reform Bill and a 1982 act under which the MoE issues licences to private schools. Two other important planning and strategic bodies fall under office of the prime minister: the Office of the Permanent Secretary and the Office of the Education Council. Other ministries that maintain a role in education are the Ministry of the Interior (MoI), the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Major municipal institutions, such as the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, also have significant input. In the area of vocational training, the ministries of agriculture, tourism, defence and the interior operate their own schools. Outside the government hierarchy, yet closely monitoring it, is the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment (ONESQA). This body, state-funded yet independent, regularly assesses education providers in the country; its last report was issued in 2010 for the 2006-10 period.

Structural Change

Along with this centralisation under the MoE came a move toward greater institutional autonomy. The MoE gave state universities more self-governing powers and created 175 Educational Service Areas (ESAs) to cede more local control at the primary and secondary levels. The number of ESAs rose to 185 in 2008. At the local level, decentralisation has not been as thorough as expected. Administrators of primary and secondary schools were concerned about the ability of local authorities (known as local administrative organisations, LAOs) to manage education, and about their budgets (there are stark economic disparities between ESAs). This led most schools to stay linked to the MoE, especially for funding.

The NEA amendments of 2002 instituted a system of general state subsidies for schools. Drawn from the national budget and funnelled through the MoE, these subsidies make up the bulk of school funding, issued on a per-student basis and administered in block grants via the ESAs. LAOs, which administratively fall under the MoI, are able to mobilise finances to top up the resources of schools in their areas. Through these, the MoI also has a say in how local school systems are run.

The original NEA of 1999 declared the right of every child to an education, guaranteeing cost-free instruction for 12 years, nine of those being mandatory. This guarantee – which may be supervised by private institutions, LAOs or the government – was expanded in 2005 to include non-Thai residents and extended in 2009 to 15 years. It now includes kindergarten, vocational and non-formal education.

The MoE has three main arms, each overseeing a different part of the system. The first is the Office of the Basic Education Commission, which oversees primary and secondary education; the second is the Office of the Higher Education Commission; and the third is the Office of the Vocational Education Commission. These bodies all coordinate their policies within the framework of both the country’s long-term development plan, Vision 2027, and its medium-term National Economic and Social Development Plan (2012-16). This last was drawn up by the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Board with input from state and education sector professionals. Its theme is lifelong learning for Thais of all generations.

Three Branches

The MoE divides Thai education into three types: formal, non-formal and informal. Formal is that which is offered in schools, colleges and universities, whether state or private, according to a defined curriculum and standard. Non-formal covers areas such as pre-school, language schools and adult education classes. Informal covers the educational activity of museums, libraries, state media programmes and the like. The formal sector is split between basic and higher education, with basic further subdivided into pre-elementary, elementary and secondary levels. For religious education, there are more than 14,000 Buddhist scripture schools and Sunday teaching units, and 835 Islamic centres, according to MoE statistics for 2012.

Pre-Elementary

Pre-elementary school (Anubaan in Thai) covers those age 3-5 and consists of two years at a state school or three years at a private one. These include kindergartens, special childcare units and child development centres, most falling under the ambit of local authorities. At this level, the private sector plays a larger role than in other age groups – in Bangkok, it provides 59%, against a national overall figure of 28%. Though the state’s 15-year guarantee makes it free, this type of school is not compulsory. Enrolment figures vary, but MoE data for the 2012 academic year show a total of about 2.7m children in formal and non-formal pre-elementary schools. Of these, around 1.8m were in the formal sector out of a potential 2.3m, yielding an enrolment rate of 77.1%. To put this in perspective, the same MoE data puts the official national population as of end-2012 at 62.97m – 30.9m males and 32.07m females. The actual population is certainly larger, given the number of registered (and sometimes unregistered) foreign workers whose children often also enter the system. The 2012 World Population Review suggests a total closer to 70m.

Elementary

At the elementary level (known as Pratom Suksa), education becomes compulsory. Thai children spend ages 6 to 12 here, with a school year running from May to March. A total of 5.2m children are enrolled, some 4.9m of them in the formal sector. Because the MoE uses gross enrolment data, its statistics suggest that this formal sector enrolment figure is higher than the 4.7m potential formal school population of that age, yielding 104% enrolment.

Secondary

Secondary school (or Matayom Suksa), which starts one month later than elementary, is divided into lower and upper halves, each lasting three years. The lower is for ages 12 to 15; the upper for ages 15 to 18. MoE data for these levels show 2.5m in formal lower, and 2.1m in formal upper. Potential student numbers for these are, respectively, 2.56m and 2.93m, yielding enrolment levels of 97.7% and 73.2%. Over time, too, enrolment has steadily improved, especially at the secondary level: in 2001, enrolment in lower secondary had been around 76%; in upper, 58%. To encourage poorer students to continue on to the upper level, which is where vocational and technical education begins, after the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis the government began providing loans to students. State upper secondaries are classed as general, vocational or comprehensive – the first potentially leading to university, the second to employment and the third a combination of the two. Of the 2.14m students enrolled in upper secondary in 2012, according to MoE figures, 66% went to general upper secondary schools, and the remaining third attended vocational or comprehensive ones.

Higher Education

After upper secondary begins HE, where the academic year runs from June to March (though as of 2014 it will start in September). HE includes a variety of paths: the undergraduate-postgraduate route, tertiary vocational (continuing from upper secondary), lower vocational and the technical education level. Vocational training itself has several specific paths. Those on the academic route move towards a university degree and perhaps postgraduate studies. Those in the vocational stream, too, may attend university, where they work towards a more highly skilled diploma or attend a special vocational college that ends in a vocational certificate.

In 2012, 308,628 students were on vocational certificate programmes, and 18,938 on diploma programmes (see analysis). During the 2012 academic year there were 2.17m students in HE, or 18.3% of the total student population from pre-elementary onwards. Most of these, 1.97m, were taking undergraduate degree courses. The figures show relatively good rates of enrolment overall, though on the ground these can vary greatly between regions and socio-economic strata.

As for private education, some 8000 institutions are currently in operation, of which 133 are international schools with MoE licences, according to a 2013 report by Australian Education International. These follow mainly UK, US, Australian or International Baccalaureate curricula. The vocational segment includes some 458 private colleges with programmes. There are also 71 private HE institutions. The ratio of students enrolled in state versus private HE is around 90:10.

Test & Teachers

A system of exams also decides what level is appropriate for which minds. The first, in elementary school year three (ages 8-9), is a national test in maths and Thai. This is followed at the end of elementary school by a year six test (ages 11-12) covering maths, Thai, science and English. A third falls at the end of lower secondary, or year nine (ages 14-15), tests all these subjects plus social science. A separate exam is held for entrance to upper secondary school, the results of which are key to determining the vocational versus general education path.

These exams are administered by the country’s teachers, who number 691,472 across institutions of all kinds (including HE), according to data the MoE provided to OBG in October 2013. Of these, 630,259 worked at MoE establishments. Total students numbered 13.93 in that year, 12.81m of them enrolled at MoE establishments. Those figures yield a teacher/student ratio of 1:20, both overall and among public schools. Remove HE, and this ratio improves to around 1:18 (the figure for HE by itself is 1:37). In certain parts of the country, however, the picture in elementary and secondary schools may not be as rosy as such overarching averages suggest.

The MoE administers 36,026 institutions across all levels. Add non-MoE institutions, and this number rises to 38,455. According to UNESCO, many of these schools are small, especially in rural areas, where urban migration has thinned the population. As a result, many village schools have closed, meaning many children must commute to get an education. Programmes such as the free bicycle scheme, which supplies bikes to those in remote villages so that they can get to the nearest school, have helped keep enrolment up.

While student numbers have held up at larger rural schools, such institutions find it hard to recruit and retain staff – particularly the well-qualified and native speakers of foreign languages such as English. This pushes student/teacher ratios in these areas up, and teacher quality down. A study of 300 schools by Mahasarakham University in 2013 showed that class sizes in the poorer north-eastern region sometimes hit 55-60 students. A 2011 UNESCO reported that, at the secondary level, class sizes averaged 37.

State Support

Such quantitative issues, however, are haunted by qualitative ones: just how good is a Thai education? “There is a great concern over quality of education in Thailand,” Lay-Cheng Tan, programme officer for UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Programme of Educational Innovation and Development, told OBG. “Results are declining and Thailand is dropping in the rankings.”

Such alarm comes despite the government’s above-average spending on education. Indeed, education has long taken up the biggest chunk of the national budget – about 20% of government spending, or 4% of GDP. These proportions have held, more or less, from the end of the 1997-98 crisis, according to MoE figures. In 2013, the figure was 20.6%, or 3.9% of GDP – which, given strong growth over the last decade, represents a significant annual increase in real terms. The education budget was 10.9% higher in 2013 than in 2012.

The current government has underscored its support for education spending (and for ICT) with a programme to equip every student with a tablet computer. The purported aim is to boost literacy and compensate for the shortage of teachers by introducing educational programmes on these machines. For year-one students, distribution has already begun.

Concerns

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) “Global Competitiveness Report 2013-14”, Thailand’s educational standards have fallen relative to other ASEAN countries. The report ranked Thailand 78th out of 144 countries on the quality of its education system overall – a drop of one slot on the previous year. On primary education, it fared even worse: 86th. This prompted the education minister to call for a sector “revolution”. Weighed against its ASEAN neighbours, Thailand outranks mainland countries, but falls behind the islands: the country beat Vietnam (which climbed from 97th to 95th), but fell far behind Malaysia (up from 33rd to 19th) and Indonesia (up from 55th to 36th).

Though Thai education officials have questioned the report’s accuracy, there is widespread agreement that the areas highlighted need addressing. Similar alarms had been raised as early as 2009 by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which showed Thailand with low test scores (compared to the OECD average) in areas such as critical thinking, literacy, maths and science. In the latest PISA report, for 2012, Thailand improved slightly over the previous one, but still came in only 50th out of 65 countries in maths and 48th for reading and science. Thailand’s official monitor of educational quality, ONESQA, has echoed such concerns. Of 12,230 primary and secondary schools it assessed up to September 2012, 30.4% failed to meet the office’s requirements. Only 6.5% were dubbed “excellent”. The areas often earmarked for improvement were teacher quality, school management, policy stability, curricula, languages (particularly English), HE enrolment and workplace preparedness.

Plan Of Action

In response to the WEF report, in September 2013 the education minister established a special committee to look into these issues and produce a checklist of needed reforms. The committee is also taking 2015 – the year of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) – as an incentive to act. In that year, greater cooperation in education between ASEAN states under the AEC is expected to begin in education, raising the need for greater uniformity – from compatible qualifications to greater ease of cross-border movement for students and teachers.

Language skills also need improvement, not only in English, the ASEAN lingua franca, but also in other Asian tongues. “Thais cannot speak other ASEAN languages, but most people in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia can speak working Thai, which gives them a further advantage in the workplace,” Tawil Paungma, president of King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, told OBG. The prospect of AEC integration leans hard on authorities: they must either reform the education system or risk damaging the country’s competitiveness as the regional market opens up.

The current strategy, as outlined by the minister of education, involves eight main areas: teaching reform, teacher development reform, technological applications in teaching, vocational education (see analysis), private participation in university education, distribution of learning opportunities and educational improvement in the troubled south. The MoE is also pushing literacy hard. The year 2014, the OBEC has declared, is to be one of “zero illiteracy”, with special classes formed to help struggling students. In 2012, the World Bank estimated that 1.6m Thai children were illiterate.

Improving the conditions and standards of teaching is seen as crucial to further progress. Teachers’ status and salaries have historically been low, which affects motivation. Salaries have increased in recent years, but there is still little correlation between teacher pay and student performance, according to a 2013 report by the Thailand Development Research Institute. This study found that education managers, when considering teachers’ requests for raises, give only a 3% weight to student performance. Raising the quality of teachers leaving pedagogical colleges is also seen as key, as is providing continuous training during employment. To establish a system for this is one of the main challenges facing education in the years ahead.

Snapshot Of HE

Thailand has some 80 public HE institutions: 14 autonomous universities, 16 traditional universities, 40 teacher training colleges (known as Rajabhat universities), nine higher vocational colleges (known as Rajamangala universities), and one institute of technology. The private sector adds to that some 71 HE institutions (including 24 private universities) and 19 community colleges. Demand is highest at the public universities, which take around 80% of all undergraduates and are often seen as more prestigious and of higher quality – with Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn, the country’s oldest, often cited as the most desirable. According to a 2009 World Bank report, around half of all HE institutions were in the greater Bangkok area, a figure unlikely to have changed much.

Thailand’s admissions system since 2010 has involved a General Aptitude Test and a Professional Aptitude Test. Each may be taken twice a year, and the student may choose the highest score for their application. These scores are also aggregated with grade point averages from years 10-12 and with A- and O-Net exams, which focus on analytical and problem solving skills, and subject knowledge, respectively. The anomalies are two open universities, Ramkhamhaeng and Sukhothai Thammathirat, which admit students according to their own criteria. Both offer distance learning courses. The first also hosts some on-campus learning.

The Thai HE sector also displays a widening gender gap: female students form an ever larger majority. The World Bank thinks this may be due to higher male dropout numbers at the lower-upper secondary level.

The gender balance tips even more in favour of female students the higher the educational level. In HE, the goals of the National Economic Development Plan are part of a larger vision: the 15-year Long-Range Plan on Higher Education, which runs up to 2022. This blueprint urges a shift from quantity to quality, charging the OHEC with producing strategies to carry this out.

Outlook

Education is the basis of Thailand’s efforts to become a more knowledge-based society, and to move away from its low-wage, low-cost model of development. Given the swift approach of more ASEAN integration and the importance of overseas markets to Thailand’s economic development, education is also vital to the country’s future competitiveness.

Recognition of these factors and imperatives has long been widespread, yet there are clear concerns whether the country can deliver the reforms necessary to up the education system to a higher level of quality and relevance. Nonetheless, the political will to do so is apparent, and the current debate on the way forward is a healthy sign. Thailand may thus be poised for a significant quantum shift in education – one likely to involve the private sector more than ever before.

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The Report: Thailand 2014

Education & Health chapter from The Report: Thailand 2014

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