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20th Jan 2015

Political uncertainty in Thailand slows planned education reforms

In the wake of the spring 2014 coup that installed a military junta in power, Thailand’s much-touted education reforms remain a work in progress. Despite significant government investments in the sector, hope for meaningful improvements to the education system appears to have stalled, giving way to signs of unease among students and an increased interest in outbound mobility.

Crisis stalls education reforms

In May 2014, after a period of intense political instability and ongoing anti-government protests, the Royal Thai Army declared martial law across Thailand and established a military command to resolve the situation. The army eventually staged a formal coup against a short-lived caretaker government and formed a junta (the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council) to govern the country. In August 2014, army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha was appointed prime minister by his handpicked legislature. Shortly afterwards, the prime minister announced his new cabinet. The Ministry of Education was assigned two deputy ministers to support Education Minister Admiral Narong Pipatanasai and General Prayuth’s much-touted reform plans. While education is set to receive a whopping 19.3% of the 2015 budget (498.16 billion baht or US$15.22 billion), the junta has also made waves by placing a significant emphasis on “Thai values and morals” rather than a much-needed overhaul of the curriculum to promote critical thinking and analysis. As such, scepticism remains about the actual content of the promised reforms. According to an October 2014 article in Asian Correspondent, only superficial reforms - such as proposals for more field trips, more interactive learning, and less homework - have yet been announced, despite the widely recognised challenges facing the Thai education system. The latest World Economic Forum report on education, for example, ranked Thailand last out of eight Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, Thailand came in below the international standard and ranked 50th from 65 nations - well below a number of other Asian states, including Singapore, China, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. And in the Times Higher Education University Rankings 2014, Thailand had only two universities among the top 100 universities in Asia and none in the top 50. No Thai universities ranked in the Times ranking of the world’s top 400. These latest figures occur against the backdrop of the country’s ambitions to position itself as a regional education powerhouse. As reported earlier by ICEF Monitor, Thailand’s former government had big plans to take advantage of greater intra-mobility and closer cooperation among ASEAN nations by growing Thailand’s education profile in the region and attracting more inbound students. This led to a number of pre-coup policy announcements, including a May 2013 pledge to prepare key universities to be ready for the government’s plan to turn Thailand into an international education hub by increasing programmes in English and enhancing internationalisation efforts at the institutional level. A recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, meanwhile, points to additional challenges ahead. Despite earlier claims from the Bank of Thailand that the economy had recovered following the coup, the latest economic figures describe a sluggish Thai economy, with expected GDP growth for 2014 revised to 0.8% from previous estimates of 1.5% earlier in the year (and a more robust 2.9% in 2013). The Times estimates that this most-recent coup - the 10th in Thailand since 1932 - has cost the Thai economy US$15 billion (and counting). It remains to be seen whether the deteriorating economic situation will have a further impact on the country’s education system. The prime minister recently suggested that elections originally promised for late 2015 may need to be postponed, depending on the pace of broader reforms announced by his government. Another recent item from Reuters quoted Prime Minister Prayuth as he outlined his planned reforms. “The election must come with a new constitution and 11 reform areas,” he said. "Everything depends on the roadmap so we must see first if the roadmap can be completed. Elections take time to organise.”

Concerns for parents and students

Delays in planned reforms for the education system continue to cause concern among many Thai parents and students. Despite the fact that the kingdom has consistently spent a greater proportion of its budget and GDP on education than many regional and developed countries - 7.6% of its GDP was spent on education in 2012, and more than double Singapore's 3%, according to World Bank data - results have been consistently disappointing. The Nation recently reported that in the 2014 competitiveness study of 60 economies by the Swiss-based International Institute of Management Development (IMD), Thailand's education system was ranked 54th. The same article cites the latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report, which ranked Thailand's education system 75th out of 144 countries and territories, behind Senegal, Rwanda, and Albania. Thailand is also among the handful of countries with "very low proficiency" in English in the latest Education First English Proficiency Index, which looks at the average adult's English language skills in 60 countries and territories. As a result, students and parents are voicing concern. The Nation points to student protests against Thailand’s reliance on rote learning and an absence of deep critical reflection in the Thai system. The new government’s emphasis on embedding twelve “flawless” Thai values and morals into the curriculum - among them, "being honest, sacrificial and patient with [a] positive attitude for the common good of the public" and "maintaining discipline, being respectful of laws and the elderly and seniority" have also been criticised by educators and academics, who say attention should be placed instead on the slow pace of more significant reforms. On a related note, the Asian Correspondent estimates there are now over 100,000 “cram schools” across Thailand catering to students from grade 1 to grade 12, citing a report by the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) that estimates the average student in Bangkok spends over 6,000 baht (US$185) per year on extra tuition. Additionally, the Correspondent notes, the number of international schools in Thailand has grown from just ten in 1992 to more than 160 today.

Opportunities for education providers

Despite the stalled reforms, international education connections continue to be made between Thailand and other countries. As we reported previously, Thailand’s strategic role as headquarters for the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO), the Passage to ASEAN (P2A) and ASEAN University Network (AUN), gives it unusual leverage in the pursuit of deeper regional mobility. Regional cooperation and a deepening of education, trade and labour links among ASEAN nations continues to press ahead. While Thai students already have a strong history of going abroad for study - the latest figures show just under 27,000 Thai students are globally mobile, the bulk of whom study in the US, the UK, Australia, Japan, and Malaysia - our earlier conversations with agents and contacts on the ground suggest that this number may be set to increase if parents become concerned with further deterioration in the system. Furthermore, the urgent need to improve English language skills among the nation’s labour force means the number of English language programmes is set to expand. The Nation recently reported on the need to strengthen the motivation of Thai middle school students to learn English. The growth in English programmes is expected to be particularly acute in the digital world, with many providers offering low-cost or even free online exams as a way to establish a competitive edge. At the postsecondary level, Thailand has also witnessed explosive growth in demand in recent years. Figures before the coup indicate graduate enrolment in Thailand has grown by 300% over the past decade. Underlining the previous government’s belief that competitiveness in research is a significant indicator of the quality and human resources of the country, the Ministry of Education initiated the National Research Universities Project to the tune of an additional 12 billion baht (US$370 million). A 2013 UNESCO report, however, further underlines the need to improve quality system-wide, noting “The Thai higher education system is facing a crisis. A large proportion of university graduates are not sufficiently competent in their fields; and while there is a surplus of graduates in the field of social sciences there is a lack of qualified graduates in the technological and professional fields.” While extensive regulations limit the capacity for international institutions to establish operations in Thailand, the fact that so few foreign providers are currently operating in the country, combined with pent-up demand and ongoing quality concerns, point to potential opportunities in delivery and training, particularly in the language and vocational sectors.

Watch this space

It remains to be seen whether 2015 democratic elections will press ahead as promised. While the current climate of restlessness among Thai students and others in the education sphere suggest the need for deeper reforms, the demand for quality education in Thailand, along with the country’s aspirations to be a key education player in Southeast Asia, means opportunities will continue to develop in a range of areas, including recruitment, English language training, and digital delivery.

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