Pushing ahead: Looking to the private sector to encourage new development

Three years into a second decade of planned reforms, the Thai educational system is facing a growing public crisis of confidence as the Ministry of Education’s (MoE) performance is outpaced by a rapidly evolving economy. Compounded by six years of domestic political instability and a global economic crisis, public debate rages on the nation’s ability to compete in the wider global economy and more immediately in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) billed for 2015.

INSTITUTING REFORM: Thailand has a long history of educational reforms, the first wave of which was initiated in the late 19th century and helped preserve its independence from colonial annexation. The second wave started in 1977 in response to widespread political dissatisfaction and violent confrontation with Thailand’s military governments. The third, and current, wave began in 1999 as a direct response to economic priorities, which remain the foundation of the reform agenda today. The first decade of this reform, from 1999 to 2009, saw dramatic successes, including universal primary education, sustained literacy rates of 94% and an overhaul of out-dated educational doctrines. Now, the reform agenda has turned to secondary and higher educational institutions as the foundations of a knowledge-based economy.

Paramount in the reform roadmap is the adoption of learner-centred teaching and use of information and communications technology (ICT). These, along with strengthening secondary and higher education curricula will promote creativity and critical thinking among Thailand’s 14m students. To facilitate this, the private sector is being encouraged to take on a larger role, while the MoE continues with efforts to decentralise control and provide institutions with greater autonomy.

One aspect of the reform agenda is the “One Tablet PC Per Child” programme. In May 2012 the Pheu Thai government placed a multi-million-dollar order with Chinese firm Shenzen Scope Scientific Development for 1m tablets which will be provided to the country’s first-year primary school students (see Telecoms & IT chapter). The project is a public demonstration of its commitment to modernising education and embracing new media, and the government has been keen to emphasise that the tablets are meant to be a tool for teachers, but the purchase has been greeted with scepticism.

Loaded with “learn and play” formats encompassing science, mathematics, Thai, English and social sciences, the MoE acknowledges that many upcountry schools will also require infrastructure upgrades for electricity and Wi-Fi, limitations that will restrict the first tranche’s deployment to the central provinces.

IN NUMBERS: Education is viewed as a solution to poverty, disparity and an accelerator of economic development. The state has thus made a strong financial commitment to the sector, spending an average 4.5% of GDP on education since 1991, one of the world’s largest shares of total public expenditures. With 34,000 schools, 174 higher educational universities, institutes and colleges, and 14m students nationwide, it is one of the most comprehensive among its developing neighbours.

Thailand provides 12 years of free education from grades 1-12 (primary and secondary school) split into six years of prathom (P1-P6) and mattayom (M1-M6).

In line with international norms, compulsory attendance ends at grade 9 and the completion of lower secondary schooling. Students may then chose to pursue upper secondary education, which includes technical and vocational courses, or enter the labour market.

DEFINING DIFFERENCES: While Thailand has emerged into the middle-income bracket and its prowess as a global manufacturing centre is well deserved, socio-economic disparities define its contemporary landscape and continue to erode economic competitiveness. This remains a fundamental challenge to be overcome by education. Moreover, rapid-fire changes in government and policies over recent years have muddied the water under a surfeit of well-intentioned interventions. Only when Pheu Thai won a clear electoral mandate in 2011 has this issue been partially resolved, giving the MoE the scope to regain some of its momentum for reform.

The MoE is responsible for policy formulation, implementation and supervision at all levels of the system and is the government’s largest ministry despite a stated policy of downsizing and decentralisation initiated in 2002. It remains responsible for 38,000 institutions and some 400,000 personnel, overseeing 62 offices, commissions and public organisations. These include the Offices of Basic, Higher and Vocational Education Commissions (OBEC, OHEC and OVEC, respectively), which are responsible for oversight of these segments. Also under the ministry’s purview are the Office of the Educational Council, Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment (ONESQA) and the National Institute of Educational Testing Service (NIETS) which set, implement and evaluate all public examinations.

Its stature is a result of previous reforms that combined several departments in attempts to streamline internal processes, but has arguably lengthened implementation periods instead. The MoE continues to pursue internal and sectoral reforms, but initiatives begun in 1999 are only now beginning to show results.

SECONDARY CONCERNS: This lag presents one of the sector’s key challenges as the secondary schooling system comes under increased pressure to produce the future workforce for Thailand’s much publicised knowledge economy. Yet, political agendas are seemingly out of sync with reform plans.

Budget increases and expenditures, such as those involved in the tablet project, for instance, have not been the cure-all for the education system. This is due in part to a budgetary imbalance across educational levels. Ahead of a 2015 goal of universal upper-secondary education as part of Thailand’s Millennium Development Goals, there are few signs of redress in the sector’s balance of funding, which in 2009 gave 48% to primary education and just 16% to secondary. This is despite a 2012 budget allocation of BT420.49bn ($13.41bn) in 2012, a 49% increase from 2006.

“Half of the Thai education budget goes to an excessive number of extremely small preschools and primary school because of the tradition of having a school in every village,” wrote UNESCO representative, Rie Atagi, in the report “Secondary Teachers in Thailand”. Indeed, the secondary segment is stuck in the middle, with tertiary facilities also receiving significant priority in the budget. “Thailand, with its 40 rajabhat ( technical) universities, has an oversized higher education sector which drains resources away from secondary education,” the UNESCO research reported.

IMBALANCES: Moreover, gross enrolment rates (GER) for lower and higher secondary educational tiers have remained static since 2009 at an average of 68%. However, this figure masks national variance. Bangkok’s upper-secondary GER is 82%, whereas in the north-east, north and south, it has remained at 60% since 2008, according to UNESCO figures.

The MoE is also faced with an imbalanced ratio of male to female enrolment levels. From near equal 90% enrolment in primary school, the average male attendance drops substantially to 73% in secondary school against 80% female attendance. This trend further widens at graduation as the male population is funnelled out into the workforce, in which a person who has completed lower secondary schooling may be considered skilled. By the time students reach higher education, the MoE reports that just 41% of males continue to tertiary education, compared with 51% of females.

Testifying to the need for sectoral and institutional capacity building, MoE statistics indicate that 1.6m eligible students remain unaccounted for among 16m school-age children. These figures are unlikely to be comprehensive, however. It is now trying to identify these children with the Ministry of Public Health and the ONESQA has already significantly expanded its operations in order to gather comprehensive and accurate data on Thailand’s school system. Now covering 30,000 schools, 800 vocational institutions, 260 higher education campuses and 1785 faculties, in addition to 23,000 preschools, this expansion is the department’s foremost achievement to date said ONESQA’s deputy director, Ekaphong Lauhathiansind.

NEED FOR REFORM: Despite recent steps towards improvement, the public school system has a record of poor accountability, politicisation, corruption and opaque enrolment processes – all factors that contribute to undermined public confidence.

The system is typically presented as relying on outdated rote learning methods and curricula that do not encourage critical thinking, nor provide necessary skills to compete in the labour market or broader economy. Almost 30,000 schools need support to bring them up to national standards, according to the MoE, and examination results have done little to dispel concerns.

TEST RESULTS: Results from the Ordinary National Education Test in 2011, taken by 2m M6 students, stirred renewed public debate. Average scores in maths, English and sciences – subjects considered the bedrock of strong economies and labour forces – ranged from just 0-30%. While students performed well in vocational subjects, health and social sciences (averaging between 40-70%), scores for Thai averaged 30-43%.

Concerns have been raised about the calibre of the exams, yet results are mirrored in other tests. Performance in the Programme for International Students Assessment has also been disappointing. Average results in 2009 fell 80 points short of the OECD 500 average, and ahead of the 2012 tests Thailand held a spot in the bottom quartile of the 65 participating countries.

The system is not devoid of success however, as Thailand has grown from underdog status to being a top contender in international scholastic tournaments and Olympiads. School curricula are being revised to increase focus on maths, sciences and foreign languages – skills in line with labour market demands and which also provide higher and quicker economic returns.

“Thailand is moving toward being more international – English programmes are symptomatic of that – but without greater tangible reform and commitment to the education sector, particularly in terms of changing the methodology, the Thai education sector shall continue to replicate the ‘errors’ of the last 40-60 years,” Boonmark Sirinaovakul, the president of Stamford International University, told OBG.

Thailand’s commitment to reform is assured, but the challenge is daunting. It may be another decade before Thailand can compete at the international level to which it aspires, Ekaphong said, and substantial understaffing has exacerbated many of the issues.

TEACHER TROUBLES: Heavy teaching loads resulting from substantial shortfalls have meant teachers are routinely instructing subjects they are not qualified to teach; an issue revealed by an OBEC survey in 2010 in which many teachers failed to pass the exams they taught. This scenario is likely to continue under new licensing laws qualifying them across all subjects. Opaque evaluation processes for merit-based promotions have also undermined morale.

An estimated 188,000 teachers, equivalent to 41% of the national total, are set to retire by 2020, according to the government’s Education Reform Committee. Early retirement schemes caught the government by surprise, attracting some 70,000 participants. Led in part by some of the most qualified individuals who would have the best alternative employment opportunities, this was nearly four times the intended target.

Remedial policies faltered and by the largest estimates, public schools face a shortage of some 60,000 positions. However, teachers have received salary rises under the Pheu Thai government based on seniority, location and students. In addition, with a budget of BT4.23bn ($134.9m) and the capacity to produce 30,000 teachers versed in learner-orientated skills in five years, the “New Breed of Teachers” initiative has been revived and is expected to bridge the most urgent shortfalls.

PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS: Thailand is addressing these issues in a pragmatic manner and considers the private sector as complementary to its reform goals. Former education minister Chinnaworn Boonyakiat has predicted that half the schools will be private by 2020.

Private schools and universities are not new players in Thailand’s education system, with 17% of all primary and secondary students enrolled in private institutions. These are banking on a growing affluent middle class, evolving over the past decade to cover gaps in the public system and gaining significant popularity among parents who can afford the fees.

The meteoric growth of Thailand’s international schools since market liberalisation has profited from the rising middle class’s aspirational demands (see analysis), which has also been registering in the proliferation of after-hours coaching schools. Providing refresher courses and employing modern teaching approaches, these independent businesses are one of the sector’s most dynamic areas of growth. Estimated to have enrolled 300,000 students in 2007, and expected to generate annual revenues in excess of BT6bn ($191.4m), conservative estimates today are that more than 400,000 students employ coaching schools to complement their public school curricula.

COACHING SCHOOLS: Despite lying within a largely undefined regulatory area, their popularity continues to grow among investors and students. Private educational institutions are restricted to 20% profit, according to the Private School Act, but this applies only to those institutes registered with the MoE. Many coaching schools remain off the books and have flourished, with branded chains reaching even small urban centres via remote video-conferencing capabilities.

With salaries in the private sector almost 10 times higher than in public schools, and working conditions benefitting from lower administrative burdens, coaching schools have increasingly contributed to the ongoing public sector brain drain. “In principal we do not encourage students and teachers to go to tutorial schools, but I should accept that they exist and they are a very good business,” Sasithara Pichaicharnnarong, the permanent secretary of the MoE, told OBG. “If I had children, I would send them to these schools as well.”

Central to these schools’ growing market share has also been a concerted move away from the public examination system by several of Thailand’s prestigious public universities in favour of direct examination.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Led by Chulalongkorn University, which increased its direct examination intake to 50%, the move by top-tier universities toward direct examination has been tacit recognition from the tertiary sector that government exams are not reliable.

While this has created some controversy, the university sector has received support from the MoE. “We should allow [universities] greater autonomy, because they have the right to do so. University administrations should be free to leave the control of OHEC,” Sasithara said. This policy remains in line with the government’s 1999 reform roadmap for the country’s 78 public higher education institutions, including universities, rajabhat and community colleges.

Beginning in 2002 Thailand officially granted its 21 public universities autonomous status, enabling the sector to develop according to market demand and compete more efficiently on the international stage.

Chulalongkorn University was ranked 171 in QS World University Rankings 2011, with notable academic centres also emerging in Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen and Songkhla in the deep south. This has helped reduce pressure on institutions in Bangkok, which is now host to only 35% of Thailand’s 2.46m higher education students.

In reality “autonomy” has been partial, with oblique government oversight of budgets and curricular amendments. This has, on occasion, led to bitter public disputes, with Mahidol University’s dean Sukree Charoensuk in 2011 publicly stating that OHEC was not qualified to evaluate the content of their programmes.

Institutions acknowledge that bureaucracy has proven to be one of the more enduring obstacles to further progress. As a result, the 68 private institutions that retain full operational autonomy are host to the vast majority of foreign students. These facilities have also seen rising enrolment numbers from local families that can afford the higher fees they charge.

Admission systems and budgetary restrictions continue to frustrate the sector’s semi-autonomous institutes that are required to lobby the Budget Bureau each year for funding. The development of a clearing house system for university admissions, along the lines of UKAS in the UK, would help to resolve the issue, according to Chulalongkorn University’s president Pirom Kamolratanakul. “This would be a useful change to allow for fairer distribution of intake, although the process of university funding allocation should be more systematic to properly provide for student intake,” he said.

Nonetheless, the 2002 shift has been central to strengthening private partnerships within the education system, which is placed at the forefront of efforts to propagate the knowledge economy. This is led by nine universities (Chulalongkorn, Mahidol, Kasetsart, Chiang Mai, Thammasat, Khon Kaen, Prince of Songkla, King Mongkut Thonburi Technology and Suranaree Technology universities), deemed centres of excellence and awarded a pool of BT3bn ($95.7m) over 2010 and 2012 for research and development (R&D).

PLANTING THE SEED: With a potentially fertile research base of companies encompassing the agro-industrial, petrochemicals, automotive, electronics and software industries, Thailand’s higher education institutions are beginning to capitalise on their home-grown talent. Linkages with government agencies at the incubator Thailand Science Park north of Bangkok, set up in 2002, have developed alongside a portfolio of companies including PTT, CP Group, Betagro, Samsung, LG, Toyota, Seagate, Western Digital, Toshiba and Hitachi.

Such moves are crucial, explained the Asian Institute of Technology’s president, Said Irandoust. “With the advancement of neighbouring economies, Thailand can no longer sustain its position solely as a production hub. There is a need for greater R&D funding from the public sector, as R&D is crucial in moving Thai industries towards being more knowledge-based, which is more attractive to international enterprises.”

However, concerns are building across public and private sectors that the government has not clearly defined the constituent sectors of the new economy and that substantial portions of Thailand’s school-age population – and future labour force – are already at a disadvantage in terms of capacity development.

LANGUAGE BARRIERS: With over 600m people in the AEC, many of whom share common local or foreign languages, Thai remains a comparatively minor language, and the government and sector authorities acknowledges that this puts its students and labour force are currently at a competitive disadvantage.

A genuine and widespread desire to learn English has fed the proliferation of independent and brand-chain English-language training schools and TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) exams have become a standard feature in job applications. In a sign of the work left to do, Thailand slid to 27th place in the 2011 IMD World Competitiveness Scoreboard. While 10 places above its nearest competitor, Indonesia, Thailand’s rankings have consistently fallen farther behind Singapore and Malaysia, whose education systems the MoE uses as its own benchmark. Additionally, Education First’s English Proficiency Index (EPI) ranked Thailand 42nd out of 44 Asian countries in March 2011, far behind Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. The OECD also warned that Thailand needed to “improve the outcome of education and reduce urban-rural disparities”.

To facilitate language-learning and improve outcomes for students, the government launched the “English Speaking Year 2012” initiative for schools, mandating one day a week to be taught in English. With the expected opening of borders in 2015 to skilled workers, many predict Thailand’s labour pool may prove uncompetitive in the regional and global workforce.

VOCATIONAL VOLITIONS: The demand for English is symptomatic of rapid acceleration in socio-economic catalysts experienced in Thailand that have created a broad, yet shallow, labour pool. Much of the workforce remains aligned with the former low-cost, low-value economic model that is incompatible with Thailand’s pursuit of a transition to new economic activities that require higher skills and intellectual capital.

“Thailand’s future vision as a knowledge-based economy relying on highly skilled labour and technological advances to drive growth and productivity will be extremely difficult to achieve,” the World Bank warned in 2011, without redress in the education sector’s governance, financing, quality and access, as well as its relationship to the private sector.

Vocational training in Thailand is better than most countries in the region in terms of industry participation, with well structured vocational programmes at the secondary and higher education levels. But UNESCO’s Youngsup Choi, a programme specialist in the education policy and reform unit, said, “The Thai economy lacks key skills in development. Almost all employers complain about the incompetencies of employees, but not all are interested in skills development. They are more focused on skills utilisation.” UNESCO has lent its assistance to the development of a National Qualification Framework since 2010, but this has attracted the support of a very limited scope of companies, Choi explained.

Local owners of the ubiquitous 7-Eleven convenience stores, CP All, remain a notable exception. The company established the Panyapiwat Institute of Technology and Panyapiwat Institute of Management, developed in cooperation with the MoE’s OVEC. Currently offering bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes, it has opened learning centres nationwide to cater to its own internal human resources development needs.

STRICTLY PRIVATE: While companies have committed resources to in-house workforce development, these remain individual initiatives independent of the government. “There is no government policy to encourage employer-led training in the workplace,” said Choi.

This has moved the onus back to the higher education sector. While responding in a pragmatic manner, developing “integrated learning” programmes utilising reciprocal linkages with industry to the benefit of its students, resources and student throughput remains low compared to industry demand.

While a number of universities offer such services as internships, shared R&D partnerships, on-campus facilities and incubation facilities for businesses and their students, some institutions are going further, collaborating with specific companies to train and educate their staff through dedicated courses.

In line with the government providing 60% of all R&D funding to date, many institutions maintain links with government incubation institutes such as the National Science and Technology Development Agency. In parallel, private linkages have been established. Mahidol University has partnered with several Japanese firms to provide training to tranches of its employees each year and has utilised its hospital and medical company for hands-on learning opportunities for its students.

Stamford University, recently acquired by the Laureate Group (see analysis), has also introduced service-orientated diplomas linked to Australia’s top-rated Blue Mountain Hotel School, while the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Commission announced partnerships with universities across the country in 2012 to offer a meetings, conventions and exhibitions diploma.

While such initiatives are commendable, almost all mainstream programmes require a substantial incubation period before their benefits can be appreciated by employers and employees alike. Thailand’s education authorities will be hoping the impact of these programmes will take hold in time for the introduction of the AEC in 2015, when increased competition will highlight any shortcomings in the workforce.

OUTLOOK: Pragmatic and ambitious reforms implemented by the government and MoE in the past decade have created substantial achievements in both primary and tertiary educational tiers. These remain to the nation’s credit as the MoE prepares to embrace the necessary paradigm shift in its reform agenda to tackle critical issues within its secondary educational system.

The sheer size and complexity of the sector constitutes the reform programme’s gravest challenge. To reduce the pressure on the public purse, Thailand considers the private sector as integral partners in the development of its education, which will be the basis for a knowledge-based economy. However, for the country to compete internationally, Thailand remains dependent upon the actions and commitment of the government to push for further reforms and emphasise curricula more suited for the global marketplace.

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The Report: Thailand 2012

Education & Health chapter from The Report: Thailand 2012

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