Looking back in order to move forward
With yet another new leader, will Thailand's education survive
the ups and downs of the previous year and offer a brighter hope for the future?
And just like everything else in life, the road we travel is never a smooth one. In order to move forward, we sometimes need to revisit and draw lessons from the past. This week, Learning Post wraps up major highlights of last year's education scene, not only to bid farewell to the 2006, but also to look forward to 2007.
Under the leadership of former Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang, the year began with an anticipation over the new central university admissions system, a complete overhaul of the previous university entrance exams system that had been in place for more than 40 years.
Unlike the previous system that relied heavily on the entrance exam results, the new system was designed primarily to incorporate four elements: cumulative GPA (GPAX), Mathayom 6 GPA, O-Net (Ordinary National Education Test) results, and A-Net (Advanced National Education Test) results.
The central admissions system also put to the test the National Institute for Educational Testing Service (Niets), a newly established institution charged with overseeing both the O-Net and A-Net, in addition to its main function of administering other national-level evaluation exams.
But shouldering the administrations of both the O-Net and A-Net meant that Niets only had four months to prepare for the administration of the exams that would have a major impact on the lives of more than 400,000 Mathayom 6 students.
By April, the rush to put together the new university admission system proved to be a disaster too big for entrance exam veteran Prateep Chankong, Niets director at the time, to withstand. Although the public focused the blame on Niets for mismanagement and incompetence, Niets' failure to announce the correct exam results on time only reflected a bigger problem in the management of the country's education system by all those involved.
In the end, the students paid the price, and Niets lost its director as well as the executive board chairwoman and its members. Moreover, the delay caused by several incorrect score announcements ended up pushing back the central admission's deadline, leaving many students scram bling to either apply to private universities or continue to gamble with their luck.
While confidence was lost, and scapegoats were found, the lesson from its first failure prompted Niets to tighten its grip on future exam administrations. With the October appointment of its new director, Niets will again be put to the test this February in its administration of the O-Net, while the A-Net has been taken over by the Office of the Higher Education Commission (Ohec). Once again all eyes will be on Niets and its director.
Also in February, the Ministry of Education under Chaturon launched the Income Contingent Loan (ICL) scheme, which would eventually replace the existing Student Loan Fund (SLF) scheme. Nine months later, under the leadership of the new Education Minister, Dr Wijit Srisa-arn, the SLF and ICL ended up a merged scheme.
With the slogan of `Those who wish to study will be able to study without a financial difficulty,' the ICL scheme started off as a sound theory. The scheme, said its advocates, would benefit the students the most, given that the loan will be made available to them regardless of their family income or the university they attend, public or private. Universities, they continued, would be the second beneficiaries, with the increased revenue generated by the state subsidies and the income from tuition fees.
To facilitate the launch, the government prepared up to 4.8 billion baht for the four-month transition period of June to September. By September only 55 universities, out of 900 that participated in the ICL scheme, received the promised subsidy, which amounted to 20 percent of the allocated 4.8 billion baht.
In November, about two months after the military coup, the new Education Minister commanded a study of the SLF-ICL merger. With clearer loan and repayment conditions, as well as broader loan coverage that also pays for the students' personal expenses, the SLF model proved to be the winner. After nine months, and several more months of feasibility studies, the ICL finally failed to live up to its previously acclaimed potential. Starting in the 2007 academic year, the student loans are back under the SLF.
On September 19, the country's political future ground to a screeching halt after the military staged a coup d'etat to oust the Thaksin government. Two weeks after the coup, the coup leader installed an interim government under the leadership of PM Surayud Chulanont.
This drastic change in the country's political scene brought yet another change of head to the Education Ministry. About a month after the coup, education veteran Dr Wijit Srisa-arn, 72, was appointed the seventh education minister in the last five years. As a former permanent-secretary of the Ministry of University Affairs - before it was merged under the current Ministry of Education - and with academic degrees in education management, Dr Wijit's appointment was welcomed as a promising sign.
The year 2006 also witnessed a continuing unrest in the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, the impact of which hit directly at schools and teachers. Since the insurgent violence erupted in 2004, arson attacks on schools have been rampant and unpredictable.
In addition, more than 60 teachers have been killed by rebel groups, forcing schools to shut down on and off all year long. These indiscriminate attacks provoked more than 2,000 teachers to seek transfers out of the region.
In an effort to boost teacher morale, the Office of Welfare for Teachers and Educational Personnel (Otep) requested 27 million baht from the government to provide group insurance to teachers living in the three southernmost provinces, including five districts of Songkhla.
Although the unrest will continue to plague the lives of teachers well into this year, the resurrection of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC) by the Surayud government may offer some hope of reconciliation in the near future.
Also a development carried over from 2004, the transfer of state schools from the Education Ministry to local administrative bodies, continued to take place under the Chaturon leadership. In June, the cabinet approved the removal of the ceiling on the number of schools to be transferred, a change from the previous regulation that allowed up to three schools under each provincial administration, in addition to two in each municipality with education management experience and one without.
In September, the ministry compiled two lists of 370 schools to be transferred to local bodies. But debates continued as to whether or not the local administrative bodies were experienced enough in education management to take over the schools.
After the military coup, the interim government under PM Surayud continued to support the transfer of schools. Under Dr Wijit's leadership, the Education Ministry established guidelines to facilitate the transfer in late November. The guideline stated that schools with more than 500 students could be transferred to the local bodies, on condition that the schools passed all of the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment's (Onesqa's) 14 standard quality assessments.
On December 31, Dr Wijit gave a green light to the transfer of the first 600 schools to be effective starting in the 2007 academic year. This first batch will be evaluated on their performance, specifically how well they can manage and administer basic education under the new decentralised model. If these schools perform well, the ministry will continue with the transfer until it finishes the job for about 30,000 schools within four years.
On education quality, the year 2006 witnessed two major announcements. On August 31, the Office of the Higher Education Commission (Ohec) announced the country's first list of university rankings, as an outcome of its eight-month long data collection over the Internet. Despite having been aware of the Ohec's university rankings project, more than half of the universities failed to participate, leaving the announced list to 50 out of nearly 140 universities earlier planned.
A brainchild of former Ohec secretary-general Pavich Thongroach, the rankings were initially intended to serve as a guideline for students and parents when making a choice for higher education. In addition, the rankings would also allow the ministry to decide how to allocate its budget among the universities.
The real underlining objectives to the project, however, remained unclear. With more than 30 Key Performance Indicators (KPI), which included more than 100 sub-indicators, the project looked more like an internal management database than a general ranking of universities.
In the end, the rush to announce the rankings results, which were already five months behind schedule, was met with strong rejections from university officials, and Pavich's retirement meant that no one was left to defend the project's validity.
In November, Education Minister Wijit Srisa-arn stripped Ohec of its role of ranking universities. Next year, if the rankings are conducted, the job would likely be handed over to Onesqa, which is a neutral body.
The situation, on the other hand, remained quite gloomy for basic education institutions. In August, Onesqa reported that two-thirds of primary and secondary schools nationwide failed its educational standards assessments, which it had been conducting since 2001.
Out of nearly 32,000 schools accessed by Onesqa, 20,000 failed to meet the quality standards set by the agency. The areas that needed immediate attention were small rural schools, whose students "displayed little creative thinking and almost no thirst for knowledge," Onesqa's director Dr Somwung Pithiyanuwat said.
In response to the findings, director Somwung recommended an injection of a 15-billion-baht quality fund for the development of under-performing schools.
On to 2007
Towards the end of last year, the Education Ministry focused its attention on the autonomous university movement. Under the draft bill, state universities would be allowed greater administrative freedom and independence in the management of their funds. The draft bills of Chulalongkorn, King Mongkut's University of Technology North Bangkok and Thaksin University were the first ones to be deliberated by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA).
On December 7, the NLA voted unanimously in support of the bills governing each of the universities. It's decision, however, was met with strong protests from students and university staff, who remained unconfident about the increase of the tuition fees and their employment status, respectively.
One week later, Silpakorn, Ubon Ratcha-thani, Mahidol, and Burapha universities pushed forward their draft bills for cabinet approval. Silpakorn and Ubon Ratcha-thani universities, however, soon withdrew their requests, resulting in the approval of only the latter two universities.
During the last week of December, Srinakharinwirot University became the sixth institution to push forward its bill, which left 14 more to go. With the protests, however, the status of university autonomy is unclear, and this issue will continue to heat up well into 2007.
In addition, the Education Ministry under Dr Wijit will give priorities to improving education in the three southernmost provinces, increasing participation of the private sector as well as local communities in education, improving education quality in all academic levels, and leading education reform efforts with moral principles more than the pursuit of knowledge.
Also with a budget of 280 billion baht, an increase of 50 billion baht over the previous fiscal year, 2007 may witness many positive changes in the country's education. But only time will tell.
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Last modified: January 5, 2006