The state of education in Thailand has been thrust into the headlines by extreme measures taken by Matthayom students and their parents to try to secure places in schools that are perceived to be favoured by good universities.
The latest and most dramatic incident is the threat by the father of a Matthayom 3 student who was rejected by Bodindecha (Sing Singhaseni) School in Bangkok to set himself on fire if the school did not reconsider and accept his daughter. She was one of 57 Matthayom 3 Bodindecha students whose applications to enroll in Matthayom 4 at the school were rejected.
Somboon Charoenchantakarn, said he would immolate himself in front of Government House on Tuesday if the school's decision is not reversed. Hopefully, if the case is not resolved to Mr Somboon's satisfaction by then he will change his mind.
While such threats, along with the hunger strikes undertaken by four Bodindecha students in an effort to win seats, should not be encouraged, they do put a needed focus on the question of why there is not enough classroom space for students wanting to prepare for entrance to a good institute of higher learning.
On the surface it does not appear to be a question of money, as it would seem that operating a Matthayom school with a good reputation can be a highly profitable enterprise. There is no shortage of parents willing to pay the going rate plus ''extras'' to get seats for their children.
What's more, approximately 18% of the national budget goes for education, more than for national defence. The issue is how to distribute these funds more effectively to upgrade schools which are underperforming now and not providing students the necessary preparation for higher education. It is a huge task and it should be priority number one for this and future governments.
Thailand is currently ranked 85th in terms of quality of primary education in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2011-2012.
The problem is greatly compounded by the fact that there are not nearly enough seats in good universities to accommodate all the students who wish to study. This creates a bottleneck that results in ever increasing pressure to get a seat at a prestigious Matthayom school.
According to Somkid Lertpaitoon, president of the Association of University Presidents and rector of Thammasat University, for the upcoming year, 122,169 students applied for seats in 723 faculties at 90 universities and 82,102 of them passed the admission tests.
Many students apply to faculties in fields of study in which they are not really interested because it is too difficult to enter their preferred faculties. As with the Matthayom schools, a major part of the solution is in upgrading the institutes of higher learning which are now considered less competent, while at the same time keeping them affordable.
But this is probably not enough.
Established four-year universities such as Chulalongkorn, Thammasat and Mahidol need to expand their campuses and branch out and open new campuses across the country.
Another important but missing ingredient in solving Thailand's education crisis would be the establishment of what are known in some countries as ''junior colleges'', or two-year universities. Typically these offer a wide variety of good entry level courses, are more affordable than four-year universities and are much easier to get into. Most students at junior colleges go on to obtain a bachelor's degree at a four-year university after getting their basics out of the way.
Setting up junior colleges in Thailand would relieve the bottleneck at the university level, and also help to address another major flaw in higher education in this country _ the practice of making incoming students fresh out of Matthayom choose their faculty and a four-year course of study. This is fine for some students who are sure about what they want to do, but many would benefit from postponing that decision while broadening their educational horizons and perhaps raising their grade point averages.