For higher returns, invest in human capital

The government has clamoured for months about the necessity of its 2-trillion-baht borrowing programme to help modernise our road and rail infrastructure. While many question the approach and methodology of how the programme will be financed, vetted and structured, few doubt that more public investment is sorely needed to support the country's growth over the next several decades.

But are we asking the wrong question? Yes, the country's physical infrastructure needs improvement. But what about our human capital? Which problem is more pressing, between say congested roads, versus secondary school students who are only borderline literate?

Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng recently suggested the country's schools should return to past practices of holding back students who fail to pass basic learning standards. For primary school students, failure to pass one course would result in the student being required to repeat the entire year. At the secondary level, failing a course would require the student to repeat the subject the following year.

Mr Chaturon, who has yet to commit to a definitive policy change, floated the idea of changing the current policy of regular advancement regardless of performance, in light of statistics that show more and more students are advancing to upper secondary grades even though they lack basic reading and writing skills. The reasons are straightforward enough, he says _ teachers and principals alike have every incentive to pass students regardless of their test scores to avoid any negative implication on their own performance evaluations.

Family pressure is another factor, as parents understandably wish to avoid the perceived social opprobrium of having their children held back in school.

Any human relations executive or corporate governance expert can tell you that poorly structured performance incentives can have far-reaching consequences on how employees act. In this case, the system essentially is structured to say that "good" teachers are those whose students pass and advance, while "bad" teachers are those with failing students. And so in many schools, teachers have every incentive to focus their teaching time on how to pass the exams, whether it be through holding remedial classes in the evenings and weekends to help laggards keep pace with their peers or simplifying the exams themselves.

The gap is particularly wide between students in urban schools compared with those in rural villages. Generalisations are always dangerous, but it seems logical that students from middle-class families, with the resources and opportunities to invest in tutorial schools and expose their children to a higher standard of competition, provide their teens with a stronger educational footing than their peers in the countryside.

Regardless, I think the Education Ministry should move quickly to review educational performance across the country to identify how many poor performing students are in the system, what subjects they are deficient in and what remedial action can be taken.

Education ranks among the most pressing problems facing the country's future, given the widespread implications for economic and social stability. And yet it seems few of our politicians, from Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra down, see education as a topic worthy of debate, given that their time and attention appears to be much more focused on questions of rice subsidies, high-speed trains and esoteric amendments of the constitution.

But more trains, ports and railways alone will not help promote social equality nor close the wealth gap. The wealthiest 20% of the population currently are 12 times richer than the bottom 20%. If people are to move up the income ladder, surely the best place to begin is to ensure they have the educational fundamentals and skills to take advantage of opportunities for advancement as they come.

Kobsak Pootrakool, an executive at Bangkok Bank, recently remarked at Thammasat University's annual economic symposium that the Yingluck government has been quite speedy in implementing its policy agenda, whether it be to slash corporate tax rates or raise minimum wages. But he correctly notes that these are all quick-fixes for short-term problems.

The 2-trillion-baht infrastructure investment programme is an exception, heralded by the government as an initiative that will spread prosperity and wealth across the country. Proponents even tout the high-speed train programme, estimated to cost 783 billion baht or around 40% of the programme budget, as helping bring families closer by boosting travel across the country. Perhaps. But I can't help think of a sardonic joke which has spread through social media:

"A university dean tells a group of professors that they have to take care of their students well. Those scoring perfectly on their exams will surely be scientists in the future, while those scoring 80% might be future educators and teachers.

"Take care of those scoring below 50%, for these students hail from wealthy families and may be donors in the future. And of course, pay special attention to even the worst performers _ one day they may dictate all our fates after they become politicians."

Wichit Chantanusornsiri is a senior business reporter, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Wichit Chantanusornsiri
Position: Business Reporter