The years 1980 -97 can be regarded as Thailand's golden years economically when the country had one of the fastest growing economies in the world and growth reaching over 13 percent. These were also the years when Thailand embraced international education, with increasing numbers of students going overseas to study each year.
The early 1990's also saw the phenomenal development of international schools, predominantly in the Bangkok region. Almost 30 years on, it is instructive to review what these developments have achieved for the country, not least for the vast majority of the student population still languishing in a public education system that in many respects has not moved on since the 1960's.
Thai student engagement with international education has a long pedigree. The decision by King Rama V to send many of his sons to study at elite British Boarding Schools in the late 19th Century initiated a tradition, first followed by the nobility and wealthy in Bangkok and gradually embraced by an expanding middle class. The royal initiative ensured that international education became a middle class ‘rite of passage' for those that could afford it,but has left public education trailing in its wake. Unlike many of its neighbours that experienced colonization and exposure to western educational systems, Thailand is proud to have never been colonized. Education reform as a consequence has followed its own unique and often haphazard orbit. In the last 20 years, Thailand has seen no less than 17 new Education Ministers come and go: not surprisingly the disparity between the educational promises and the actual achievements of succeeding governments has been stark. Meanwhile the educational experience of school children is of over crowded classrooms taught by hardworking but poorly trained teachers. Engagement and questioning by students has been discouraged and rote learning very much the pedagogy of choice.
The teaching of English in Thai schools exemplifies the problems facing Thai education today. In a recent Bangkok Post article, Professor Zilli, of the English Department at Thammasat University explained that teaching has remained the same for 30 years. Lessons are geared to ease of instruction and the assessment of students. Instead of stimulating and enjoyable lessons, teachers opt for tried and tested recitation and memorizing, a certain recipe for dull and uninspiring lessons. Not surprisingly in a recent assessment of Thailand's English by the Swiss-based EF English Proficiency Index, Thailand was placed 64 out of 88 countries with the worst English proficiency in ASEAN except for Cambodia and Myanmar. Similar disquieting results were recorded in the recent Pisa tests, an assessment by OECD that evaluates education systems worldwide by measuring the Reading, Mathematics and Science skills and knowledge of 15 year olds. Thai students ranked 56 out of the 79 for Maths, 66 for Reading and 52 for Science. Aware of the need for students to be better prepared for future employment, the government has been promoting the teaching of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) in schools across the country. But as several commentators have observed, without the additional ‘soft skills' of critical thinking, competency, teamwork, communication and curiosity – students will be unable to react to new situations when technology and current knowledge become obsolete. The key persons to impart these soft skills to students are teachers but as a profession, they invariably lack the same skills and appear tied to a traditional ethos that allows no criticism and discourages creativity or individual thinking.
In the realms of higher education the prospects for a achieving the necessary academic quality in Thai universities looks similarly bleak. In a recent Times Higher Education World University Ranking survey, the Thai flagship institutions, Mahidol and Chulalongkorn Universities only featured in the 600-800 rankings. Despite recent efforts to internationalize curriculum, for countless university students a four year undergraduate degree is hardly an enlightening experience that will enhance their employability. With outdated curriculum, an institutional culture that again discourages questioning or independence -together with compulsory uniforms, it is little different from high school.
Thailand's inability to produce the skilled, resourceful and independently minded employees required in the work place has serious implications for the Thai economy. Japanese and other international investors have regularly raised concerns over the skills of Thai workers who they say fail to meet the needs of major companies. As the Economist Intelligence Unit also highlights, ‘the scarcity of skilled labour is a major disincentive to foreign investment'. Exacerbating this situation is the fact that Thailand has one of the world's most rapidly ageing societies and a student/working age population that according to the UN is expected to drop by 11% by 2040. The Government's recent economic initiative Thailand 4.0 aims to address these challenges and places education reform as the first priority in its ambitious plans to transform the country to a digital economy. But previous attempts to implement similar challenges have always stumbled, not least when the obstacles appear to be more cultural than educational.
Thus with a national education system seemingly moribund and constrained by cultural norms and political instability, international education remains the only prospect for individuals to acquire the tools and knowledge to flourish in a digital economy. The Office of the Civil Service Commission oversees a generous scholarship programme funded by the government that enables several thousand students to complete post graduate studies overseas. But by far the largest cohort to pursue education overseas are self – funded students. A substantial number of these individuals, like their government funded contemporaries, enroll on a post graduate programme, many in UK or the US. having completed a bachelor degree in Thailand. Returning students are much in demand by employers, bringing with them not only the knowledge and language skills acquired during their studies overseas, but also the habits of independent thinking, greater competence and teamwork.
Thailand has seen the phenomenal development of international schools, predominantly in the Bangkok region in the last 30 years. There are now 181 such institutions offering a US, UK or other international curricula and a western teaching ethos across the country. These developments have been driven by business interests but underpinned by poor local standards of education and teaching across the wider country. But these developments represent the one area of educational success in the country with unrivalled opportunity for those able to afford fees that can reach over a million baht a year.
So what conclusions can one draw from these developments 30 years on?
Thai public education appears stuck in a 1960's time warp, with a teaching style and ethos apparently constrained by cultural, social and political norms. The prospects for any reassessment or change looks unlikely given a recent directive from the Ministry of Education that has brought back and encouraged the recitation of multiplication tables as well as civic education.
There appears little likelihood of genuine reform emerging from, not just the teaching profession, but a society often unwilling to countenance questioning, let alone criticism. Yet Thailand has to break this impasse if it is to meet the economic challenges of the 21st Century. Perhaps one solution to the current educational malaise is to harness the resourcefulness shown in the international school sector to the needs and challenges faced by the government in national education. The World Bank has detailed public-private partnerships in education that have seen substantial benefits accrue in many countries. As the Bank states, ‘public -private education partnerships specifically tailored to Thailand's circumstances could be an important tool in meeting the nation's educational challenges'. Thailand's students and future workforce deserve some creative solutions if they are not to be consigned to the same educational experience of their parents, with much more challenging employment prospects.
Author: Ian Bushell, Senior Consultant, Mentor International (part of the UKEAS Group), Email: email@example.com
Series Editor: Christopher F. Bruton, Executive Director, Dataconsult Ltd, firstname.lastname@example.org. Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides seminars and extensive documentation to update business on future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.