Thailand 4.0 needs to be tuned into higher learning
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Thailand 4.0 needs to be tuned into higher learning

When the head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, introduced a new economic model for Thailand known as "Thailand 4.0", many universities, especially the newer, more business orientated ones, saw an opportunity to catch up with the latest trends.

Universities play a prominent role in producing qualified workers to help the country develop. They should offer space for diverse ideas, opinions and initiatives for young students to experience "trial and error" before facing the real world. That way, when students are released into the job market they can go with original ideas and create and design their own future, be it working for themselves or working for someone else.

Thai universities fiercely compete with each other to attract more students. This is especially evident in those newly established universities which serve a growing number of students from lower- and middle-income backgrounds.

These universities try to grab the attention of students and their parents by promoting the university campus, modern buildings, and distinguished courses. This leads me to think they are putting emphasis on the things that matter less and paying less attention to the quality of education, teaching, research and academic atmosphere.

One pitiful but obvious example of how such business schools differentiate themselves from other universities, as seen through the programmes and modules they offer. Instead of focusing on fundamental disciplines and the philosophy of a life-long learning process, many of their courses are designed to serve specific industries.

For example, aviation management programmes have been introduced to focus primarily on giving students the personalities and characteristics necessary to fit with the airline industry. This may go some way to fulfilling the dreams of students who want to be air hostesses for major airlines, but by providing such a narrow education, they overlook the need to provide basic knowledge of the industry and fail to give students an education that can sustain them through life.

In a similar vein, universities have invented a social enterprise programme aimed at providing students with concepts to establish social enterprises and become ethical entrepreneurs. However, such a course ignores the importance of basic management skills that could provide a broad picture of efficient business management. It instead offers limited understanding, and serves only a particular purpose of entrepreneurship.

In addition to industry-specific programmes, many universities offer courses that require students to enrol in specific subjects without giving them a chance to think and make their own decisions on what subjects they would like to take.

These universities impose strict requirements for enrollment because of a shortage of qualified tutors. At present, each tutor is burdened with overseeing hundreds of students while handling administrative responsibilities.

The other explanation for the strict enrolment requirements could rest with the fact that Thai students are not trained to think by themselves and make their own decisions. That might fit well with relatively immature students who do not need to consider their life prospects.

Having full package tailor-made courses to serve particular industries is not always a bad thing. In fact, it seems to respond well to the country's growing needs. Graduates get degrees to guarantee a minimum salary while industries can easily capitalise on the skills the students have gained in order fulfill their business needs.

But looking at the other side of the coin, how do these courses differ from those offered in vocational schools? Why should students have to pay four years of tuition fees for a university degree when all they need is practice and skill in the field they are looking to work in?

The output of the full-package programmes tends to narrow down opportunities for graduates in two ways. First, graduates lose the opportunity to acquire broader skills and wider perspectives in their chosen discipline. Second, job seekers fail to find career opportunities in other industries they are unfamiliar with.

In light of these challenges new graduates have to face, Thai universities are creating more difficulties for the country to catch up with the dynamic world.

The indifference to reforming and improving the system has become a major burden for the country to leave the middle-income trap.

What Thai universities can and should do is to focus more on equipping students with skills to analyse, think critically, communicate with others, and understand different cultures, rather than marketing their institutions.

What needs to be done is ensure sufficient resources. Universities should invest in both teachers and support staff who are capable of passing on knowledge, facilitating the learning process and bringing out the best of our young, eager minds.

Kannapa Chartiyanon is a former university lecturer in International Business Management.

Kannapa Chartiyanon

Former university lecturer in International Business Management

Kannapa Chartiyanon is a former university lecturer in International Business Management.

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