This past week, Chulalongkorn University (CU) has been abuzz with activities leading up to its centenary celebration this Sunday.
There were exhibitions across the campus displaying its history and accomplishments. Food stalls, musical performances including varsity songs and other activities have added to a lively fair-like atmosphere. On social media, students and faculty members have framed their profile pictures with CU100 labels on Facebook to identify themselves with the place they have studied or worked.
Although I am not an alumnus of Thailand's oldest university, I have been associated with CU over most of my four-decade professional career through research collaboration, seminars, discussions and even as an external thesis examiner. I have relatives, friends and former colleagues who are graduates of this prestigious tertiary institution and also frequently tune into CU Radio.
Being Thailand's first fully fledged university, CU has certainly made its mark on the Thai and global educational scene, showcasing many prominent as well as outstanding faculty and alumni in various fields of study over the past century. Its scholastic achievements have also been exemplary and it has consistently ranked number one in the country as an institution of higher learning by various assessment bodies.
However, other Thai universities have overtaken CU in some recent surveys and one important factor contributing to this change is many of these tertiary institutions have also attained fully fledged university status themselves and so are rivaling CU with their own remarkable accomplishments.
Moreover, several universities in other countries in Asean, notably in Singapore and Malaysia, have emerged later but have now outranked CU. Recent surveys of college students among Asean countries conducted by the Asean Foundation also show declining scores among CU students compared to others in their expression of interest in and affinity with Asean matters, despite the university being host to several Asean-wide programmes such as the Asean University Network and even having an Asean Studies Centre.
In some ways, CU can be considered at a crossroads mirroring the country's current situation. Both the university and the nation have made notable progress but the rapid and dynamic changes confronting the two entities resulting from factors within the country and without, have of late created enormous challenges which both have yet to surmount in a satisfactory manner.
The World Bank in a recent report on Thailand indicated the country used to be the leader on many developmental fronts but no longer stands out among its upper middle-income peers, including some neighbouring Asean countries.
It said that "Thailand also did not seize its 'head start' to invest in its institutions and innovation to make its universities the envy of the region"; and "the quality of Thailand's education system is perceived to have worsened... Given its poor performance, virtually all dimensions of Thailand's education system need further attention and reforms".
For instance, "the growing tertiary education sector is increasingly producing business and marketing graduates, with very few graduates in the engineering and science fields sought by the private sector. Moreover, Thailand's students and its workforce have a very low level of English language proficiency".
In a recent interview, Bundhit Eua-arporn, president of CU, said he foresaw the urgent need for the institution to address rapid changes facing the country and the world to stay relevant and respond adequately to the needs of society.
He indicated there would be more trans-disciplinary academic and research activities at CU in future to deal with the fast evolving global environment and become more international in orientation, which is a step in the right direction.
The president aims to make such out-of-the-box approaches the mainstay of CU teaching and research in coming years. One possible way to achieve this is to do away with at least some thesis writing requirements which tend not to promote the broader cross-sectoral interactions that trans-disciplinary endeavours require.
Instead substitute them with a mandatory field practicum to be held towards the end of the degree programme whereby a batch of students would work together to solve a real-world problem.
This would then culminate in a joint report to be presented to the stakeholders or parties concerned with the issue.
This way, the scholastic results would be geared towards a more practical end. As Prince Mahidol na Songkla, the father of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, said, "True success is not in the learning but in its application to the benefit of mankind."
Displays at the CU memorial hall indicate that one of the primary motivations for King Chulalongkorn to initiate the idea of establishing a university in Thailand towards the end of his reign in the early 20th century was the realisation that the country "faced the urgent need to accelerate its development to respond appropriately to the changing world and set the foundation for the direction in which the country was to head in the future".
Today, "one question that all members of the Chulalongkorn community have to face is, how will the university and all its members adjust to the speed of change and challenges to maintain its role as the intellectual leader of Thai society".
I congratulate and wish CU well as it reaches the 100-year milestone which is a major achievement by any measure.
The next 50 years are likely to be challenging both for the university and for Thailand as we will require more innovative approaches to tackle the multiple challenges in a more interconnected and complex global environment.
Provided that timely and required reforms are undertaken by the CU and the government I am cautiously optimistic Thais could eventually close ranks with less "pride and prejudice" and with more "sense and sensibility" to collectively find the necessary wherewithal to pull things through and make much-needed headway in the country's development path.
Having a mindset coupled with concomitant actions which transcend disciplinary or any compartmentalised lines would go a long way to achieving such an objective.
Or as Tom Bodett once remarked: "In school, you're taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you're given a test that teaches you a lesson."
Apichai Sunchindah is an independent development specialist.