Thai education reform is top priority
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Thai education reform is top priority

In this Sept 25 file photo, students tie white ribbons in a symbolic protest against authoritarianism at a Bangkok school. (Photo by Nutthawat Wicheanbut)
In this Sept 25 file photo, students tie white ribbons in a symbolic protest against authoritarianism at a Bangkok school. (Photo by Nutthawat Wicheanbut)

Of the myriad reforms that have been demanded by the ongoing student-led protests, Thailand's deficient and outdated education system is second to none. Education reform has become a self-contained and separate agenda for change. Thai students across the country, particularly in high schools, have been awakened and angry at the fact that they have been kept in the dark and cloistered in a state-imposed mind bubble for so long. Unless it is answered, this awakening and anger is likely to galvanise more protests and point to broader changes that have been pent up for decades.

To be sure, Thai education is woeful not because of a lack of money. The government's budget regularly allocates around 20% to the Ministry of Education, by far the largest among the various ministries. For the 2019 fiscal year, Thailand's education spending proportionally outstripped many other countries, such as Indonesia's, 8.1%, China's 13%, the Philippines' 17%, and the United Kingdom's and France's 11%. Clearly, the problem with Thai education is beyond budget outlays.

Education woes run so deep and wide that the education portfolio in cabinet is not highly coveted despite its large budget allocation. No education minister to date has been able to loosen the rigid knot that stifles and suffocates Thai students. Unsurprisingly, there has been a shoddy average of one education minister per year over the past two decades. Not only do such frequent changeovers bode ill for policy continuity, but they show that the institutional ills in Thai education are endemic and deeply rooted.

Nor have policy professionals with doctorates from top overseas universities been successful. Many studies have been undertaken and countless papers written about what seems wrong with Thai education. Experts and senior officials have looked at research and development, returns on investment, poor English proficiency, quality assurance measures, teachers' training, class sizes, students' scores in standardised tests, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), and so on. They have decentralised and deregulated to open more universities and make tertiary education more accessible.

What these officials and experts have failed to do is to ask the students themselves about what's wrong. In what is now tantamount to an insurrection in Thai education among young students, we are hearing different grievances from the bottom up in a fundamentally different way.

"Gen Z" students who were born roughly after 1996 are angry that they have been moulded into Thailand's obedient citizens and loyal subjects in a traditional political order revolving around nation, religion and monarchy. Such indoctrination of "Thainess" has relied on outdated, even backward, school curricula and practices, such as the length and shape of hair and school uniforms for girls and boys. Routine corporal punishment and rote learning in primary and secondary schools have been designed to prop up a socio-political hierarchy of power and authority.

Students want to be taught to be "global citizens", allowed and equipped to express their views and ideas, questioning authority and received wisdom. They want to be able to keep up with the outside world because their future depends on it. They are conscious of the jobs and skills that they will need to make a living but are not being trained and taught sufficiently by Thailand's deeply ingrained patronage-driven culture and top-down education system.

No wonder the catchphrase for many of the students is that "the first dictatorship is in school". Mindful of gender rights and diversity, these young students question why textbooks insist that males must like the blue colour and value physical strength, whereas females should prefer pink and avoid muscularity. They deplore the developmental disparity and income inequality between Bangkok and the provinces, between the well-to-do and the underprivileged, resulting in the concentration and centralisation of Thailand's most prestigious schools and universities in the capital.

If Thai education is adequate, these students believe there would be no need for the ubiquitous cram schools and extra and expensive tutorials that have become necessary to gain entry into top universities. In short, they are incensed because they have been kept down and know they need to rise up in their educational training and skills to survive in the future.

The contradictory mix of promotion and repression of Thai education has gone on for decades. It is only recently that young Thais have alternative sources of information, particularly the internet and its attendant social media networks, to illuminate their minds. The more they tune in to these, the more they recognise how Thai education is more about what they deem "brainwashing" rather than learning and knowledge. This is why they are furious at the traditional authorities and the Thai state apparatus.

Expert education reformers have been part of the problem by being part of the inert, narrow-minded and short-sighted education bureaucracy. All the would-be reformers had to do was to penetrate the classroom and solicit and study student views and grievances independently. It should not have been hard to hold focus groups, structured interviews, surveys, and so on. Thailand has been looking in the wrong places and spending money in misguided ways when it comes to reforming its education.

Given what the students have been saying, Thailand can effectively spend less and get a lot more out of it. For instance, students want more electives and more latitude in choosing courses and studying across disciplines. As self-learning has become a main feature of education, cheap internet access and English-language literacy are essential in unlocking students from the traditional intellectual strangleholds and unleashing the under-developed potential of Thailand's young minds.

Education reform might sound like a cliché because everyone and every country probably believe there are always improvements to be made. But for Thailand, education has been as much about learning and knowledge, skills and training, as it has been about power, authority and hierarchy in a traditional political order around nation, religion and monarchy. Reforming Thai education as a system necessarily reforms Thailand as a country. When it becomes the paramount priority, other reforms and changes Thailand needs to make will become clear and immediate.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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