Teachers' debt is a chronic problem which has dogged the Thai education system for several decades to the extent that it has affected the morale of many teachers and the quality of Thai education.
Efforts have been made by past governments to address the problem, but it seems teachers' debt has grown bigger.
Today, more than 900,000 teachers, including 500,000 retirees, have accumulated debt amounting to a staggering 1.4 trillion baht with four major creditors, namely teacher's savings cooperatives, about 890 billion baht; the Government Savings Bank, 390 billion baht; Krung Thai Bank, 63 billion baht and the Government Housing Bank, 61 billion baht.
In 2021, the Ministry of Education launched a programme called "New Opportunities for Thai Teachers", inviting indebted teachers to join a debt refinancing scheme under which their debts to the four major creditors would be consolidated into a single amount operated by the teacher's saving cooperatives, with the interest rate to be cut by a dismal 0.3% from 5.64%.
Unfortunately though, the programme attracted only about 20% of the debtors. Although no explanation was given about why there was a dismal response, it was assumed that the programme was not attractive enough and did not help ease the financial burden on the debtors.
The Pheu Thai Party has made the teachers' debt problem one of its top four priority policies. Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is expected to unveil a government plan to address teachers' debt, household debt and debts of small and medium-sized enterprises next week upon his return from the United States.
One of the big problems confronted by indebted teachers is that their repayments have been cut from their salaries by the Education Ministry to go to the four creditors, with the teacher's savings cooperatives as the first choice.
This often leaves them with residual income of just 30% of their salaries or less. If teachers have incurred other debts such as credit card and informal debt -- which most of them have done -- many of them are left with a few hundred baht to spend for the whole month, which makes it impossible to survive on, resulting in them resorting to more informal debts.
Another issue which needs to be addressed by the government is that the interest rates charged by the four major creditors are seen as too high and must be cut substantially.
The lifting of interest rates for three years, as proposed by the Education Ministry, is welcome but insufficient.
It is still unclear whether the government will help refinance teachers for debts incurred with other commercial banks, such as credit card debts or informal debt owed to private creditors.
Last but not least is the plight of some 67,000 contract teachers who have been consistently ignored by previous governments simply because they are not treated as government officials.
They have been teaching in small schools in rural areas where most teachers are reluctant to go. Their workload is heavy, and yet their pay is pitiful and less than the minimum wage for migrant workers.
Despite not having a career path and future because of their unrecognised status, these teachers play an important role in educating Thai children in rural and remote areas, and they deserve recognition and better treatment.