Hardly a week passes without news of students from rival vocational colleges clashing, with over 1,000 violent confrontations already this year, almost all in Bangkok.
In an attempt to curb the violence, earlier this month the Association of Private Technological and Vocational Educational Colleges of Thailand announced a crackdown and the decision that they would no longer accept students with visible tattoos and pierced ears, a move criticised as discriminatory by the Ministry of Education and the Office of Vocational Education Commission. The colleges also plan to strictly enforce uniform and hairstyle regulations. These proposals do not demonstrate an understanding of the root causes of the physical violence.
While taking a hard line on students who engage in violence is important, the link between curbing youth aggression and enforcing appearance is not proven. The authorities instead need to understand and tackle the underlying issues that have allowed this "tradition" to fester for generations.
To date there has been little research on college violence in Thailand. However, one study from this year found vocational college environments foster aggressive masculine behaviour by promoting traits such as honour, respect and bravery. The report found that the cause of inter-college violence was usually revenge, with students encouraged to despise "enemies". Alongside anger and vengeance, students experience genuine fear and anxiety, aware of the life-threatening dangers of meeting rival students when travelling alone.
College uniforms exacerbate the situation as wearing them when travelling can be extremely dangerous, with hundreds of incidents of innocent parties being dragged into the cycle of violence. Uniforms also increase institutional loyalties at the cost of inhibiting creativity. The college authorities' proposals to more strictly enforce school uniforms ignores these realities, and abolishing uniforms is a more realistic measure to reduce violence.
The institutional loyalty that plays an important role in inter-college violence is similar to the "fan loyalty" found in football hooliganism, making students eager and willing to defend their institution's pride. It seems ironic that institutional loyalties, one of the "qualities" the current authoritarian and paternalistic government leadership is so keen to promote, lies at the heart of this appalling social problem.
Yet, vocational education also suffers from a substandard, masculine image that discourages females as well as middle-class students. This negative image, low teaching standards, an outdated curriculum and a lack of vision have hastened schools' decline and spawned a culture of violence. Without successful vocational training schemes, Thailand's competitiveness will keep suffering, and this failing system will continue to produce many poorly-skilled, disenfranchised, violent young men.
The growing importance of career preparation and human resources development in technical and vocational fields is being recognised the world over. It is acknowledged by the International Baccalaureate Organisation, which has recently launched a Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) programme, the International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme (IBCP), aimed at providing students with opportunities to begin developing the necessary skills for their chosen careers. Leading Asian nations are also prioritising TVET.
TVET programmes focus on providing learners with knowledge and skills for meaningful employment. They rely on solid collaboration between leaders in education and the business sector. TVET should support pathways to employment, the development of new skills, mobility between occupations, and students who can adapt to changes in their careers by focusing on creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. Successfully implementing TVET poses a challenge due to issues of financing and the development of curricula genuinely relevant to industry's needs.
A recent Unesco report highlights the problems Thailand has had in meeting these challenges: "TVET in Thailand has not been able to provide sufficient highly-qualified and well-trained technicians for a rapidly changing economy. The qualifications of manpower that are lacking include: communication skills, computer and ICT-using abilities, management, calculation skills, problem solving, team work, responsibility, honesty, tolerance, discipline, punctuality, and leadership" -- in other words, everything -- as with most Thai universities.
East Asian nations like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have all prioritised vocational learning and have developed strong TVET programmes created from partnerships between the public and private sector -- a privilege stable political circumstances can promote.
Historically, Singapore also faced a situation similar to Thailand, with societal prejudice towards vocational education leading to it being considered inferior to traditional schooling. However, recognising the national importance of quality vocational learning, the Institute for Technical Education completely revamped the country's vocational curricula and certification system. It developed new courses with a greater focus on advanced skills, while rebranding vocational education as "hands-on, minds-on, hearts-on" applied learning. The sector is now recognised as a legitimate career path in Singapore.
If the government is to enact comprehensive education reform, it will need to include a radical revamp of vocational education and a campaign to raise its stature so that these colleges attract a greater mix in their student populations. The authorities need to tackle vocational college violence as part of overarching educational reforms. Simply focusing on students' appearance does not address the mindless institutional loyalties underpinning violence.
Thailand must tackle its under-skilled workforce and stop alienating youth by radically overhauling vocational training or face the economic consequences of being outstripped by its more efficient neighbours.
Daniel Maxwell is a writer, educator and education analyst. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, PhD, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.