Our education continues to embarrass us
"How did we get to this point?" That is the question the berobed dons in our universities are asking themselves. And if they aren't, they should be.
This year's QS World University Ranking should not be panicking rectors, deans and professors, but the results do send an alarming signal and a wake-up call: Find ways to get our tertiary institutions back on the right path.
Chulalongkorn University stands at the top of Thai universities in the survey, coming in at 253 on the list. "Remarkably, Chulalongkorn University ranks 120th globally in the 'Academic Reputation' criterion, based on the survey of nearly 77,000 academics," the UK-based rating agency commended. "It also does well in the 'Employer Reputation' indicator where it ranks 232nd globally."
In reality, there is nothing to cheer about. CU remains despairingly close to mid-table of the 891 universities rated in the annual global survey, with its ranking having dropped 10 spots from last year. The second-placed Thai institute was Mahidol University, which ranked 295 -- and, like CU, its position is down, from 257 a year ago.
Chiang Mai University was in the bottom half of universities, rated between 551 and 600, after it was demoted from the top half. Thammasat University was in the top half of those that ranked between 551 and 600. The rest were Kasetsart University, Khon Kaen University, King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi and Prince of Songkhla University, all under the 650 level.
The Office of the Higher Education Commission has pointed to two deficits in Thai universities in comparison to other -- better -- institutes around the world. Teachers in universities have not produced enough research papers, and there are not enough qualified lecturers on campus, two key ingredients used to calculate the rankings. The agency plans to pour in more money for universities to work on research to impress the rating agency.
The assessment of the OHEC is right, but it is only part of the problem. The bottom line for the lacklustre performance of Thai universities is painted on a broader canvas: Thailand has no strategy for its universities. Improving education has been high on the list of every government that has administered this country, but none ever really presented a clear direction for universities to take. Thailand's "sabai sabai" attitude is all-too insidious in the world of education in the kingdom.
Singapore provides a good example for all rectors and policy-makers. The country, which has no natural resources to exploit, knows that there is one thing it can do to stay ahead of the pack and survive. Universities have to equip each student with knowledge so that they are the best in class when they go out into the real world. The best students are groomed by the best teachers. State funding is channelled to ensure continual improvements so as to lure world-class teachers or to send lecturers overseas for further studies in world-class universities, enabling them to return home with "added value", with experience and knowledge that can benefit schools and students.
The results are reflected in this year's rankings, as the National University of Singapore now is top in Asia and among the world's best at 12 in the survey, followed by Nanyang Technological University at 13. They leapfrogged from last year, when NUS was at 22 and Nanyang at 39. Singapore's higher education is part of the nation's survival plan.
It is a lot easier for Singapore to do that as their universities teach in English. But the language barrier is not an excuse on this issue. Other top universities in China, South Korea and Japan, which use their native language in classrooms, also deploy the same tactic as Singapore. That puts Tsinghua University in China, Seoul National University in South Korea and Kyoto University in Japan in the top 40 this year.
Thailand has not seen the fulfillment of a single promise from educators and politicians to position our universities among the region's best. Being ambitious about lifting their prospects is no bad thing, but it needs a strong push and clear direction from the government.
So, the next big question is, "Where do we go from here?". That's the homework, and it sorely needs an answer.
Saritdet Marukatat is digital media news editor, Bangkok Post.
Digital Media News Editor
He is Bangkok Post's Online Editor and is in charge of all online content.