Unlocking the future through educational reform

Unlocking the future through educational reform

This year some controversial measures were taken to improve the quality of schools and teaching. By Dumrongkiat Mala

Throughout 2018, much happened in the field of education. Issues involving both the system and personnel were addressed. Here's a list of the top five headlines from the year.

1 Asset rule irks college councils

A new regulation announced by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) made it a requirement for members of public university councils, their spouses and children, including unlawful spouses and children who have not reached the age of maturity to submit declarations of their assets and liabilities to the NACC in the same way that cabinet members, MPs and senators do. This is to help prevent graft in the public sector.

Advocates of the Coordinating Centre for Public Higher Education Staff expressed their disapproval of the regime's move to invoke Section 44 to spare existing chairs and university council members from having to declare their assets and liabilities. The move would undermine confidence in a law that must be applied to everyone, according to the the group.

As soon as the regulation was published in the Royal Gazette, more than half the members of several university councils announced their intention to resign en masse to avoid the regulation. That could cause a power vacuum in universities as there would not be enough members to decide on important issues.

Many of those who threatened to quit their posts said even though the new rule is aimed at promoting good governance, it added too much of a burden on them as they had to deal with paperwork to declare their assets, and those of their spouses, unlawful spouses and children. Moreover, if they accidentally forgot to declare anything, they could be in trouble for that.

Fearing a new anti-graft rule would spark widespread resignations, many universities submitted petitions to the NACC, asking it to revise this law and exempt chairmen and council members at public universities from having to declare their assets as they only carry out duties which are mainly academic, hold no executive power and have no authority in procurement.

Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin also urged council members at state universities to hold back from their planned resignations, saying the government would listen to their opinions to prevent problems that may arise.

However, many university academics and anti-graft groups were against the idea of exempting chairmen and members of council members from having to declare their assets and debts, saying they have the power to appoint rectors and deans and approve budgets, so they should declare their assets for the sake of transparency.

Finally, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, as chief of the National Council for Peace and Order, issued a Section 44 order to lift the requirement. Gen Prayut was heavily criticised by academics and anti-graft groups for his supposed double standards.

2 Uni admission system rejigged again

The Association of the Council of University Presidents of Thailand (TCUP) made changes to allow for new ways of submitting applications and screening students under the Thai University Central Admissions System (TCAS) for the next academic year, after the previous system faced criticism for restricting students' opportunities.

Some of the 4,000 applicants who turned up for interviews at Kasetsart University as part of the Thai University Central Admission System's direct admissions scheme. The scheme has come under fire for candidate placement flaws.

Following difficulties in the 10-month-long procedure in which students were evaluated in five rounds, especially with different end-dates for schools nationwide, the TCUP will now reduce the entire admissions process to six-and-a-half months from December 2018 to mid-June for the 2019 academic year.

However, the council has seen fit to retain five rounds of admissions as it said this does not infringe on the opportunities students are given.

"As a result of the complaints lodged against us about the failure of the TCAS this academic year, the TCUP has revised the admissions process, and key adjustments now have been made for the third round of admissions," TCUP president Suchatvee Suwansawat said.

The third round of admissions is called the "joint direction admission" system, in which students have central exams organised by the National Institute of Educational Testing Service.

Previously, candidates were allowed to choose up to four departments, but the TCUP did not ask students to rank their preferences, resulting in many students obtaining their last choice despite having adequate scores for higher placements.

Under the adjusted rules, Mr Suchatvee said students would be allowed to rank their preferred placements.

"We have increased their options from four choices to six. This will maximise our efforts to satisfy students with their desired institution.

"The TCUP will use data from students' preferred ranking, and students will only be given one offer," he said.

For this year's TCAS, students who selected the Consortium of Thai Medical Schools as one of their desired placements were given extra opportunities as the umbrella of institutions under it comprises multiple institutions.

Students who wish to enrol at a medical school will have to select one institution as a single choice for the system to be fair.

Admission fees are also being reduced under the changes. This year's charge is 50-100 baht per placement, down from 100-140 baht last year.

3 New hybrid ministry approved

The cabinet finally approved the establishment of the Higher Education, Research & Development Ministry, which merges the existing Science and Technology Ministry, Office of the Higher Education Commission, the National Research Council of Thailand, and the Thailand Research Fund.

Science and Technology Minister Suvit Maesincee said the government aims to support higher education institutes to improve their academic capabilities, upgrade the efficiency of annual R&D spending to meet the demands of industries, and promote high-tech development.

Science and Technology Minister Suvit Maesincee pledges government support to improve tertiary institutes' academic capabilities, increase research and development and promote hi-tech development.

"The approval will affect the whole Science and Technology Ministry," Mr Suvit said. "The government hopes the new ministry will help reinforce the government's policy to develop technology, enhance the efficiency of R&D and support the Thailand 4.0 policy, as well as human resource development."

According to Mr Suvit, the ministry will comprise 11 state units related to R&D under the Science and Technology Ministry, 84 state universities and 73 private universities.

The government will set aside 97 billion baht in fiscal 2019 for the new ministry.

"The new ministry is meant to reform education, the bureaucratic system and R&D spending," Mr Suvit said.

He said a National Policy Committee on Higher Education, Research & Development will be established shortly to supervise the ministry's strategy and provide guidelines for the R&D budget.

"Once a new ministry is established, an annual budget of 120-130 billion baht for R&D will be used more efficiently and conform to the country's ongoing reforms and technology development plans," Mr Suvit said.

Mr Suvit said the government also hopes the new ministry plays a vital role in reducing income disparity, and assist public, small-and large-scale industry to generate more income.

A committee will work out the details of the ministry's structures to ensure implementation by February.

The Science and Technology Ministry reported Thailand's investment in R&D was 114 billion baht, equal to 0.78% of GDP in 2016. Government investment accounted for 27% of the total.

4 Goodbye to primary entrance exams

The Early Childhood Development Bill, which seeks to ban entrance exams for enrolment in kindergarten and primary school, sailed through the cabinet, raising the possibility of big changes to the country's education sector.

Students prepare themselves to study at a primary school in Muang district of Phichit. It is one of the small-scale schools hit by a shortage of teachers.

Daranee Uthairatanakit, vice-president of the Independent Committee for Education Reform, said any school which makes children sit for entrance exams will be fined 500,000 baht once the bill comes into effect.

Dr Daranee said the bill would allow children aged up to eight to better develop physically, mentally and emotionally. Kids must face suitable experiences in line with their age.

She said admissions tests spark stress among children and their parents which could be detrimental to the development of a child's intellect.

Rushing children to learn something that is unsuitable at their age in schools in Bangkok and those in urban areas could lead to improper education values and it conflicts with the principle of early childhood education, she said.

In response to criticism that the proposed fine was too hefty, Dr Daranee said the bill could still be adjusted while being reviewed by the Council of State or the National Legislative Assembly.

A group of parents, led by Krongtong Boonprakong, director of Jittamett Kindergarten, has backed the bill, criticising the government for overlooking a key element of early childhood education which is managing an environment where children are free of stress, worry, or insecurity.

The group said research from around the globe indicates that stress is an impediment to development and creating quality citizens.

The Prathom 1 entrance examinations force children to rush through their studies as they have to prepare for tests one year in advance, the group said, adding this deprives children of the proper learning process in line with their ages.

A recent study by Suan Dusit University also found some Thai parents end up spending more than 100,000 baht per year per child on tuition fees to prepare their young children for exams to enrol in famous kindergarten and primary schools.

The study found that getting children to spend long hours preparing for these exams affects them physically, emotionally and socially, and also hampers their intellectual development.

For instance, getting young children to study during their afternoon naptime or playtime only causes stress. Getting them to learn by rote prevents proper brain development, and they also lose out on family bonding time.

The study also criticised kindergartens in Thailand for focusing too much on academic content instead of providing learning experiences in line with early-childhood education policies.

5 Small-sized schools to become history

The Office of Basic Education Commission (Obec) has set a target to close half of small-sized schools with less than 120 students and merge them with larger ones nearby within three years to improve the quality of education and solve the problem of teacher shortages.

A man carries his son who is delighted after finding out he has been accepted to Chulalongkorn University Demonstration Elementary School in Bangkok. The boy is among only 100 who passed the exam out of more than 2,000 students.

Obec's president Piyabutr Cholvijarn said half the schools under Obec's jurisdiction are now regarded as having a small student base. About 14,000 out of the roughly 30,000 Obec schools nationwide have less than 120 students and about 10,000 have fewer than 60 pupils.

"Many small schools do not have enough teaching staff, which means when a teacher is present in one class, other classes have to go without one. Some schools only have one teacher to teach all subjects to students from Grades 1 to 6 because the number of students is less than 20," he said referring to a ratio of 20 students per teacher as laid out by the rules.

Mr Piyabutr said it's difficult for these schools to enrol more students in order and get more resources and financial support from the government because the number of students in Thailand is declining due to low birth rates.

Obec's chief said the number of students in Thailand has dropped from nearly 9.5 million in 1997 to 7.4 million this year and the number is expected to decrease by another 2 million in the next six years.

"The number of schools must be reduced to match the number of students, so we can see improvement in educational resource allocation in the basic education sector," he said.

A recent study conducted by the World Bank indicated that Thailand now has one of the smallest class sizes in the world at the primary level, one teacher for every 14 primary students. However, the country still has a teacher shortage problem and the quality of education, especially at small schools, is still far from impressive.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa 2015) results which measure science, mathematics and reading skills of 15-year-olds showed that children in small schools are falling further behind their peers in larger urban schools. Students studying science in rural areas, for example, are behind students in urban areas by more than a year of schooling.

In reading proficiency, the rural-urban gap is even wider. More than half of these small rural school students will be functionally illiterate and will struggle to understand the meaning of what they read.

"You cannot expect good results from students who study in schools that only have one or two teachers teaching all the subjects," he said. "That's why we need to close half of these small schools and merge them with larger ones nearby in order to provide better education to children."

However, Mr Piyabutr said, at least 2,700 small schools considered to be necessary such as schools located on islands and mountainous areas will remain open even though their student numbers are low because it would be too difficult for students to travel to other schools.

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