Government revives overseas student scholarships

Government revives overseas student scholarships

Education Ministry sets new criteria to limit drop-outs, boost government jobs for graduates, writes Dumrongkiat Mala

A successful Odos scholar and graduate from a Netherlands university, Pummarin Kakaen has changed his life from poor corn farmer's son to an adviser to foreign investors.
A successful Odos scholar and graduate from a Netherlands university, Pummarin Kakaen has changed his life from poor corn farmer's son to an adviser to foreign investors.

The Education Ministry recently announced it plans to revive the "One District, One Scholarship" (Odos) scheme, a Thaksin-era project that provided students from disadvantaged homes who earned good grades with the opportunity to receive an international education.

The Odos scheme -- introduced by the Thaksin Shinawatra administration in 2004 -- provided Mathayom 6 (Grade 12) students from poor families the chance to study overseas on a scholarship and later return bringing international knowledge and new technology back to Thailand to accelerate development.

The first and second rounds of the project were funded through the two- and three-digit lottery.

To qualify for the scholarship, students' family incomes needed to be less than 150,000 baht annually and students needed a grade point average of three for the previous five semesters.

Recipients studied in non-English speaking countries including France, Japan, Germany and China.

However, the scheme was scrapped by the Surayud Chulanont administration after only the second round of scholarships were distributed because the lottery schemes that funded them were cancelled.

The scheme also came under criticism when a large number of students returned home prematurely after failing to adapt to their new studies overseas.

In the first round, 740 students were sent abroad to study, but 113 came home early.

In Germany alone, nearly 20 students returned to Thailand, and one 17-year-old student committed suicide due to stress and pressure.

Students who returned early said they faced enormous language difficulties because the government did not do enough to prepare them.

The scheme was revived again by the Yingluck Shinawatra government, but amended so that scholarships could be awarded to anyone, regardless of socio-economic background.

This time, recipients had the option to study in English-speaking countries, and were not obliged to pay back the scholarship or work for the government.

But the new criteria came under fire for its potential to be misused, as the scheme was originally intended to benefit academically-gifted students from poor families -- not the children of wealthy or influential members of society.

Since 2004, the Odos project has paid out more than 29 billion baht for its 3,093 recipients, but only 1,587 recipients completed their studies, according to a report by the Research and Development Centre on Children and Youth, which oversees the Odos programme.  

Only 11% of graduates from previous scholarship rounds are state employees, while 70% work in private companies, 2% have yet to return to Thailand and the rest are self-employed, it said.

The findings have raised questions about whether the project is worthwhile. Education Minister Gen Dapong Ratanasuwan recently defended the project, saying he did not regard it as an investment failure. It is beneficial if it helps provide more tertiary education opportunities for children from poor families, as originally intended, he said.

"The ministry will approve the fifth round of the scholarship programme, based on criteria that only needy students will benefit," Gen Dapong said.

The revised regulations will focus on students from poor families -- whose parents earn less than 250,000 baht per year. The students must also work for the state sector when they graduate. It is also likely to specify that students pursue vocational rather than academic studies, he said.

"The project's current criteria are a bit loose and misapplied, as they allow students from all family backgrounds to apply," Gen Dapong said.

He said the ministry has set up a working panel to revise criteria as the new ones must be written carefully to ensure some of the recipients return to Thailand to serve the country as government officers after graduation.

Somphong Chitradub, the centre's director and an Odos adviser, said the regulations need to be revised to ensure taxes are well spent as the project is now funded by the central budget.

Mr Somphong said the ministry plans to offer the fifth round of scholarships to underprivileged students from families whose total annual income does not exceed more than 250,000 baht a year.

Recipients also have to study in a field that is in demand on the Thai labour market, rather than pursuing their own aspirations. "They also might be obliged to pay back the scholarship," Mr Somphong said.

The next round focuses on sending students to study in non-English speaking and Asean countries. There are other schemes for financial assistance to students to study in English-speaking countries, he said. "It's important to ensure the budget for the One District, One Scholarship project is spent properly."

Odos aims to have at least half of the scholarship recipients return to serve the state.

Mr Somphong said he recommends the government guarantee jobs to recipients upon their return, and ensure participants receive adequate language trainings before travelling overseas to decrease the rate of drop-outs.

Mr Somphong said the majority of graduates from previous rounds work for the private sector only because the government doesn't have positions in its agencies reserved for them.

"We have experienced many problems from previous rounds, but we have learned from the experience and will try not to repeat the same mistakes again," he said.

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