(a version of this blog first appeared through my day-job in Feb 2013)
This next blog in the Blue Skies SEAsia series looks at Thailand. Ruled since 1946 by King Rama IX, the world’s longest-serving head of state, it has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932. It is the only South East Asian nation never to be colonised by the West although it did lose some territories to the French and the British. During the Second World War Thailand signed an armistice with the Japanese and declared war on the Allies, but there was a strong resistance movement throughout and the nation emerged as a key ally to the USA during the Cold War. Today it has a population of about 67m people, most of whom are practicing Buddhists. As one of the ‘newly industrialising countries’ (NICs – beloved of my A-Level Geography teachers) Thailand experienced rapid economic growth during the late eighties and early nineties, including the world’s highest growth rate of 12.4% p.a. 1985-1996. However it was also at the heart of the Asian financial crisis, experiencing a sudden 10.8% contraction of GPD in 1998 and a long, slow recovery. It remains an export-led economy, a popular tourism destination and the world’s biggest producer of rice.
Today Thailand is a relatively prosperous and developed middle-income nation compared to its neighbours, for example the capital Bangkok feels about 20 years ahead of Jakarta in Indonesia. It has high literacy levels and a well-established education system, featuring a significant private sector. Thais are also relatively computer-literate, with a recent election pledge to implement an ambitious $96m USD one (Android) tablet per child policy. Education is compulsory up to 14 years and publically funded up to 17 years. However at all levels teaching is rarely learner-centric and education, especially the curriculum, seems subject to constant government-led change and short-termism.
The Thai higher education system is a mix of public and private institutions, the former including about 92 universities, colleges and institutes, including the oldest in Thailand, Chulalongkorn University, established in 1917. Although recent reforms have made public providers more independent of government (some were formerly called government universities) and their staff to no longer count as civil servants, they are still primarily government funded. Admission to the bigger and more prestigious public institutions is by a yearly country-wide competition, with some direct application too. There are also about 72 private higher education institutions which tend to compete through specialisation and innovation, in the face of more-established public providers getting the first pick of applicants. For example one private university provides compulsory 4 month semester-long internships which are flexibly designed to suit employers. Given an intake of 6 thousand students a year that requires a lot of outreach to build relationships with potential hosts but the benefits to both parties are clear. Some of the senior private university staff we met in Bangkok often felt stifled by restrictive government regulations that stifled such experimentation.
One major issue for Thai higher education is relatively poor levels of English, with the nation ranked 54th out of 56 South East Asian nations and 116th out of 163 countries worldwide. There is currently a debate about whether English or Mandarin should be taught in schools, with the former the current lingua franca for higher education.
Lastly, some of the university staff we met felt there was a general sense of complacency in the country, also reflected in the HE sector, that includes learners, lecturers and institutions. Rapidly developing neighbours such as Vietnam and Indonesia seem to be out-competing Thai universities, appearing “hungrier” for success and more attuned to the “twin poles of power, China and the USA”. So far there has been virtually no impact from international league tables, though this was raised as one possible stimulus for action. The other big issue on the horizon is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but more of that in the next post…