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Quick fixes leave Thailand's education in a mess
Publication Date : 12-09-2013
Considering the number of education ministers Thailand has had in the past few years, it's no surprise that the quality of the country's education is so poor. The latest confirmation of this is the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report for 2012-2013, which ranked Thailand worst among the eight Southeast Asian countries evaluated. The frequent changes at the helm of the Education Ministry are just part of the wider problem.
The two years of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai-led government have seen four ministers of education, with Chaturon Chaisaeng the incumbent. The choice of ministers has not been bad - and is actually the least of the problem. Like Chaturon, his predecessor, Pongthep Thepkanjana, was also widely admired. But the frequent changes at the top are evidence of lukewarm attention being given to the issues at stake.
Under pressure after the WEF ranking, Chaturon has vowed to take the lead in putting our education system on par with international standards. He is not the first minister to set that target and probably won't be the last. His problem is how to forge a policy that lasts longer than his tenure in office.
Improving the education system is an arduous task in itself, but it is made even tougher by its entanglement in politics. The urgent need for an upgrade has fallen foul of political influence, with past and present governments seeking solutions via populist policies. At first glance, things look promising. Study at the compulsory levels is free, youngsters have been given free computer tablets, and older students can get loans for further study. Such feel-good policies are bound to draw favourable publicity.
But when the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle from past government's policies are assembled, the picture that emerges is of a country without an education master plan. There might be a master plan in theory, but the reality is a mosaic of different policies spanning years that lacks unity.
Democracy, especially at a time of such wide divisions among the electorate, encourages politicians to launch "quick fixes" rather than a sustainable policy. Some projects prove unsuccessful and fizzle out. Others are just halted when a new minister arrives. Worawat Auapinyakul, Yingluck's first education minister, wanted to have students speak at least one word of English per day. The idea sank without a trace. Pongthep planned to revamp the curriculum to help students learn more outside the classroom. After he left office, the plan was shelved.
The real problem is not bad ideas but the fact that the root causes of the system's poor quality have barely been addressed. Teachers still rank among the most poorly paid workers and lack proper training. Meanwhile, the quality of school management in rural areas lags behind urban standards, and the enrolment system for high schools and universities has been changed frequently.
Chaturon could be right to look into the criteria under which Thailand's education ranking has plunged. They include the quality of school management, labour development and training and higher-education enrolment - these are undoubtedly areas where problems exist - but Thailand doesn't need the WEF or any other agency to remind it of the urgent need for reform.
Problems have been left to fester for so long that no "quick fix" can cure the chronic wound. What the country needs first and foremost is to shun populist measures and spend the necessary time and effort to address the deep causes. The country needs one sustained policy drive that tackles the root causes, one that will not disappear with any change in government.