Concern brewing over post-coup changes and 'same old problems'
SHE WAS a curious child who loved science and was never short of questions about her favourite subject. But 17-year-old Nattanan Warintarawet found her interest fizzling out after she enrolled at Triam Udom Suksa, one of the top high schools in Thailand.
“I was seen as abnormal when I challenged the teacher’s opinions,” she says.
“There is no debate at all in class. When a student tries to start a debate, she is told that she is weird, and that there is no point arguing.”
Her frustration with Thailand’s education system came to a head after the May 22 coup, when coup-maker and now prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha unveiled his concept of the 12 values that Thai people ought to have. Students were made to recite them in school.
To Nattanan, the move appeared desperately short of the real reforms needed to revitalise an education system which has long been criticised for the absence of critical reflection, an over-reliance on rote learning and a revolving door of leaders and policies that kept getting in the way of good schooling.
So last month, Nattanan braved martial law and staged a protest with like-minded students outside the Ministry of Education, in the process turning herself into one of the youngest activists to come under the scrutiny of Thailand’s military government.
Unlike some other activists, she was not hauled away to a police station or military quarters. But education minister and former navy chief Narong Pipatanasai declared the 12 values “flawless” and suggested that those opposing them might be “abnormal”.
The 12 values include “being honest, sacrificial and patient with [a] positive attitude for the common good of the public” and “understanding, learning the true essence of democratic ideals with His Majesty the King as the head of state”.
They also include “maintaining discipline, being respectful of laws and the elderly and seniority”.
These values, together with a stronger emphasis on Thai history and civic education, remain the most visible educational changes put in place so far by the post-coup administration.
Much of the rest – as per convention in the pedestrian-paced ministry – is under study or in the works.
Impatience has been brewing among educationists and employers alike. Dr Sutassi Smuthkochorn, a university lecturer and expert on external quality assessment at the Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment, echoes the discontent felt by many in the system.
“Whatever they are saying right now, we have already discussed for 30 years. These are the same old problems,” Sutassi said.
Money is not one of them. In the 2015 budget, the education ministry was allotted about Bt500 billion, or one-fifth of the total government expenditure.
The Kingdom has consistently spent a greater proportion of its budget and gross domestic product on education than many regional and developed countries. According to World Bank data, Thailand allocated 7.6 per cent of its GDP to education in 2012, more than double Singapore’s 3 per cent.
Yet the results have been persistently disappointing.
In the 2014 competitiveness study of 60 economies by the Swiss-based International Institute of Management Development, Thailand’s education system was ranked 54th, down three notches from the previous year.
And in the latest World Economic Forum Global Competi-tiveness Report, Thailand’s education quality was ranked 75th out of 144 countries and territories, behind Senegal, Rwanda and Albania.
Many students are put off by the unquestioning manner in which subjects are taught. Sixteen-year-old Parit Chiwarak, who also studies at Triam Udom, says: “I think the goal of history lessons is to understand the problems of the world. But in the classroom they don’t tell me [why things happen], why the King does this, why the Queen does that.”
The shortfalls in Thailand’s tertiary education have spawned unemployable graduates.
Bangkok-based businessman Marc Spiegel, who recruits people for the railway and infrastructure sector, says: “A lot of the multinationals that I work with, they don’t want to hire what I call ‘local Thais’ – Thais who have no international background in terms of having worked for a multinational company, having gone to school abroad or an international school here, and can speak English at a very proficient level.”
Thailand is among the handful of countries with “very low proficiency” in English in the latest Education First English Proficiency Index, which looks at the average adult’s English language skill in 60 countries and territories.
Although the military government has cast itself as an interim administration that will make way for an elected government once a new constitution is in place, in about a year or so, observers say a lot can be done in the meantime.
“You can at least lay the foundation which the next government can work on,” says Spiegel, who is also the vice-chairman of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce. He suggests that teachers could be retrained and the curriculum overhauled.
In fact, teachers could start by having a conversation about these 12 values, says Assistant Professor Chuenchanok Kovin from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Education.
“Teachers should help their students clarify those values, allowing criticism of them, instead of reciting them,” he said.