Higher Education Ministry old wine in new bottle?
UNIVERSITIES NEED OWN MINISTRY TO ‘UNLEASH POTENTIAL’ IN RESEARCH, EDUCATION
THAILAND IS SET to establish a Higher Education Ministry, which is similar to a body that was abolished in 1999.
In the eyes of several prominent educators, the move is necessary because the Education Ministry – which now oversees universities – is “clearly unable” to unleash the full potential of higher-education institution.
However, critics of the proposal have expressed fears the new ministry would implement onerous new regulations.
“Nearly two decades ago, the University Affairs Ministry was merged into the Education Ministry and named the Office of Higher Education Commission [Ohec], based on the belief that human development for the country would have consistency up to the university level,” Mahidol University president Prof Udom Kachintorn said recently. “But now it’s clear that the ideal has not materialised. So, it’s time for the change.”
Udom chairs a panel preparing for the establishment of the new ministry.
Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin has also expressed support for the establishment, saying he felt his ministry was unwieldy.
“If we want to downsize the Education Ministry, it is best to let go of Ohec because universities can operate on their own anyway,” he said.
State universities in Thailand have operated under their own specific regulations governed by their own councils, with presidents and executives in charge of management.
State subsidies account for between 25 and 30 per cent of total expenses. In the 2017 fiscal year, Ohec, 81 state universities and 20 autonomous universities received a budget of about Bt115 billion from the government.
Udom tried to downplay concerns that setting up the Higher Education Ministry would require a bigger budget. “I think the budget will hardly increase from what the government used to spend on the higher-education sector. The Higher Education Ministry will use a small workforce. It will use Ohec’s old buildings,” he said.
Udom said he expected the Higher Education Ministry would work better for higher education than Ohec, which operates under the Education Ministry.
“If university affairs are left in the hands of the Education Ministry, Thai universities will not grow because they have not been the priority at the ministry. The major focus of the Education Ministry surrounds basic and vocational education,” Udom said.
He added that if the Higher Education Ministry was established, Thailand would see its universities respond better to its strategies and needs.
“The Higher Education Ministry will also support the government’s Thailand 4.0 policy because it will give a greater emphasis to research and innovation,” Udom said. “We can use the budget to motivate universities. For example, we may consider agenda-based budgeting.”
Udom added that he was confident that politicians would not be able to intervene in university affairs because universities were protected under their own laws. The Higher Education Ministry Bill had already been presented at four public hearings on the draft law, he said, adding he expected it to sail through the legislative process during the term of the current government.
“I think the Higher Education Ministry should be established by next May,” he said.
“The service and industrial sectors must be encouraged to play a greater role in higher education. They should participate in designing new courses or providing special lecturers. This way, university graduates will be able to respond well to their demands,” he said.
Assoc Prof Dr Prasert Pinprathomrat, president of Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi, said he also agreed with the plan.
“By nature, higher education is different from primary or secondary education. Higher education’s mission is about producing graduates, research and innovation to develop communities, society and industries further,” he said.
For example, Prasert said Thailand’s higher education sector should produce graduates who could work on high-speed trains.
“In the future, it should help the country provide train parts, trains and compartments,” he said.
However, Prof Dr Surapon Nitikraipot, a former rector at Thammasat University, said he doubted the role of the ministry.
“I am worried that such a ministry is going to cause more trouble to, and impose more restrictions on, universities,” he said.
Sumit Suwan, deputy dean at Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Education and Development Sciences and a member of Rajabhat Rajanagarindra University’s Council, also said he did not think Thailand needed the new ministry.
“All universities have operated under their own regulations. Besides, most university students and staff are now government employees, not civil servants,” he said.
In Sumit’s opinion, Thailand should instead improve the 2004 Rajabhat University Act because some governance problems had occurred during its enforcement.
“Under this act, there are several problems about the selection of university councillors, which in turn affects good governance,” Sumit said.