During the past several decades Thailand has achieved impressive success in expanding its educational system quantitatively at all levels and improving its basic educational infrastructure. This success was facilitated by the extremely high economic growth experienced in the period, 1985-1995. The euphoria concerning such macroeconomic success tended to mask the important reality that, among lower middle-income countries, Thailand's social and educational development was significantly lagging behind its economic development. With the advent of the economic crisis in July 1997, even this rapid economic growth proved unsustainable. The crisis also stimulated a more critical, deeper, and more systematic analysis of Thailand's complete development structure, including its educational system.
Thailand faces what has been termed the "mid-level technology pinch." Thailand can no longer compete with countries with extremely low labor costs (such as India and Vietnam) in manufacturing labor intensive products, but has not yet developed the strong research and development capability to compete with high technology manufacturers in industrial countries. With higher level wages but an average educational level of 5.3 in its workforce, Thailand faces serious problems in international competitiveness and in improving the productivity of its workforce. It also must find ways to enhance the development of local indigenous R&D to respond to the challenge of the mid-level technology pinch.
The Asian economic crisis represented a valuable "wake-up call" to Thailand; it demonstrated the urgent need to improve education and human resource development. The crisis set in motion new public and political forces leading to a major educational reform initiative mandated in the October 1997 constitution and codified legally in the National Education Act of August 1999. A public organization, the Education Reform Office (ERO) was established in 1999 to implement the critically needed educational reforms.
The reforms have the following key elements: major structural changes in the management of education, including decentralization to local education areas and rationalization and reengineering of the administration of education. A new national Ministry of Education, Religion, and Culture will be established comprised of four basic organizations: National Council for Education, Religion, and Culture; The Commission for Basic Education; The Commission for Higher Education; and the Commission on Religion and Culture; greater fiscal and administrative autonomy for Thai public universities; provision of free basic education to all Thai youth with 12 years and 9 years of compulsory schooling; shift to demand-side financing of education with a reform of the budget process; de-institutionalizing education and expanding choice, represented in the popular slogan of the educational reform campaign: "Education for All and All for Education." The education for all concept reflects the thrust for greater equity as an important element of reform. There is also an emphasis on the utilization of local wisdom and knowledge and a National Institute for the Development of Thai Wisdom and Education (NISE) has been established; and fundamental change in pedagogy away from teacher-centered learning emphasizing rote memorization to student-centered learning fostering independent thinking and creativity. Related to this reform, the visual metaphor of children with heads of parrots is being used in the campaign's critique of conventional learning approaches and patterns.
The proposed reforms are intended to provide all Thais with the opportunity to complete quality secondary education in accord with their own needs and preferences. The reform opens up opportunities for more home schooling, charter schooling, and other alternatives, including a greater role for the private sector. Major budgets are to be decentralized to local education areas, which can then make decisions about the use of educational resources. Under the old centralized system, money often came at the wrong time for the wrong things. Under the new system, educational services and curricula can be more responsive to local needs.
To assure accountability in the new system, a special office for external quality assurance is being established to monitor the quality of schools under the new system and provide educational consumers with better opportunities for more informed choices. A system for licensure for both teachers and administrators is also being introduced. To revitalize the teaching profession and to reward outstanding teaching performance, a system to recognize and provide special National Teacher Awards for outstanding innovative teachers was established in 1998. As part of the learning reform initiative, individuals will be recognized and designated as National Teachers and Master Teachers to spearhead student-centered learning reforms.
Another critical arena directly related to the reforms and the technology pinch is the promotion of R&D in the science and technology area. Thai universities as a whole produced only 135 Ph.D.s in 1997. In honor of His Majesty King Bhumibol's 50 years on the throne (1996), a Royal Golden Jubilee Ph.D. Program was established to provide fellowships for the most talented Thais to obtain Ph.D. level training in the next twenty years. The target of the Ph.D. Program is to produce 5,000 Ph.D.s during Phase I (1997-2011) and 20,000 Ph.D.s during Phase II (2011-2021). The Program utilizes a "sandwich strategy" in which Fellows will receive their Ph.D.s from Thai institutions but with international experience and collaboration. Also, the Eighth National Education Development Plan (1997-2001) calls for no less than one percent of GDP to be invested in public and private sector R&D by the year 2001. In 1995, R&D as a percent of GDP was an extremely low 0.17.
Related to R&D is the development of information technology (IT). This is an area in which Thailand has made considerable progress and has excellent potential. A survey completed by Mahidol University indicates that 63 percent of urban youth and 34 percent of rural youth are able to use a computer. Thomas Friedman in his book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree argues that those countries that are deficient in IT will be left behind. If he is correct in his assessment, this should augur well for the future of Thailand. Interestingly, Thailand's prime minister, Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra, elected in January, 2001, is a former leading entrepreneur in IT development for Thailand and the region.
The Lexus and the Olive Tree also raises the issue of the tension between globalization (the lexus) and preservation of local culture (the olive tree). That potential cultural collision is also embedded within elements of Thailand's educational reform initiative. With a noncolonial heritage, the Thais are confident, however, that they can globalize in their own unique way and still preserve their rich Thai cultural heritage. The King's project of economic self-sufficiency, for example, draws upon traditional culture but is responsive to the need for sustainable development. At times unilinear thinking exaggerates potential contradictions between modernity and tradition as illustrated in the fundamentally progressive essence of Buddhist epistemology as expressed thousands of years ago in the Kalama Sutra of the Lord Buddha:
Yes, you may well doubt, you may well be uncertain. . . .Do not accept anything because it is the authoritative tradition, because it is often said, because of rumour or hearsay, because it is found in the scriptures, because it agrees with a theory of which one is already convinced, because of the reputation of an individual, or because a teacher said it is thus and thus. . . .But experience it for yourself.
Numerous public hearings on educational reform have been held in various regions of Thailand. While a national consensus in support of educational reform (including all major political parties) has emerged, there are still pockets of resistance (both overt and covert). Resistance primarily is reflected in the following views: Skepticism about the capability of local areas to manage education on their own. Related to this view are concerns about potential corruption and nepotism at the local level; concerns about potential unintended adverse consequences of the new "voucher-type" demand side system of funding of education; concerns about whether more experiential student-centered learning will actually improve learning outcomes; and more covert resistance is from stakeholders who have strong vested interests (often related to financial benefits, urban amenities, and job security) in the highly centralized administrative system.
Implementing this bold educational reform represents a major challenge to both the Thai government and its people. Its implementation will require determined and astute political leadership. The painful economic crisis, which emerged in 1997, sent a strong warning signal that "more of the same" in education is no longer viable and that Thailand needs to get more "bang for its buck" in education. Given the constraints on how much the central government can support education, and particularly given the bold commitment to 12 years of free education, it is critically important to mobilize other private, local, and even international resources in support of the reform process and policies. Successful implementation of educational reform is critical for Thailand to restore its earlier economic performance and to increase its international competitiveness and the productivity of its people. This in turn should contribute to a higher quality of life and standard of living for all Thais in the Kingdom in the twenty-first century.
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—Gerald W. Fry
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