Populist policies have failed the country; it's time we stuck to a master plan
BANGKOK: -- 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
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
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
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.
-- The Nation 2013-09-12