TRANSFORMING Thailand into Asean’s educational hub within the next five years is the ultimate goal of Suphachai Chearavanont, co-chairman of a working panel on basic education and leadership development under the Joint Public-Private Steering Committee.
But to achieve that ambition, the country needs to start building a favourable landscape now, with world-class laboratory facilities, massive funding from both the state and private sectors, and top researchers, plus attractive incentives from the government to make all this happen.
“Our long-term goal is to make Thailand the Asean educational hub. We have to begin by defining which research areas are important to the future of the world. The researches that are important to the world future are biotechnology, digital technology, robotic technology, or nano-technology,” the True chief executive officer said in an interview with The Nation.
He said Thailand had good fundamentals for doing research in the biotech, digital and robotic arenas. The country needs to set up open and world-class lab facilities to conduct research in these areas.
Suitable universities should be selected to host each of these labs, while the state and private sectors step in to provide support and incentives. The labs will also enlist top local and international academics to strengthen their work.
Suphachai estimated that setting up one lab would require funding of US$1 billion, so focusing on three areas would mean an investment of $3 billion (Bt108 billion). The government could allocate this funding from the annual education budget of Bt500 billion. If it did so, there is a chance that the three universities hosting the labs would see their rankings move up.
If all of the above could be realised, parents from all over Asean would send their children to enrol in these universities, which would make Thailand the centre for producing competent human resources in the region, said Suphachai, who also serves as vice chairman of Charoen Pokphand Group.
But this is the long-term plan. For now, his working panel is focusing on the immediate plan of reforming the country’s basic education.
He said that to reform education, four areas had to be improved: transparency in the educational system, evaluation processes, learning methods, and the human resources that could help lead the changes, including school principals.
He said citizens and private companies could donate money to help schools, as they were eligible for tax deductions, but they might feel hesitant to do so, as they could not easily check how schools spend their donations and how they were performing. Once people could be confident about schools’ transparency, he believed a massive number of people would be happy to provide financial help to them.
He added that school principals had to be evaluated and at the same time rewarded, according to their performance. The parents in each school’s area should also be encouraged to take part in this evaluation to create engagement between schools and communities.
He suggested that recruitment of foreign principals would help boost the education system. If the country wants Thais well versed in foreign languages, it must be willing to spend on hiring foreign teachers.
Moreover, teaching and learning methods should be changed from one-way communication to two-way, moving away from urging children to memorise text towards encouraging them to ask questions.
Students should be encouraged to engage in debate among themselves, while teachers assume the roles of facilitators and encourage the students to build up their potential. In Suphachai’s opinion, the learning process should be child-centric.
“When children ask ‘why’, they will then go on to do research or Google, and that is a life-long perspective of the entire learning process,” he said.
To accelerate these changes, he said the private sector could play a major role by becoming what he calls “dedicated sponsors” of their preferred schools and provide them with mentors to see what these schools really need. The mentors would also work closely with the principals to improve school performance.
The working panel has passed its plans on to Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak and Education Minister Dapong Ratanasuwan. Dapong chairs the team in the working panel from the state sector, while Suphachai chairs the private-sector team.
Among the top executives in Suphachai’s team are Isara Vongkusolkit, chairman of Board of Trade and Thai Chamber of Commerce, and Kan Trakulhoon of Siam Cement Group. The panel is working out more details of the plans before submitting them to Somkid in the next couple of weeks.
Suphachai said that when the immediate plan is approved, the government would deploy it in a large number of schools.
The working group on education is one of 12 joint public-private-sector working groups appointed by the government last month to help it steer the economy.