'Need is urgent to develop and focus on our education goals'
Country also needs to boost language skills as AEC approaches: Gerald Fry
When the Asean Economic Community becomes operational in 2015, it will not only affect Thailand's economy but also education. In light of this, an education development specialist has urged Thailand to rush to develop its human resources, based on the country's niche occupations, and to improve science and maths education to strengthen knowledge production, and productivity.
Professor Gerald W Fry, who has worked in quality education for years in all Asean countries and many other centres, has shared with The Nation - in an exclusive interview - what these countries have done to upgrade the quality of their education.
Gerald Fry is a distinguished international professor at the Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy, and Devel-opment at the University of Minnesota.
Professor Fry is now starting his sixth decade of work in Thailand and has taught at five Thai universities, including Thammasat and NIDA. He has also worked closely with many leading Thai academics and educators.
He said the future of any country fundamentally depends on its human resource development - something countries such as Singapore, Korea, Japan and Vietnam understand strongly.
Therefore, Thais should do likewise, Professor Fry said, adding that, China, Malaysia and Laos have clear goals about what they want to accomplish by the year 2020, but Thailand's targets are not so clear.
As a result, Thailand should shape systematic visions of what it wants to accomplish in terms of human resource development by 2020 and train people for special niche industries -like tourism and hospitality (including MICE, Thailand recently hosted the World Economic Forum). Other goals may involve being a "Kitchen of the World", "Detroit of the East", creative entrepreneurship, an international education hub, the fashion industry and designing of attractive products. The success of the Thai product Red Bull as a global brand is an example of Thailand's potential.
The Kingdom has numerous advantages already. Singapore wants to be the international education hub of Southeast Asia, but it is very expensive there. So Thailand, in terms of establishing a similar hub, has the advantage of being a friendly welcoming country where education costs are low compared to Singapore. Thailand also has an excellent educational infrastructure with many impressive campuses (such as Chulalongkorn, Assumption/Bang Na, Mahidol's new green campus at Salaya, and AIT.
Professor Fry said Thailand should improve the language proficiency of its people - including in English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Burmese, and Khmer.
"Students should meet and communicate with English native speakers, while teachers should be innovative in finding opportunities for students to use English for functional purposes. Their role should be as a catalyst to point students towards resources." There is great but unrealised Internet potential to help students learn other languages.
Singapore and Malaysia are emphasising STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.
"It's really important for Thailand to give more emphasis to high quality training in the STEM fields. Thailand has too many people in social sciences and business, relative to STEM fields," he said.
Professor Fry noted that Thailand had more than 150 universities and colleges. These should be divided into groups with varying expertise to produce graduates in different fields. Mahidol and Chulalongkorn Universities should be responsible for research in STEM, while Chiang Mai Rajabhat University could focus on tourism, as Chiang Mai is a famous tourist destination.
Schools near the new bridges across the Mekong at Nakhon Phanom and Mukdahan need to give more attention to Vietnamese and Chinese languages and culture. He said he was extremely pleased that the ministry had designated nine institutions as research universities, as a step towards increasing Thailand's R & D capacity, critically important for its future and in producing higher value-added products.
With more researchers and advanced research knowledge in STEM fields, the standard of technology would be lifted in terms of knowledge production and improved efficiency and productivity, he added.
The professor said Vietnam's education is changing rapidly and their rice productivity is higher than that of Thailand.
"Although Thailand is far ahead of Vietnam in terms of infrastructure and its potential is high, both are similar in terms of rice exports and exporting products. Vietnam is a country on the move (a "rising Phoenix") and is comparable to Thailand in many ways. It's a serious competitor in many areas including tourism."
When compared to Thailand, Vietnam was more of a reading culture. "Vietnamese people are highly motivated. They also are highly creative."
In Vietnam, teachers working in remote areas get paid much more. Consequently, he wanted the Thai government to consider narrowing the large disparity or gap in education. Thailand needs to target more funds toward the most disadvantaged remote rural areas to reduce regional disparities in quality, he said.
Thailand should focus on two priorities - improving the overall quality of education at all levels and reducing the gaps in achievement.
Professor Fry emphasises that true education reform begins in the classrooms. With enhanced quality of teachers, students would learn to become more productive. He is pleased to see the Ministry of Education is trying to deal effectively with the problem of excessively small schools of low quality.
"We don't know what the jobs of tomorrow will be - but what we can do is teach students how to learn by themselves and how to be active efficient learners and readers all their lives."