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Reform education for long-lasting results

TIME IS RIPE TO PUSH FOR MINISTRY OF UNIVERSITY AFFAIRS, FOR THE SAKE OF STUDENTS AND COUNTRY

EDUCATION is one of the main target areas for the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)'s reform mission.

Decisions are expected soon on educational policies that will in one way or another affect the lives of so many Thai children.

Several prominent figures in the educational sector are now very keen to present their ideas to the NCPO. Many of these ideas have been largely ignored by previous governments, and they range from fundamental problems - such as those involving the upgrading of the Office of the Higher Education Commission (Ohec) - to gimmicks like the One Tablet Per Child scheme.

"We believe the Ohec should be upgraded into a ministry," Associate Professor Pradit Wanarat said in his capacity as vice-president of the Council of University Presidents of Thailand (CUPT). His idea is to turn the office into the Ministry of University Affairs.

Two decades ago, Thailand had a Ministry of University Affairs. But through bureaucratic reform, this has already transformed into the Ohec that is now a part of the Education Ministry.

Moves to revive the Ministry of the University Affairs have been alive over those past two decades. But such efforts have been unfruitful, as it is hard to explain why the country would need one whole ministry to govern universities that have independent management.

At present, each university operates under its own specific law. Many are on the path to being autonomous too, which guarantees even greater independence from a bureaucratic system.

Still, given the number - over 100 universities - and the fact only a few have made their names in regional or global rankings, it indicates a weakness in the local system. Being independent means they need independent accounting departments plus different procurement. Universities that share similar faculties refrain from cooperating in terms of lecturer or student exchanges.

The independence also widens the excellence gap, as those with proper funding can design better courses to attract students. This leaves small and poor universities at a disadvantage. In the end, it is the students of those poor universities, which are mainly from rural provinces and outnumber those at elite universities, who suffer.

Pavich Thongroj, a veteran educator who was tasked by the Yingluck government to undertake curriculum reforms, said that universities do need a different set of goals and action plans from those for basic schooling. Being a small part of an Education Ministry that oversees over 30,000 schools, thousands of vocational schools and private schools nationwide, Ohec's plans and operations are largely ignored.

Meanwhile, the Office of Vocational Education Commission should also be part |of the new ministry.

"If possible, I would suggest the inclusion of the Science and Technology Ministry into this new ministry," Pavich said.

That would please the private sector, which is yearning for more skilled workers with vocational skills and technological knowledge, at a time when businesses are striving to move up to another manufacturing level. Thailand is no longer a hub of cheap labour - but not all Thai companies can move up the ladder if the pool of available workers remains insufficient.

According to Pavich, universities will need to be more research-oriented. Under the Education Ministry, Ohec has been weak in fighting for budget to finance research activities.

This also shows a link to another issue that the NCPO takes into consideration - the One Tablet Per Child (OTPC) scheme.

The scheme contains flaws. Due to poor implementation, so many teachers were insufficiently trained to make the full use of the tablets. The scheme has also run into procurement problems two years in a row.

Yet, populist or not, the OTPC was launched with good intentions - to bridge the gap of technical knowledge between city and rural kids. Modelled after South Korea's success in boosting knowledge among children, it was aimed at getting kids acquainted with new technology, new learning environment and new knowledge available on the Internet.

In IMD's Competitiveness Ranking 2012-2013, Thailand's competitiveness in science, technology and innovation was near the bottom - at 55th among 60 economies.

Here in Thailand, it is proven that children - many of them living in a house that has no computer - found paperless classes exciting.

Education permanent secretary Suthasri Wongsaman said earlier this month that under the NCPO, the ministry would proceed with curriculum reforms, with focus on history and ethics as well as knowledge of English. All educational institutions' scores would be upgraded, while efforts would be put on producing more teachers in several areas. Universities would be promoted to research houses. Thailand's education sector must offer equal opportunities to all and be ready for the Asean Economic Community.

All that will not be achieved if fundamental problems are not cleared.

Pavich stressed that the NCPO needs to thoroughly heed opinions of all parties. He suggested the establishment of an education council, to work on a comprehensive reform plan.

"This could be done in a year, if [the NCPO] is serious, as there are over 10 laws to be amended to push our education sector into another level," he said.

It would be a plus if the council, if one is formed, would hear opinions from all stakeholders like educators, students and their parents, as well as the private sector.

If the future of young generations and the country is the absolute goal, it should not be hard to achieve good reform.

The first step for NCPO is to listen to all sides, and without any bias. It is the prerequisite for Admiral Narong Pipattanasai, who now oversees the Education Ministry, to get all necessary information before making any decisions. It's true that circumstances keep changing and new needs may emerge. But the right decisions should stay while the wrong ones can have widespread and deep ramifications.


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