Thailand and the inequality challenges Rattana Lao is the Head of the Thai Studies International Program, Pridi Banomyong International College, Thammasat University. She is also an author of A Critical Study of Thailand's Higher Education Reforms: The Culture of Borrowing. (Photo via Twitter/nanchanokw)

P
oliticians, policymakers and members of the public have recently given much attention to the government's Thailand 4.0 economic model which aims to make the country ready for a digital economy. However, there remains a range of challenges that will impede the realisation of this lofty goal. Among them are the overall quality of Thailand's education, which is below the global average, as well as the growing inequality in the country's education system.

These problems will remain roadblocks to the 4.0 agenda. Addressing education inequality is vital if Thailand aspires to achieve this goal.

How can our education system prepare our students to become skilled and competitive workers rather than focusing on promoting the "brightest students" from a few selected schools?

It is not that Thailand does not have the resources to do it. Thailand has spent massive financial amounts on education. The government, for example, spent 19.35% of its annual 2.58-trillion-baht budget in 2015 on education -- the largest proportion of the budget portfolio.

Unfortunately, the huge spending has not translated into improved learning as our students still scored below global averages in key subjects as shown by various international tests.

Results of these tests demonstrate the fact that Thai students still fell behind their peers in neighbouring countries when it comes to their performance in maths, science and English. In the "Learning Curve, Lessons in Country, Performance in Education" report published by Pearson, it is illustrative that Thailand's educational system is ranked 35th among 40 countries that participated in 2014.

In the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) score results published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2016, Thailand is ranked 55th out of 72 countries in the overall result. In maths and science, Thailand is ranked 54th and 57th for reading.

What are the problems? Isn't heavy spending sufficient to improve our education?

This is not about how much money is spent on education, but how it is used.

"It is not the amount of money that we are lacking, it is how the money is not efficiently and effectively spent -- this is the problem," Pumsaran Tongliamnark, a policy analyst from the Budget Bureau, Ministry of Education, said at a recent seminar.

While the test results reflect the shortcomings of Thailand's education system, the most worrying aspect of this debacle is the grave inequality that persists at every level of the system.

Thailand is caught in an education paradox -- should the country focus on pushing the best and brightest students to compete on the world stage or should we be concerned with those who are falling behind? Is it possible for Thailand to achieve both goals?

Before talking about the digital economy and the fourth industrial revolution, let's get the foundations straight. The elephant in the room is the issue of inequality in our education system.

The problem of inequality is more pressing for small primary and secondary schools, each with less than 20 students in each grade, in rural areas. There are 15,224 schools that fit into this category. Although the number of small schools has declined by more than 20% since 1993, they continue to be the majority of schools.

Problems faced by small schools are a matter of grave concern. These schools lack both sufficient state funding and teachers affecting the quality of teaching and the performance of their students. Often, one teacher has to teach multiple subjects and multiple grades.

Kirida Bhaopichitr, research director for the International Economics and Advisory Service of Thailand Development Research Institute, pointed out that students from small schools achieved lower scores than their peers from larger schools.

The 2012 PISA scores revealed that there were greater improvement in scores among students from schools in big cities than those from small schools in small cities. While the former improved at the rate of 21.3% from the last test, the latter are falling behind with only a 16.1% improvement.

An observation by Stephen Holroyd, the principal of Shrewsbury International School in Bangkok, is more compelling. While the country laments the tragedy of Thai educational performance, the growing sector of international elite schools in Thailand is "isolated" and insulated from the problem, said Mr Holroyd. Year after year, these elite schools continued to send their best and brightest affluent students to Oxbridge and Ivy League universities.

The problem of education inequality goes beyond basic education. It transcends to the level of higher education as well. While the media has reported much on the low ranking of Thailand's top universities compared to international counterparts, a more serious problem lies in the disparity between different educational institutions in the country.

With more than 173 higher education institutions, only a handful of institutions continue to capture the imagination and aspiration of Thailand's top students.

This leaves a huge gap in student quality among different institutions.

Meanwhile, the state's policy on higher education has mainly focused on making the top universities more competitive. While the competitiveness of higher education institutions is important, attention and resources should also be given to lower-ranked ones including Rajabhat universities.

As things stand, the state's budget allocation for limited admission universities is 10 times higher than that given to Rajabhat universities. The different level of resources that go into different types of universities ultimately create inequality in students' performance.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, pointed out that education reform is a cliche, but this makes it also imperative. While education is a challenge in all countries, it has become critical in Thailand. If reform is not undertaken to better educate the Thai workforce from a young age, Thailand may well enter a period of long-term decline and economic stagnation, he said.

If Thailand is committed to achieving Thailand 4.0, it needs to get the basics right. It needs to give greater and more serious attention to the inequality spanning the education system.

First published in Bangkok Post

Rattana Lao

Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and is currently teaching in Bangkok.

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