EDUCATION IN THAILAND: HISTORY, LITERACY, WOMEN, UNIVERSITIES PROBLEMS, IMPROVEMENTS

EDUCATION IN THAILAND

The Ministry of Education supervises public and private education. Education expenditures: 4.1 percent of GDP (2009). Country comparison to the world: 102. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Starting in October 2002, the education system offered 12 years of free basic education to students nationwide: six years of primary education beginning at age six or seven, followed by three years of middle school and three years of high school, ending at age 18. Education has been compulsory through the ninth grade (from age seven to 16) since January 2003. With the addition of two years of preprimary schooling, the length of education was extended to 14 years in May 2004. [Source: Library of Congress]

Bangkok Christian College is Thailand’s oldest private school. Established by American Presbyterian missionaries in 1852, it has about 5,000 male students in 12 grades and employs some foreign teachers for its English courses.

The Thai government says: “In its mission to develop the country’s vast human resources, the education system has to be adapted to suit the changing times, which necessitates the addition of new knowledge and skills in the curriculum such as foreign languages and computer literacy. Presently, a large number of educational institutions in Thailand operate as international schools using English as the medium of instruction, with bilingual schools in operation at various levels, in response to the rising demand for foreign language skills in the world market. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department=]

The education system of Thailand consists of two levels: basic education and higher education. It is stipulated in the Constitution that everyone in Thailand has the right to receive basic education for no less than 12 years, which is to be provided by the state free of charge. Graduates of upper secondary level 6 are considered to have finished their basic education, while graduates of lower secondary level 3 have finished compulsory education. =

Education figures often do not take into consideration schooling provided by wats and Buddhist monasteries in rural areas.

William Pesek of Bloomberg wrote: It is important for Thailand “to invest billions of dollars in education and in training to improve the quality of the labor force and raise productivity so that Thailand can keep up in the world’s most dynamic region. The country lags not just at the tertiary level, but also at the primary and secondary phases of the education process. Like several other countries in the region, Thailand’s focus on rote learning gives short shrift to creative and critical thinking and English proficiency.[Source: William Pesek, Bloomberg, July 11, 2013]

Literacy in Thailand

Adult literacy rate: female 90.5 percent; male 94.9 percent; total population: 92.6 percent. (2000 census) (Compared to 34 percent for females and 64 percent for males in India; and 99 percent for male and females in Russia, the United States, Japan and much of Europe). Definition of literacy: age 15 and over can read and write

Adult literacy reportedly was more than 85.5 percent in the mid-1980s, compared with about 50 percent in the 1950s. Substantial public investment and foreign assistance made significant gains possible in literacy and school enrollments.

To maintain its own language and script, Thailand constantly promoted reading through both formal and informal education. Thailand had one of the highest levels of functional literacy in Asia as well as one of the largest publishing rates per person of any developing nation. In 1982 there were 5,645 titles published, more than 7 million radio receivers, 830,000 televisions, 69 daily newspapers, and 175 periodicals. Thai-language paperbacks, often translations of English-language best-sellers or "how to" books, had a wide audience. The publishing house of Kled Thai, with 60 percent of the national market, distributed between 80,000 and 120,000 volumes monthly.

Early History of Education in Thailand

Education took hold in Thailand in the Sukhothai period, with Buddhist temples as the main venues for the teaching and training of youths. All Thai men aged 20 were obliged to be temporarily ordained as Buddhist monks. While in the saffron robe and residing in the temple, they would learn reading and writing, as well as various crafts suitable for men, while women were trained in Thai customs, good manners, cookery, homemaking, and crafts at home or at the royal court. Later, as Thailand came into more contact with Western countries, education became institutionalized. The impetus for development picked up pace during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who undertook a major reform of the Thai education system, with the introduction of the first public schools and the expansion of education at all levels as part of his national reform. King Vajiravudh, his successor, carried on the reform process, establishing the first university and expanding public education.[Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, United States and British missionaries introduced formal European education, primarily in the palaces. Up to that time, scholarly pursuits had been confined largely to Buddhist temples, where monastic instruction, much of it entailing the memorization of scriptures, was provided to boys and young men. Like his father Mongkut, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910) wanted to integrate monastic instruction with Western education. Unsuccessful in this effort, he appointed his half brother, Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, to design a new system of education. Western teachers were engaged to provide assistance, and in 1921 a compulsory education law was enacted. In 1917 the first university in the country, Chulalongkorn University, was established. In 1921, the Compulsory Primary Education Act was proclaimed.[Source: Library of Congress*]

Emphasis on education grew after the 1932 coup as a result of the new constitutional requirement for a literate populace able to participate in electoral politics. Government efforts focused on primary education; private schools, concentrated in Bangkok and a few provincial centers, supported a major share of educational activity, especially at the secondary level. Despite ambitious planning, little was accomplished. Even after World War II, the educated segment of Thai society continued to consist mainly of a small elite in Bangkok. *

Later History of Education in Thailand

Only 4 million children were enrolled in government schools in the 1960s, but by the late 1980s nearly 80 percent of the population above the age of 11 had some formal education. This dramatic change reflected government interest in accelerating the pace of social development through education, especially in less secure areas of the country, as a means of promoting political stability. By 1983 an estimated 99.4 percent of the children between the ages of 7 and 12 attended primary school. (Compulsory schooling lasted only until grade six.) The postwar years showed the influence of American education. By the mid-1980s, perhaps as many as 100,000 Thai students had studied in the United States, and tens of thousands had benefited from Peace Corps and other United States government educational assistance projects. [Source: Library of Congress*]

The government operated schools in all parts of the country, but there were many private schools as well, chiefly in Bangkok, sponsored principally by missionaries or Chinese communal organizations. Several universities ran what were effectively their own preparatory academies. In the late 1970s, the schools were reorganized into a six-three-three pattern that comprised six years of primary schooling, three years of lower secondary education, and three years at the upper secondary level. Students in the upper secondary program could choose either academic or vocational courses. A core curriculum was common to both tracks, but the academic program focused on preparation for university entrance, whereas the vocational program emphasized skilled trades and agriculture. Only a small percentage of students continued their education beyond secondary school. Some who would have chosen to do so failed to qualify for university acceptance. Secondary-school graduates often had difficulty finding suitable employment. Even vocational graduates in rural areas frequently found their industrial skills poorly fitted to the agro-economic job market. *

Access to education and the quality of education varied significantly by region. At the primary level, rural schools, administered since 1963 by the Ministry of Interior, tended to have the least qualified teachers and the most serious shortage of teaching materials. In an effort to increase the number of teachers, other ministries, including the Ministry of Defense, offered teacher-training programs. Although more students gained access to education, this arrangement led to a duplication of resources. Competition began to replace cooperation among some of the teachers' colleges and universities. Opportunities for secondary education were concentrated in major towns and in the Center. In the mid-1970s, Bangkok, with 10 percent of the country's population, had 45 percent of the secondary-school population, while the North and the Northeast combined, with 55 percent of the nation's population, had only 26 percent of these students. The government has since attempted to rectify these inequities by improving administrative structure, making education more relevant to socioeconomic development, and adding qualitative and quantitative support to both public and private systems. Nevertheless, in the late 1980s the underlying problem of inequitable distribution of funds between the Center and the outlying provinces remained. *

In more recent days, education in Thailand has been systematized and extended greatly, especially since the promulgation of the National Education Act, 1999, which aims at giving all citizens equal rights and opportunities to receive education, with no limitations owing to sex, age, profession, educational background, economic status, or social standing, nor with regard to physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities. It also aims to inculcate the quest for knowledge among the Thai people. Education reform is meant to make the providing of education more efficient and effective and to further enhance the best qualities of the Thai people. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Problems with Education in Thailand

Thailand and Malaysia lag behind the Four Tigers—South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong— in education. In the 1990s, the education system in Thailand was regarded as particularly weak. At that time the Thai government was accused of failing to invest in educational infrastructure. Critics claim Thai teachers lack basic teaching skills. The emphasis has traditionally been on rote learning.

From an economic point of view it doesn’t do enough to train people to work in a high tech era and it has failed to produce a skilled workforce that can compete with countries like Taiwan and South Korea. In 1997, only 17 percent of adult Thais had graduated from high school and Thailand had 260 engineers per 1 million compared to 2,500 per million South Korea. [Source: Newsweek]

According to one report: “Thailand remains a developing country. The mean duration of a child’s education is just 7.8 years (Bangkok Post , 2004). Just over half of the Grade One cohort enter elementary school when they are supposed to, and only 85 percent get to enroll at any time during their elementary years (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2003). Only 80 percent of those completing primary education go into secondary schools (Government of Thailand, 1996). A massive 70 percent of the population have received only an elementary education, and only 18 percent have gone on to secondary or vocational (Government of Thailand, 1997). Seen in the context of these figures, we can see that our sample was a well educated group.

In rural areas, it is not uncommon for teachers to arrive late at school, long after classes were supposed to have begun. In the meantime students are allowed to run free. Some teachers do not bother to show up at all. Some are out selling cosmetics or working at odd jobs, or doing private tutoring, to make ends meet because their salaries are so low. The teachers that advance to higher positions of responsibility often do so because they kiss the ass of their superiors and help them enrich themselves rather than on teaching skills.

Efforts to Strengthen Education in Thailand

Under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the early 2000s an effort was made to improve education, particularly in poor areas where it had long been neglected. There were five education ministers in three years as Thaksin took a results-oriented approach. Prrojects and policies included setting up “knowledge center,” liberalizing school fees and establishing at least one school with good facilities in each district under the “one tambon, one scholarship program.” Under Thaksin school were allowed to set their own fees. Some poor families were given money for uniforms and books.

Thailand’s effort to bring computer technology to the classroom has been a long work in progress. In the 1990s the Thai government spent a lot of money on expensive computers and had many of them shipped to schools without electricity. In the early 2000s Prime Minister Thaksin was a big supporter of the One Laptop per Child program and promised to buy 250,000 of the one-hundred-dollar computers. When he was thrown out of office in 2006 the new education minister rejected buying the one-hundred-dollar computers or a Thai-made alternative and said what students need is good old-fashion book learning.

Women and Education in Thailand

A century ago, there were no schools for girls. Thai ladies were educated at home, learning embroidery and cookery, and parents with good connections sought to enroll their daughters at one of the royal courts, so that they could be properly educated and trained by female royals, to be well-versed in the Thai language, flower arranging, court manners, embroidery, and cooking. With such credentials, they became good wives and mothers, in charge of their households. And through them, the fine arts and crafts of the palace became widespread. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Liza Romanow wrote in the Global Majority E-Journal: “Educational opportunities for women in Thailand are improving. While there are still less girls than boys attending primary school, the gender gap has decreased considerably from slightly more than 8 percent in 1971 to slightly less than 2 percent in 2009 . With regards to secondary school enrollment, the gender gap had been eliminated by at least 1990 (there is no such data available for 1979-1989). Indeed, for the last three available years (2007-2009), female secondary school enrollment ratios exceeded that of male by slightly more than six percent. A similar trend exists for tertiary school enrollment, where the gender gap had been eliminated by at least 1993 (there is no such data available for 1979-1992) and for the last three available years (2007-2009), female tertiary school enrollment ratios exceeded that of male by about ten percent. As shown in all of the tables above, women are able to access a good education. As a result, more opportunities arise for women in politics and in the work place. [Source: Liza Romanow, Global Majority E-Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 2012), pp. 44-60. adb.org ]

Academic Performance in Thailand

Ranking of education systems and worker productivity in Asia by Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy: 1) South Korea; 2) Singapore; 3) Japan; 4) Taiwan; 5) India; 6) China; 7) Malaysia; 8) Hong Kong; 9) the Philippines; 10) Thailand; 11) Vietnam; 12) Indonesia

Ranking in math among 8th grade students in 38 countries. 27. Ranking in science among 8th grade students in 38 countries. 24. [Source: International Study Center, Boston College, 2001]

Improving Education in the Muslim South

On improving the situation in violence-engulfed southern Thailand, the Thai government said: “Education has been advocated as one of the best ways to improve the situation in the southern border provinces, according to several reports. The Ministry of Education has set six education strategies to be implemented in the deep South. The first strategy seeks to develop the quality of education. In the second strategy, Islamic studies will be promoted and local residents in the South will be able to have Islamic education as they wish. The third strategy seeks to support local private schools, such as pondok and tadika. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department <>]

In the fourth strategy, vocational education will be promoted to enable local residents to earn a living both in Thailand and abroad. The fifth strategy seeks to improve education management and develop provincial and district offices under the Office of Private Education Commission and subdistrict offices under the Office of Non-formal and Informal Education into IT centers for communication. The sixth strategy, education for security, seeks to ensure safety for teachers and other education personnel. <>

“The Ministry of Education has offered annual scholarships, from kindergarten to graduate level, for those whose lives have been disrupted by the unrest. The Ministry of Interior has also carried out a project to send southern Muslim students to continue their studies in various universities. The project is considered an important measure to tackle southern problems, especially those concerning security, socio-psychology, and economic development. It is intended to provide educational opportunities for young Muslim Thais and upgrade their living standards. <>

“Meanwhile, the College of Islamic Studies, Prince of Songkla University, Pattani province, is making efforts to upgrade the quality of Islamic studies in Thailand to suit the challenges of the globalization era. The efforts will contribute to the tackling of southern problems in the long run. Since a large number of Muslim students in the South had no access to education loans, in accordance with Islamic principles, the Ministry of Finance assigned the Islamic Bank of Thailand to work with Krung Thai Bank and the Income Contingency Loan program in setting guidelines for extending credit to Muslim students for education purposes.” <>

Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in The Nation: “Education for the southern provinces - the country's lowest standard - must be further improved. In the long run, better education of disenchanted youth would turn them into productive work forces in society. Muslim youths have suffered from high unemployment. From 2007-09, the government allocated Bt90 million to fund Muslim students for their higher education and study aboard. This year's Bt27-million budget will focus on job development programmes, internships and other cultural-related activities. [Source: Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation, February 22, 2010]

English-Teaching Circuit Cover for Foreigner on the Run

In 2006, AP reported: “The English-teaching circuit in Asia is filled with transients. It is a floating network of backpackers looking to make quick cash while traveling the world, recent college graduates in search of overseas experience and those on the move with something to hide. In a region that hungers to learn the language equated with opportunity and success, the demand for native-speaking English teachers far outweighs supply in many countries. Turnover is high and screening is minimal at many language centers, opening windows for many candidates with phony credentials or even those suspended from teaching at home—like JonBenet Ramsey murder suspect John Mark Karr -- to skip unnoticed into classrooms across Asia.[Source: AP, August 20, 2006]

“A telephone interview, a resume and a picture of the candidate is all we have,'' said Kim Soo-ho, an official at Englishwork, a teacher recruiting agency in Seoul, South Korea. ``It is physically difficult to check the background of people when they are overseas.'' Convicted sex offenders from various countries have popped up in Asia as English teachers. Earlier this month, an Australian who taught English in Indonesia was arrested and accused of molesting street children. He told police he video taped at least 50 teenage boys. Another Australian teacher who faced sex allegations at home committed suicide last week in Indonesia, where he also was accused by human right activists of abusing children.

``It's a very traditional pedophile strategy,'' said Bernadette McMenamin, CEO of the Australian-based advocacy group Child Wise. “If you want to sexually abuse children, what better job would there be?'' She said foreign teachers with criminal histories can easily stay beneath the radar because background information is not readily shared between countries, making the screening process difficult for even the most prestigious institutions. Karr taught first grade for two weeks in June at one of Bangkok's finest schools before he was fired for being too strict.

``People who are offenders of all sorts are being able to move anonymously across borders,'' said Carmen Madrinan, executive director of Bangkok-based ECPAT International, a network of organizations working to fight commercial sexual exploitation of children. She said the demand for English skills in Asia, especially in countries like Thailand where tourism drives the economy, puts pressure on schools to fill job vacancies quickly. But she said administrators are stuck in the middle of a system with no simple solutions because there's no easy way to verify foreign applicants' credentials or criminal records.

Higher Education in Thailand

Tertiary education at a lower than degree level is certified with higher vocational certificates and diplomas. The curriculum emphasizes knowledge and ability of learners in various occupations, with a capability for putting knowledge to practice in real life, and for developing the work they are engaged in and fulfilling their potential in accordance with their aptitudes and interests, in response to the labor market’s requirements and in line with economic and social conditions. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Another type of tertiary education is at the degree level, of which there are three: bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate. The curriculum is divided into Thai and international programs. The curriculum emphasizes the producing of human resources who have intellect, capability, and vocational knowledge in response to the requirements of the society in political and economic aspects for national development. [Ibid]

The Office of University Affairs administered higher education at government universities (except for teachers' colleges, military academies, and the two Buddhist universities) and supervised higher education in private colleges.

Universities in Thailand

Thailand also has 20 state universities, 12 of which are in Bangkok, plus 26 private universities and colleges and some 120 other institutions of higher education. In the late 1980s, the country had 13 public universities, 3 institutes, and about 10 private colleges, the latter accounting for only about 7 percent of total university enrollment. A Western education was highly valued, and those who could afford to study abroad often did. [Source: Library of Congress==]

Chulalongkorn University is Thailand’s oldest and most prestigious university. Thamasat University is also widely respected. Until the establishment of Ramkhamhaeng University in 1971, Chulalongkorn had the largest student body (18,000 full- time and part-time students in 1987). Thammasat University (11,000 student population in 1987) ranked next in academic quality. ==

Operations at Thammasat suffered somewhat from punitive measures imposed after the massive student disorders of October 1973. Thereafter, Mahidol University (formerly the University of Medical Sciences), which had nearly 9,000 students in 1987, began to overtake Thammasat University as Thailand's second-best university. Another respected academic institution was the agricultural university, Kasetsart University, which in 1987 had 11,000 students. All the major universities were located in Bangkok. The various provincial universities, which were established in the 1960s and the 1970s, and a number of specialized academies, some of them in Bangkok, mostly had small student populations. Chiang Mai University, founded in 1964, however, had 13,000 students by 1987. ==

Pressure from a society that increasingly valued career-oriented education was in part responsible for the government's establishment of two "open universities," beginning in 1971. Both open universities were established for those who could not be accommodated by the older institutions of higher learning, and each admitted secondary school graduates without any competitive examination. Ramkhamhaeng University conducted classes, whereas Sukhothai Thammathirat University offered its courses via national radio and television broadcasts and by correspondence. In 1987 Ramkhamhaeng had more than 400,000 students enrolled and Sukhothai Thammathirat more than 150,000. ==

University Students AND Gang Violence in Thailand

Some 1.9 million students were enrolled in postsecondary education in 2003–4. About half of all university graduates were women in 2004. About 20,000 Thai students were studying abroad in 1997.

In the 1970s and 80s, university students were a major force in political and social change. Professors, these days, complain that students are largely apathetic and more interested in making money, landing a good job, and playing Korean computer than trying to change the world or engage in stimulating intellectual debates.

Unemployment, youth ages 15-24: total: 4.3 percent; country comparison to the world: 125 male: 3.7 percent; female: 5.1 percent (2009) [Source: CIA World Factbook]

There have been reports of gangs of university students who turn to violence to defend their school’s honor. First year university students are often forced to joins gangs and have to prove their mettle by doing things like stealing the school shorts or belt buckles from members of rival university gangs. Older members patrol their turf in cars and attack rival gang members who enter their territory.

The victim of a university gang attack told the Independent, “They wanted my workshop shirt and although I took it off and gave it them they slapped me in the face. A student from my school refused and a knife was brought down on his head.” In another case, a students from one school boarded a bus and asked if there were any students from a rival school on the bus. When one young man stood up he was hot three times and died on the way to the hospital.

In an incident involving more than 200 students from the Bangkok campus of the Institute of Technology, a gang armed with guns and grenades, attacked a rival gang at the Bangkok Commercial College, leaving one students shot dead and dozens injured. The attack occurred after insults were traded between students of the two schools. In a riot that lasted for more than an hour, ten vehicles were smashed and spray painted. One girl jumped from a second floor to get away from attackers pursing her with knives and guns. Of the 210 students who were arrested, 93 had tested positive for drug tests.

One battle between rival school gangs, involving knives, in downtown Bangkok in September 2003, left one youth dead and more than 150 injured. Authorities briefly detained more than 1,000 people. Most were released after their parents paid fines of few hundred baht.

See Crime

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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