Thai­land’s uni­ver­si­ties too ‘com­pla­cent’

Top-down re­forms are needed to en­sure better reg­u­la­tion, ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter tells Si­mon Baker

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Si­mon.baker@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Aca­demics in Thai­land are “fed up” with the coun­try’s higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem be­cause of “com­pla­cency” in the way that uni­ver­si­ties are be­ing gov­erned, the coun­try’s ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter has told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion.

Teer­akiat Jare­on­set­tasin said that lead­er­ship and gov­er­nance was a ma­jor chal­lenge fac­ing the coun­try’s in­sti­tu­tions and re­forms were needed from the top down – in­clud­ing at na­tional gov­ern­ment level – to im­prove stan­dards.

Dr Jare­on­set­tasin, who spoke to THE dur­ing the an­nual Go­ing Global in­ter­na­tional higher ed­u­ca­tion con­fer­ence, held in Malaysia ear­lier this month, told a ses­sion at the event that many uni­ver­sity gov­er­nors in Thai­land were too old to know what was right for their in­sti­tu­tions.

“Peo­ple ask me ‘who are your cus­tomers?’ They are stu­dents,” he told the con­fer­ence. “We have some prob­lems with gov­er­nors.”

Asked by THE to iden­tify the big­gest chal­lenge faced by higher ed­u­ca­tion in Thai­land, Dr Jare­on­set­tasin (pic­tured above) said: “I think it is com­pla­cency in the gov­er­nance sys­tem. At the mo­ment…the gov­er­nance sys­tem is so bad that there are quite a few act­ing pres­i­dents.”

He added that there was “no dearth of able peo­ple” who could be­come lead­ers and gov­er­nors but it was “hard for me to go and in­ter- fere” be­cause the coun­try’s uni­ver­si­ties were “legally au­ton­o­mous”.

“The aca­demics, those who are re­ally able, are kind of frus­trated and fed up with the sys­tem,” Dr Jare­on­set­tasin said.

He added that the gov­ern­ment in Thai­land – which since a coup in 2014 has been ruled by the mil­i­tary through the Na­tional Coun­cil for Peace and Order – was look­ing at cre­at­ing a spe­cific higher ed­u­ca­tion min­istry, with sci­ence and re­search in­cluded, as a way to im­prove uni­ver­sity pol­icy. Uni­ver­si­ties are cur­rently over­seen by the Of­fice of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sion, a depart­ment of the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion.

Dr Jare­on­set­tasin said that change was dif­fi­cult be­cause Thai­land’s civil law sys­tem meant that, un­like the UK, new leg­is­la­tion was needed to set up a new gov­ern­ment depart­ment, but he added: “We need the right gov­er­nance struc­ture from the top level and then we can…reg­u­late, [al­though] not con­trol…stan­dards.”

The min­is­ter had also told Go­ing Global that one “ten­sion” in higher ed­u­ca­tion in Thai­land was that the gov­ern­ment saw uni­ver­si­ties as “too au­ton­o­mous”.

How­ever, speak­ing to THE, he stressed that institutional au­ton­omy should not be con­fused with aca­demic free­dom.

“Uni­ver­si­ties, which are sup­posed to de­liver pub­lic goods, are ac­count­able to some­body. If you say [you want] to­tal au­ton­omy then that says they are ac­count­able only to them­selves,” he said.

“But of course aca­demic free­dom – when [aca­demics] try to solve prob­lems, when [they] try to as­sess some­thing – they should have com­plete in­de­pen­dence of their think­ing.”

The min­is­ter – who spent sev­eral years in the UK, in­clud­ing work­ing as an NHS con­sul­tant and a se­nior lec­turer in child psy­chi­a­try at Lon­don’s Royal Free Hos­pi­tal – also spoke about the need for Thai­land’s uni­ver­si­ties to work more closely with in­sti­tu­tions in the West.

He has pur­sued new rules to al­low over­seas uni­ver­si­ties to set up cam­puses in Thai­land, which has been lag­ging be­hind some neigh­bours, such as Malaysia, in terms of tap­ping into transna­tional ed­u­ca­tion.

This ap­pears to have al­ready borne fruit with the set­ting up of CMKL Uni­ver­sity, a post­grad­u­ate in­sti­tu­tion in Bangkok es­tab­lished through a part­ner­ship be­tween Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­sity and Thai­land’s King Mongkut’s In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy Lad­kra­bang.

“When we aim to ful­fil our vi­sion of Thai­land [as] an in­dus­tri­alised, in­no­va­tive coun­try, we ask our­selves…do we have enough peo­ple ca­pa­ble of ful­fill­ing that? [The an­swer is] no,” said Dr Jare­on­set­tasin.

“You look at Sin­ga­pore with their mil­lions of ex­pats. So if we as­pire to be [more in­dus­tri­alised] we need to re­move pro­tec­tion­ism, we need to wel­come peo­ple who are able, who we want to at­tract. So it is in­evitable that Thai uni­ver­si­ties will have to work very closely with the more in­dus­tri­alised [coun­tries].”

Dr Jare­on­set­tasin stressed that over­seas uni­ver­si­ties and stu­dents could also learn from Thai­land in sub­jects in which it was tra­di­tion­ally strong, such as agri­cul­ture, the food in­dus­try and the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try.

He was also asked about the best way to im­prove aca­demic col­lab­o­ra­tion and stu­dent mo­bil­ity be­tween coun­tries in South-east Asia, where there is huge vari­a­tion in lev­els of higher ed­u­ca­tion de­vel­op­ment rang­ing from Sin­ga­pore’s highly suc­cess­ful sys­tem to na­tions still in the grip of po­lit­i­cal up­heaval, such as Myan­mar.

“You can­not force [co­op­er­a­tion] to hap­pen, you can­not cre­ate a sys­tem. You can say you wish that peo­ple are work­ing to­gether but th­ese things evolve,” he said.

How­ever, he added that some in­sti­tu­tions in Thai­land were keen to boost their in­ter­na­tional stu­dent re­cruit­ment be­cause of the coun­try’s age­ing pop­u­la­tion. It has been es­ti­mated that the num­ber of Thais aged 21 and un­der will fall to 20 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion by 2040.

“There are a cou­ple of uni­ver­si­ties look­ing for stu­dents in our neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. You know why? Be­cause our pop­u­la­tion is dwin­dling,” he said.

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