By Thammika Songkaeo | Friday, 01 April 2016
Like in other Southeast Asian nations, Thailand hears talk about greater institutional autonomy. The Ministry of Education desires more institutions to be able to operate on their own financially. Many of the institutions, however, are not yet ready to be autonomous, particularly because institutions still have not discovered ways to generate sufficient revenue. Besides a few universities like Chulalongkorn University, which, luckily, sits on prime real estate and therefore is able to lease parts of its land, most institutions in Thailand do not have a way to generate greater income. In countries where research and development (R&D) in higher education institutions is successful, R&D can be a great source of revenue. This isn’t the case in Thailand, where infrastructure and human resources do not allow for high-quality R&D activities.
In their quest for greater revenue, many Thai universities have resorted to roping in potential students. While sometimes lowering some admissions requirements, universities, colleges and TVET institutions also often offer programs that the potential students demand. Those programs, however, are often not those that the economy or employers need. Popular programs in Thailand continue to be related to business administration, but, as employers have complained about, graduates with these business administration degrees are lacking in both hard and soft skills needed in the twenty-first century. Generating programs that cater to potential students’ demands has become one of the most – if not the most – common ways that institutions in Thailand find greater revenue. In the end, this method only backfires on the country, which finds itself with many graduates of the same, subpar degrees, which themselves were created perhaps only superficially for the institutions to make ends meet.
But what else can Thai institutions do when they are asked to be autonomous? “Not much,” is the honest answer – at least given the current circumstances. With more brainpower, Thai universities could use R&D as a way to generate more revenue, but to draw in more brainpower, Thai universities must pay more for talent. Professors in Thai universities often make an insufficient amount to live a good, or even decently comfortable, life. Many who teach at universities have to moonlight to manage.
Impediments are not only financial. They are also cultural. Although the current image of Thailand, particularly Bangkok, is that of modernity, cultural aspects of the nation still remain largely the same as they did decades and centuries ago, especially when it comes to questions of hierarchy and social standing. This is one of the reasons for brain drain in Thailand: students who study abroad and grow to appreciate the ability to speak out in front of and with those older than them find the hierarchical systems in Thai workplaces overbearing, unnecessary and counterproductive. It is no question that innovation depends on an open environment where stakeholders can share ideas. The more freely they can share their ideas, the better the potential solutions are.
Thailand has to change both its financial and cultural ways to make higher education institutions more appealing to potential professors, lecturers and teachers. Tackling the problem as they are doing now – that is, from the end of potential students – is not the way to fix the revenue problem. It might work for the universities in at least the short-term, but for the country at large, just catering to potential students’ demands is a recipe for the overproduction of graduates with little of the requisite skills for gainful employment in the knowledge economy.
Thammika Songkaeo is Research Analyst at The HEAD Foundation, where her current research focuses on higher education within ASEAN.