Thailand is pushing for all state-run universities to become independent of the government bureaucracy by the end of 2002 despite staff resistance to losing their civil servant status.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, 35, the Oxford-educated premier's office minister who has emerged as the bright young hope in the rough house of Thai politics, is a key mover behind the reforms to give universities budgetary autonomy.
"The idea of universities moving out of the civil service goes back 30 years but we've had little success in moving forward," he said. "There is a great deal of inefficiency in the administration of universities, which is common in the civil service as a whole."
The changes, which are to affect more than 20 universities, are part of the public-sector reforms conditional for the $500 million social sector loan made in 1997 by the Asian Development Bank to ease the impact of Thailand's crunching economic crisis.
Each university will have to reform its statutes to gain parliamentary approval. Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok was the first last month to present its new legislation to the government. It is expected to be passed by parliament by the end of 1999.
Under the reforms, universities will receive block grants from the government to use at their own discretion without the need to adhere to strict civil service guidelines and consult with the national budget bureau.
More controversially, institutes will have greater freedom to hire staff, including on shorter-term contracts rather than as lifetime state employees.
"The difficulty with this reform programme is to convince people inside universities that they should give up their civil servant status and move on to become employees of the universities," Mr Abhisit said.
While state salaries are low - the monthly wage of a lecturer ranges from 9,000 baht (Pounds 150) to more than 40,000 baht for a professor - civil service status means security, pension and health care.
Gary Suwannarat, staff consultant to the ADB, said there were no "immediate indications" of job cuts but noted that the Thai civil service commission last year decided on "birth control" across the government bureaucracy. Just 20 per cent of positions vacated because of retirements or death are being retained.
Some newer state universities already operate outside the civil service. The government, which must call an election by next year, hopes resistance to change will be eased by the sweeping decentralisation of Thai education signalled by a reform bill approved by parliament this month.