Thai universities fear 'civil war'

January 22, 1999

University leaders in Thailand fear their institutions could become embroiled in a "civil war" over radical wide-ranging higher education reforms before the Thai parliament.

They say government plans to make Thailand's 22 public universities autonomous could result in disputes between academics and students.

The first signs of trouble came this week when 500 students at Khon Kaen University in north- east Thailand forced the acting president to resign after holding him hostage for nine hours in a campus building.

The students were protesting over changes in the selection process used by the university to re-appoint its president, Prinya Chindaprasert, for a second term.

The university has moved from a "general election" system that gave all students a vote to one which collects nominations from faculties and the student council. The new system has been adopted by all but one of Thailand's public universities.

The United Front of Democratic Students, which organised the protest, called on the ministry of university affairs, which rubber-stamps senior university appointments, to reject Professor Prinya's reappointment. When this was refused, they demanded the resignation of rector Suchart Areemit.

Khon Kaen's vice-president, Sumon Sakolchai, said there were concerns that the dispute might be the first of many as Thai universities gear up for autonomous status by the year 2002 - a deadline set as one condition of a multi-million baht loan to the government from the Asian Development Bank.

It is expected that once public universities become autonomous they will significantly increase their tuition fees. Fees per credit range from 25 pence to Pounds 4, but could increase to Pounds 20. A degree requires 150 credits.

Government officials say the reforms are necessary to encourage institutions to become more entrepreneurial and research-active.

But there is also likely to be resistance from some academics who prefer being civil servants on low incomes because they have job security. A recent survey discovered that many professors were spending little time teaching and were moonlighting to supplement their pay.

Vanchai Sirichana, permanent secretary of the ministry of university affairs, said academics would be required to re-apply for their jobs once public universities became independent.

Krissanapong Kirtikara, president of King Mongkut's University of Technology, one of four universities which have already become autonomous, warned the sector could face a "civil war" if the transition was not handled carefully.

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