Thailand’s universities suffering from ‘complacency’

Education minister says top-down reforms are needed to ensure better regulation of standards

May 17, 2018
teeriakat jareonsettasin
Source: Getty

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 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 interfere” 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 where 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 out for students in our neighbouring countries. You know why? Because our population is dwindling,” he said.

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