War on red tape in city of angels

February 19, 1999


Thailand's capital is blessed with an ancient title that is the longest place name in the world, and reputedly cursed with some of the longest traffic jams. But Thais believe no one can curse Bangkok unless they can recite the old name 99 times without a breath or a mistake.

Many might have been tempted to try during the country's boom years up until mid-1997 as rapid development led some to amend the shortened version of the city's title, "city of angels", to "city of cranes".

Most of the cranes have now disappeared and the traffic has even started to flow - perhaps the only good things to come out of Thailand's economic crash, as far as most of the country's 60 million population are concerned.

But Thai higher education leaders say they can see another rainbow that may lead their country back to a pot of gold. Proposed radical reforms of higher education, first mooted decades ago, have garnered fresh support among politicians and university heads who see them as essential to economic regeneration.

The academic community, until recently allowed to langish in a system founded on a preference for incremental change, is having to get down to hard-nosed decisions.

Two education bills under consideration by parliament are expected to play a key role in efforts to maintain the momentum of the reforms.

The first proposes to make Thailand's 22 public universities autonomous by 2002, transferring academic staff out of the civil service and onto contracts with their institutions. To ensure standards are maintained, the government wants to introduce a national quality assurance system.

It is also encouraging institutions to redefine their missions in the hope that some will raise their research output - a factor previously ignored but now regarded as essential by industry.

Athsit Vejjajiva, president of Bangkok's Mahidol University, considered to have the best research record in the country, sees the reform movement as an opportunity rather than a threat.

"The main obstacle to progress in the system has been the bureaucracy that most state universities are locked into. But I think the reforms will now be successful because of the financial crisis the country is facing. We are taking this as an opportunity to put our house in order."

Even Dr Athsit, who is on the board of the National Research Council, admits that Thailand's research performance is "absolutely appalling". A survey found some private institutions spending less than one million baht (Pounds 16,666) on research. Mahidol accounts for half of Thailand's published science and technology research papers, yet 80 per cent of its academics do no research.

Research grants in the public sector total no more than 12,000 million baht, less than some Thai private-sector companies spend on research and development.

He said: "We do not have enough money for research and we have no autonomy in managing the grants we receive. With reform we could downsize administration and attract more grants at home and abroad."

The other education bill aims to delegate more governing powers to the 35 private colleges and universities, while keeping a closer watch on their standards and activities.

Some private university heads, however, are dismissive of the proposed reforms, arguing that better management rather than legislation is needed.

Sitthichai Pookaiyaudom, president of the private Mahanakorn University, said there was no shortage of research equipment or facilities. Some expensive research equipment was "just sitting around in crates" unused, he claimed. "It is will-power that is lacking, not money. The reform bill is so general that I do not think it will have an effect. There is no vision for us to follow. The system needs to be better led."

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