Shaping hearts and minds

January 1, 1990

‘Relevant excellence’ will help Thailand escape the middle-income trap, argues Sakarindr Bhumiratana.

Despite more than a decade of double-digit economic growth, Thailand still finds itself stuck in the middle-income trap. A major problem is that its science, technology and innovation infrastructure remains under-developed: the talent and skills the country needs are in short supply, a major spanner in the works that has stalled the engine of economic growth.

Thai universities are expected to play a major role in helping the country escape the middle-income trap by boosting the livelihood of people in its rural areas (more than 60 per cent of the Greater Mekong sub-region’s population still reside in the countryside).

As Thailand’s premier science institution, King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Thonburi is working intensively within a group of specially selected National Research Universities to rise to the challenge – striving not only for excellence but also for “relevant excellence”. It is indeed fortunate that by striving to be meaningfully excellent, the institution delivers many of the measurable outputs of a world-class university.

KMUTT’s success can be attributed to its culture of innovation in science and technology, augmented by its pioneering pedagogic programmes. This environment has been nurtured over the university’s 50-year lifespan by continuity of leadership.

The institution was the first in Thailand to establish specialist graduate schools in energy, environment, materials science and biotechnology. The schools are the cornerstone of our work and the core reason for our selection as a National Research University.

Since our fledgling days as a technical college, we have kept sacrosanct our partnership with the private sector and its practical approach. As a research university, we ensure that the problems selected for study must not only deliver academic insights, but also provide regional, social and economic benefits.

KMUTT was the first university to set up select “practice schools” – a concept that has led the way to strong “work-integrated learning” programmes throughout the institution. These support private-sector innovation by producing problem-solving researchers, engineers and technicians.

The practice school concept, formulated nearly 20 years ago, was part of our attempt to provide “constructionist education”: this holds that students learn best when they are actively involved in real-world tasks. The pedagogic programme emerged from our early realisation that the university had a responsibility to help build science literacy throughout Thailand. (We could see early on that the economic trap would be sprung!)

We have established a small high school for the gifted and work closely with other such schools and programmes. However, on the other end of the accessibility curve, we also work with many marginalised schools providing education under the harshest conditions. Students are provided with opportunities to understand the social context of science and technology and to exercise their minds to help find solutions to social problems. Again, our principal aim is developing relevant excellence.

Serving the community, from the environs of our campuses to more rural and marginalised settings, has been our philosophy since inception. Thirty-five years ago, we were asked to take part in a community development programme under the auspices of a Royal Project and Royally Recommended Project (set up by King Bhumibol Adulyadej to improve the lot of the Thai people).

We helped set up and operate rural agro-processing factories as part of efforts to eradicate opium production in the North and beat the Communist Party of Thailand in the tug-of-war for the people’s hearts and minds. This community and youth work has grown into a maze of networks with non-governmental organisations and other institutions. On campus, the work is coordinated and promoted by our University for Community/Society Centre. Our goal is not only to contribute to the betterment of less fortunate communities by strengthening science, technology, engineering and mathematics teaching in rural schools, but also to develop good citizens.

Despite our strong local and regional commitments, world-class status is very important to us, as it enables the university to work with its global peers to share insights and to learn. It also gives a considerable boost to our efforts to internationalise for the sake of our students, helping us prepare them to be global change agents.

The university can certainly offer an interesting and happy workplace and the famous “Thai broad smile”. But our most vital contributions are fostering talent, building a talent network and generating collective impact through partnerships – the relevant excellence that will help Thailand to escape the middle-income trap.

Sakarindr Bhumiratana is president, King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Thonburi.

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