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Discussing Thai Education with Associate Professor Prathoomporn Vajarasthira

June, 2009.

Associate Professor Prathoomporn Vajarasthira is a special lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok as well as several higher education institutes in Thailand. Her political novels have won awards, and she has published numerous travelogues, novels and history books as well as currently working on a book about Bangkok. She was, for many years, on the panel of judges for the SEA write awards. Her pen name, Duang Jai, is famous throughout Thailand for her novels and articles which are regularly featured in numerous magazines. She was a member of the National Legislative Assembly, 2006-8 and is, naturally, a subscriber of Citylife magazine.

Citylife:
What is your personal ex- perience with the Thai educational system?

Assoc. Prof. Prathoomporn:
I spent twenty years of my life, like most people, studying in formal education, but to be honest, I didn’t learn much. I have since learnt everything I know during the following forty years of reading. I read voraciously and that is how I learn. I have also been teaching for decades in higher educational institutes and frankly, there is much to criticise about the entire system.

Citylife:
So what is wrong with the system?

Assoc. Prof. Prathoomporn:
To start with, the majority of teachers in Thailand are substandard. In the view of society, teachers are secondary professionals, and this is reflected in their pay, which is pittance. If you look at statistics, it is generally the kids in the third or fourth quarter of grades who graduate to become teachers. Good students do not become teachers; they go on to work in other professions as there is no incentive to teach. I am not saying there are not good teachers, of course there are, but they are not as properly trained as they should be, they are not given the right tools and they are disadvantaged, however much they work. Thailand needs students to become incentivised to teach. This means that we need to pay teachers more. Much more. If we offered teachers 50,000 baht per month, set a good system in place to vet and reward them, then the level of education will immediately improve. However, this is not going to happen. I have worked with numerous governments lobbying them to change the education system and so far none has shown any interest. We need good teachers, and good students turn into good teachers, so it is a vicious cycle.

Citylife:
What is lacking in the syllabus or in teaching methods?

Assoc. Prof. Prathoomporn:
In my years of teaching what alarms me greatly is the lack of general knowledge amongst graduates. Students seem to know little outside their government issued syllabus, which is insufficient. Poor English skills is also very worrying. When I was a student we had to learn English just about every day, now it is only a fraction of credits and only taught a few hours per week. How can Thailand be competitive in the world when we can’t communicate with it? English is crucial as it leads one to other material and resources for personal development. Thailand needs to produce competitive professionals to enter the world economy and like it or not English is the lingua franca. Look at government officials, do they speak English? Hardly.

And yet they are the ones negotiating trade treaties for the nation. Public relations divisions of the government especially need to improve their English as how can you relate anything if you do not speak or write the language? In my experience English encourages thought; it encourages reading from multiple sources. If you are good at languages it helps with your thinking, your thought process. I tell my students to answer their questions in exams in Thai or English. Many of my students – those who have been abroad, or have parents who encourage their language skills – choose to answer in English. I don’t know why, but those who answer in English always sound more sensible, have more flow and better thought process. Those who answer in Thai – and once again, this is just from my personal experience, I can give no explanation – tend to regurgitate and repeat my lessons. They get lower grades, because I give higher grades if they shake up what I say, if they have a personal opinion, if they think for themselves. Perhaps the English language lends itself to reason more than Thai, I don’t know. But to me, it is a very distinct difference. Also, Thai students simply don’t read.

Statistically we are low in the world ranking for reading per capita. Our education is not of international standards, it is Thai style, and that is not good. We pride ourselves on our medical students, but even still, we are only 27th in the world, and that is supposed to be our strength.

Citylife:
Why is reading so important?

Assoc. Prof. Prathoomporn:
By not reading, we are missing out on a world of learning and thought. If we simply learn from textbooks, then our knowledge is already filtered. If Thai kids are not encouraged to read in their formal education then when will they learn? When I go to a dentist or doctor, or sit in the sky train, I read. But I look around me and no one else is reading. They are staring into space. Why? Why not learn something in your spare time? You go to a public park or sit on public transportation in Europe or America and everyone around you who is alone has a book in their hand. Here no one does. Go to Suan Lumpini and you can count people who are reading on one hand. Thailand’s formal and informal education is insufficient to prepare Thai students for the world.

Citylife:
This is all rather depressing, is there any hope? What can we do?

Assoc. Prof. Prathoomporn:
It may sound like it is too late, and sometimes I despair too, but it is never too late. Teachers must be screened, those who are good awarded, and those who do not pass the grade culled. Look at Obama, he realises the problems of education and he is selecting teachers and offering the good ones more salary. We should all realise that teachers are as important as doctors. Thai CEO bankers sit on 2 million per month. Can we even take ten percent of that money to give to teachers? Even if it’s for headmasters/mistresses, so they can do a better job. I know of so many teachers who work part time selling cosmetics and insurance in order to survive. Those who are lazy simply simmer in anger.

Think about it, most teachers teach more than one class and having to check homework for 40 plus kids per class each day is very tiring. The government offers hardly any quality training for teachers and all the government says is that there is no budget to improve education. Even public schools (many in Bangkok are now charging up to 3 million baht entrance fees) do not use their money wisely.

Instead of training better teachers, they build new commemorative buildings. We are building up a strong ASEAN, why not do all sorts of ASEAN-wide exchange programmes, each host school can bear the living costs of students and teachers and governments can fund the travel.

This will not only help with language skills but also with general knowledge and sympathy and understanding of other people. It helps with integration and opens the minds. ASEAN is focusing on trade, but why not also on human resources?

We need to build future leaders in a variety of fields. That having been said, there are always great new ideas being proposed to the government new initiatives are being experimented upon in many educational institutes.

Citylife:
Some say that their children learn more from rongrien kwuad wicha (extra tutorial schools), what is your view about them?

Assoc. Prof. Prathoomporn:
They should be abolished. But this won’t happen, they are too rich now and we can no longer stop them. These schools comprise a tacit agreement between parents, teachers and students. Parents pay the money, teachers supply shortcuts, exam results, or simply do their job which they should do during school hours and students get good grades. It makes me sick. What these schools shout to us is that teachers can not teach within the school system, (though ironically they seem to be able to when they take money from outside the school system). It is also bad for kids as they no longer have free time. These teachers are notoriously bad teachers within their schools (where they gain legitimacy) and suddenly are good teachers in exchange for a large sum of money. Just in Siam Square in Bangkok these schools make in the hundreds of millions of baht per year.

Citylife:
Is there an ethical problem in Thailand’s educational system?

Assoc. Prof. Prathoomporn:
Absolutely. Cheating and copying is rife in Thailand’s schools and universities. This leads to the obvious lack of good governance in Thailand. Parents are much to blame for paying for the short cuts for their children and teachers are to blame for turning a blind eye.

Citylife:
Is there a discrepancy in educational standards between Bangkok and other provinces?

Assoc. Prof. Prathoomporn:
Sadly yes. It is exceptional that students from far away provinces do well in Bangkok’s universities. While education is bad nationwide, Bangkok has huge advantages. I am not talking about intelligence, but simple advantages. Bangkok people have more money and therefore exposure to alternative media – TRUE for television, massive bookshops with tens of thousands of books, decent public libraries, well stocked newsstands and simply more exposure to the world. Whereas the more remote your province, the less resources you have – a few community radio stations, government television, one or two newspapers and hardly any decent books. A student in Bangkok can walk into a coffee shop and listen to Bach playing in the background, they can watch street performers on a city corner, they can go to the cinema and watch independent films, and they can converse with a tourist on the street. It is a simple matter of kids not being given choices and this is a huge disadvantage.

Citylife:
So, how does our educational system as it stands affect our political situation?

Assoc. Prof. Prathoomporn:
Thai education is not good enough, and the clear evidence of this is that our nation lacks political or democratic maturity. The problems of our politics, the characters of our politicians and how they debate and deal with situations is a direct result of bad education and should not happen if our standards were raised. The problem is not that our nation is split between Bangkok and the rest of the nation, or rich and poor, but that our education is not of equal standards. Vote buying is a fact for many. This relies on money. The job of politicians to develop good governance is therefore neglected, and money instead becomes the deciding factor. As long as they can pay or incentivise their way into parliament, politicians will lack the will to be accountable to the development of the nation. None of this will change until our education standards, especially in the rural areas, improve. This can only be done by the will of the government in Bangkok. And there is rarely this will. People who only have access to few sources will see things from one point of view and not from the full circle. Good democracy can therefore not happen until we have good education.