In the penultimate part of the Siam Voices 2013 year in review, we look at an important but often neglected issue: education

As regular readers may know, we often have talked about Thailand’s lagging education system, which has a lot of problems in a lot of areas. Whether it’s ridiculous questions being asked in the annual O-Net testsquestionable standardization of these tests, poor PISA scoreshorrendous English-language training and thus proficiency, or virtually non-existent sexual education, most Thais are in agreement that something needs to be done about it if the country doesn’t want to fall behind its neighbors competitively. Thailand’s standard of education is already a concern for foreign companies operating in Thailand.

And again in 2013 the international education listings and surveys did not show any signs of improvement. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013 ranked Thailand’s education dead last among ASEAN countries, Thailand’s English proficiency is “low” according to a survey by Education First, although the trend is showing a slight improvement. The same goes for the OECD’s PISA survey, in which Thailand makes some improvement in reading and science. Amidst such results, Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang (already the fourth during Yingluck’s tenure), acknowledged that the country’s education system is severely outdated and needs an overhaul.

Yet the Yingluck Shinawatra government’s most notable education policy is the pricey “one tablet per child”-scheme, which needs some time (like most education policies) to see its results. The problem that has been plaguing this and past administrations is that Thailand spends a lot on its education with little improvement to show for it. Nevertheless, some issues were tackled this year, such as plans to reduce the study hours from over 1,000 to 600-800 a year, reduce  the home-workload or link teacher payment to the student performance.

But as many pointed out, there are far more deeper problems with the education system…

Thai students have an altogether different impression. In Thai schools, a drill sergeant’s dream of regimentation rooted in the military dictatorships of the past, discipline and enforced deference prevail.

At a public school in this industrial Bangkok suburb, teachers wield bamboo canes and reprimand students for long hair, ordering it sheared on the spot. Students are inspected for dirty fingernails, colored socks or any other violation of the school dress code. (…) a system that stresses unquestioned obedience.

In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule“, by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, May 28, 2013

Indeed. That archaic attitude is being reflected in widespread rote learning and repetitious memorization methods, but also the fact that Thailand is one of the last few countries left in world which requires university students to wear uniforms. Also, school children have strict haircut guidelines that were relaxed this year.

But what this year also showed is that more resistance is forming against the old ways of learning and teaching. There’s the Anti-SOTUS group that calls for an end to the harsh hazing rituals at universities. We also saw the Facebook campaign by “Frank” Nethiwit Chotpatpaisan against the “mechanic” education system and oppressive school rules, going as far as declare himself “sick of Thainess”. In a final display of his principles this year, the opinionated and strong-willed 11th-grader rejected a nomination by the National Human Rights Commission, criticizing its callousness towards the 2010 crackdown and the report it produced.

Then there’s the Thammasat University student provocateur nicknamed “Aum Neko”, who protested against compulsory uniforms with racy and suggestive posters, much to the annoyance of fellow students and university officials. Aum Neko is no stranger to controversy (having casually posed on the lap of Thammasat’s founder Pridi Banomyong’s statue last year) as a TV reporter rather pompously filed a lèse majesté complaint against the student for comments she made in an interview months earlier. Earlier this month, in the middle of the anti-government protests, Aum Neko got into trouble again for protesting against Thammasat’s perceived siding with the protesters, as she attempted to take down the Thai national flag and replace it with a black banner. That led to even stronger reactions by fellow students and officials (one vice rector even wrote on his Facebook page that he would “trample” her). She is now facing expulsion from the university.

What all these stories from the past 12 months show is that Thailand’s education (and not only that) still has yet to adapt to a changing social and cultural landscape and is in desperate need of a system that can accommodate the growing diversity of (free) thinking, opinions, access to knowledge and lifestyles. This will require the will to completely overhaul the education system (which also means dealing with the aging bureaucratic structures and curriculum) and the necessary time to grow to fruition – and that is more time than the average duration of governments in Thailand.

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series concludes tomorrow! Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and reports for international news media like Channel NewsAsia. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.