Piyabutr Cholvijarn is the President of the Kenan Institute and the former Vice-Minister of Education of Thailand. He spoke with The Prospect Group about the need to improve Thailand’s education system, the economic impact of AEC liberalization measures in 2015, and how the Kenan Institute is working on development and sustainability in Thailand.
In what ways is the Thai Government investing in education?
CHOLVIJARN:The Thai government invests a lot of money in education. Thailand’s investment in education is around the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) average. It is roughly about THB400bn ($13.6bn) annually. 80% of this goes to salary, and 20% is allocated towards improving teaching, learning, and professional development. We believe that 20% is not enough.
How have the demands on the education sector changed in recent years?
CHOLVIJARN: We are moving towards the AEC in 2015. In Thailand, there is a high demand for skilled labor. There is currently a shortage of both quantity and quality. As AEC 2015 nears, there will be even a higher demand for accountants, business management, engineers and medical professionals. Many foreign businesses will be relocating or establishing new ventures. There is great pressure on the education system to produce qualified personnel to fill these roles.
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What needs to be done to improve education as a whole, in primary, secondary, and tertiary levels?
CHOLVIJARN: Thailand has invested a great amount of money in education, but the results have not lived up to the expectations. This is disappointing. Our ranking in education in the IMD is lower every year and so in Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), which concentrates on math, science, and language skills. Our English rankings, namely TOEFL, in ASEAN are not very good either. This is alarming. Funding is not the problem. We must make upgrades in teaching and learning in classroom. This involves the curriculum, the teaching techniques and methodology, and the professional development of teachers. The teachers are not fulfilling these needs with AEC 2015 approaching. We initiated reform 12 years ago. This reform has not worked. This is because we have been ignoring reforms regarding the professional development of teachers. The focus has been on hardware. We have just distributed tablets to students. However, improvement is not solely based on technology. It is based on the content and teaching and learning methods and today we have so much information available. The teachers cannot lead things like inquired-based learning, researched-based learning, and project-based learning where students can learn to do by themselves once they understand the basics. The teachers have to push them to learn. Thus, professional development of teachers is the key to successful educating and learning of students.
To what extent are schools accountable for their performance? Do you see the possibility of a meritocracy based on this performance?
CHOLVIJARN: You must find a way to measure how well students are taught and how much they learn in classes. National tests do not bring out those knowledge and skills of students. If you still have many student absentees, it is a good indication you are not motivating the students. If students find classes boring, and not fruitful enough, it is the fault of the teachers. You must be able to excite them to come to school and learn. And we do not have a measurement system that evaluates student performance and solve the problems of the students left behind.
What is the Kenan Institute involved in here in Thailand?
CHOLVIJARN: Kenan was established 17 year ago by our former Prime Minister Khun Anand Panyarachun, who perceived that Thailand needed sustainable development. We have had over 800 projects amounting to over $44m during that period. We have been given grants by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the UN, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and multinational corporations such as Chevron, MSD (Thailand), Microsoft (Thailand), Citi Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Boeing, and others. We have also been given grants by our governments, as well as by the private sector. We have about 33 projects annually, amounting to THB140m ($5m), and we are continuing to grow. We are now concentrating on four areas. The first is innovative education in science and math. Second, we are concentrating on public health, fighting against malaria, H1N1, and Bird Flu. Third, we have Business and Economic Development programs to help strengthen SMEs. We help them with planning for disasters, risk, and unforeseen circumstances, namely, business continuity plans for SMEs. And fourth, we are also having projects on CSR management processes. These are the four pillars that we are working on. There have been other projects in the past, such as, logistics and industrial clusters. We are networking with the University of North Carolina, Columbia University, and Michigan State University, as well as universities from Germany. They provide experts for certain projects where we are lacking. We have the vision to become the world class not-for–profit consultant organization promoting sustainable development for Thailand, as well as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Currently, we have offices in Laos and Vietnam. We are working on various projects in the neighbouring economies. We hope to also have an office in Myanmar very soon. We are doing two projects in Myanmar already, and we are hoping for more.
What new initiatives is Kenan Institute focused on?
CHOLVIJARN: We want to do more to help. We are a not-for-profit organization. Our purpose is to help Thailand and our neighboring countries to attain lasting economic and social development and sustainability as they grow. Even in times of growth, there are economic cycles that go up and down. We want to alleviate these fluctuations, and help increase resilience during down times. We want to help strengthen their base.
What is your future outlook for Thailand?
CHOLVIJARN: Thailand is resilient despite the internal conflicts. Thailand has recently been an export-led growth and relatively stable economy. Therefore, Thailand needs to grow in other areas such as investment and consumption. We cannot grow on only one engine. We need three or four engines so that our economy can be sustainable. With that strong base, any time there is a crisis, such as the EU crisis, America’s sub-prime crisis, and even the Thai flooding in 2011, we are able to bounce back. Thailand has a strong and diversified economic base and uniform society, but that requires huge investment to continue to keep this base strong. We must be resilient to all crises. Every government realizes that we are facing many external and internal challenges. Political division is a concern to everyone. This division needs to be eliminated. We do not want too many coloured shirts. We want to have only one colour in Thailand. There are other areas of concern; health and an aging society that need more attention, and widespread corruption that needs to be eliminated.