Making news again last week was an on-going and worsening crisis in the Thai education system; the incredibly high rate of debt being carried by Thai teachers. Like all public policy challenges, the reasons behind the high rates of debt are complex and demand complex solutions. While it’s easy to understand how some teachers get into debt, especially new teachers who recently graduated from university with student loan debt and must pay to relocate for their first assignment, this only tells part of the story.
For teachers, their lack of financial know-how combined with very low monthly salaries, easy access to credit (through both the formal and informal sectors), and a need to maintain a certain lifestyle based upon the relatively high status of teachers in society, are a perfect storm for poor financial decisions. As such, an alarming number of teachers find themselves deep in debt.
Although there are no annual comprehensive studies, recent figures cited in the Bangkok Post indicate that the average Thai teacher holds an astonishing three million baht in debt, which is as much as eight times their yearly salary. The cumulative debt of Thai teachers, moreover, adds up to 1.1 trillion baht and accounts for 16% of the total public debt in Thailand. Most alarming, another study of teachers in debt found that a whopping 92% admitted that indebtedness caused mental and physical distress, and this distress, in turn, negatively affected the quality of their teaching!
To help alleviate teacher debt problems, the Teachers Civil Service Commission has set up a revolving fund to promote debt relief for teachers under the Ministry of Education. The fund provides loans with low-interest rates, which can help teachers pay off their previous, higher interest rate debt. But, as we have seen from recent news stories, this and similar programs are not enough, and only serve to restructure debt, while not addressing the root causes of debt, such as the mistaken perception that debt is needed to finance their lifestyle and that they can “grow out of debt”. For example, Kenan Foundation Asia’s own work to improve the financial life skills of teachers reveals that 67% of teachers surveyed had a positive view of debt and believe that debt supported a better quality of life, while 54.3% viewed debt increases as increases in actual purchasing power, and 52.6% viewed debt as a means of demonstrating social credibility. This is simply poor financial knowledge, which leads to poor financial decision making, and, ultimately, impacts the quality of education they deliver to students.
No one has a greater impact on student learning than teachers. Clearly, the teacher debt crisis is a real and pressing challenge, with strong evidence that the inability to manage and meet their debt obligations is hurting their job performance – meaning Thai students suffer the consequences. If we do not do enough to support our teachers, both inside and outside the classroom, then Thai students will continue to lag behind global standards. Suffice to say, the stakes are high.