A beauty pageant became an unlikely forum to spotlight the need to reform Thailand’s education system when a contestant drew cheers during a question and answer session.
Cindy Alexandra Hanggi, Miss Chiang Mai 2020, was asked about Thailand’s education system in front of a live audience during the “Keyword Battle” segment of the Miss Universe Thailand 2020 competition.
She took the opportunity to point out the inequity in Thailand’s education system.
“I am studying in the Thai education system. I want to say that the Thai education system is one that has high inequality,” said Cindy, 21, who is an Electrical Engineering student from Chiang Mai University.
“In high school education, what you study doesn’t prepare you for taking the entrance exam into university,” said Cindy.
“It makes every student have to take special classes in order to survive and get into the university faculty that they want.”
The crowd watching the event at Bangkok’s ICONSIAM shopping mall roared as she spoke about students having to “study all the time” at special tuition centers outside of school.
Thai students have no choice but to take — at great time and expense — extra classes in order to be competitive in getting into university.
“I would like to ask everyone that if the Thai education system was good, why do we have to [pay for] special tutorial classes?” Cindy said.
Narrowing the gaps
According to Somchai Jitsuchon, Research Director, Inclusive Development at Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), narrowing the quality gaps that exist in Thailand’s education is critical, where one year of school fees for wealthy children equals a lifetime’s income for parents of poorer kids.
Having the money and time to enroll in extra tuition classes in order to pass the tough university entrance exams is a challenge for financially disadvantaged learners who may have to work outside of school hours.
“Schools at all levels must be accountable for their learning outcomes and performance, so they have an incentive to improve,” wrote Somchai, in his report Thai Inequality 2020: What We Should Do. “At present, accountability in our education system is badly lacking.”
Pandemic and learning inequities
The COVID-19 pandemic and school closures in Thailand earlier this year further highlighted the inequity in learning, according to Kenan Foundation Asia.
“While students at wealthy international schools and prestigious public schools in Bangkok will likely have the e-learning tools necessary to turn the COVID disruption into nothing more than a minor speed bump, their peers in the provinces won’t be so lucky. Many Thai students, after all, do not own laptops replete with state-of-the-art video conferencing software.”
Where teachers are needed most
Getting any teachers to come and work in some villages in northern Thailand’s rugged mountainous terrain is a challenge. As teachers leave at the end of their contracts none come to replace them.
With villagers often living on the poverty line, schools can’t afford to pay for the teachers themselves, according to Ampai Maneewan, Director of Mae Teun Noi School in Om Koi District of Chiang Mai, in a report by Citylife Chiang Mai, which also revealed that teacher’s salaries can be as low as 3,500 Thai baht a month, far below the minimum wage of 15,000 baht a month.
Can reform be in the works?
There have been moves to address these issues. Thailand’s Education Ministry is looking to build the capacity of teachers and learners in primary, secondary, and vocational schools to develop specialized skills for various career paths.
Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan announced in August a plan that will “unlock, change and widen” education to ensure human capital is strengthened for Thailand’s future.
Thai students have been protesting in recent weeks with education reform being one of their demands.
Students were able to publicly debate Education Minister Nataphol outside the Education Ministry in a rare example of an open conversation between a Thai senior politician and the younger generation not often seen in Thai society.