Thailand Targets Skills Gap: ‘We Can’t Even Invent a Motorbike’

by Busaba Sivasomboon

Thailand’s Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin poses a rhetorical question as he ponders the task of making innovation a bigger engine of economic growth — would people prefer an electric car developed in the South-East Asian nation, or one made by Tesla Inc?

“Are you dreaming?” Teerakiat said in an interview. “We can’t even invent a motorbike.”

Teerakiat, who said he’s Thailand’s 20th education minister in 17 years, is trying to close the skills gap in a country struggling to match some of the education gains made by South-East Asian neighbours. His strategy includes giving more autonomy to schools, universities and teachers to boost standards. He also advises retaining a focus on traditionally strong sectors such as food, healthcare and tourism.

Thailand’s challenge is a major one: The latest triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results ranked it 54 out of 70 countries, even though education received about a fifth of the 2.73 trillion baht (RM348.3 billion) annual budget, one of the largest expenditure items. Singapore was the top performer in the PISA assessment, with Japan second, Taiwan fourth, China sixth and Vietnam eighth.

“We have a big gap in this country,” said 
Teerakiat, referring to the assessment rankings, which showed Thai student scores for maths, sciences and reading falling sharply since 
the 2012 survey to well below the international average.

“Whatever we have done, hasn’t worked,” he said of past improvement efforts.

Since seizing power three years ago, Thailand’s military government has put the spotlight on promoting innovation and advanced industries to help lift the economy from the 
middle-income trap under a plan called “Thailand 4.0”.

One area of focus is industrial development along the eastern seaboard, including a 619 million baht plan to bolster vocational training. Thailand realises it needs to upgrade workforce skills to support the US$45 billion (RM193.5 billion) Eastern Economic Corridor project, Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana told Bloomberg last month.

Yet with the working age population expected to shrink by about 11% as a share of the total population by 2040, “the education and skills challenge takes on an special importance and urgency”, said Ulrich Zachau, the World Bank’s South-East Asia country director in Bangkok.

“On the one hand, Thailand is rapidly ageing, and, on the other hand, the need for skilled workers is rapidly increasing in an ever more integrated world with ever faster technological advances,” he said.

Rote Learning

High levels of digitisation and Internet penetration make Thailand an attractive destination for IT (information technology) companies to pilot new products, said Anip Sharma, a senior VP with responsibility for South-East Asia at global education sector consultancy Parthenon-EY.

“But it’s not a great place to develop a pro-duct,” said Sharma. One of the biggest problems, he said, is a lack of English language penetration, a key skill when it comes to bringing about transformation in the digital age.

Another issue, said veteran Thai software developer Panutat Tejasen, is that most graduates are schooled using old fashioned methods such as rote learning and lack the critical 
thinking skills needed to develop creative software solutions.

“My company pays those newbies just to get them knowledge on how to write usable software programmes before they can start working and making money,” said Tejasen, whose Art and Technology group currently employs more than 200 software designers and “pays six months salary for every new staff with no 
business benefit in return”.

Natavudh Pungcharoenpong, the founder of Bangkok-based e-book publisher Ookbee, which has more than more than eight million members across South-East Asia, blames obsolete 
thinking for holding back his business.

“There are new businesses that can’t 
governed by the existing mindset of the authorities,” said Natavudh. “That’s not the way to drive growth.”

He cites as examples his own difficulties convincing authorities to extend a value-added tax exemption on printed books to electronic books, as well as the way regulations make it challenging for services such as Uber and Facebook to operate.

Vietnam Better?

The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission couldn’t immediately be reached to comment about regulations governing Facebook. The Land Transport Department said Uber is viewed as illegal.

Parthenon-EY’s Sharma points to nearby countries such as Vietnam as doing much better at encouraging new thinking despite being poorer. Thailand’s history of political turmoil isn’t conducive to encouraging improvements to the education system either, said Sharma.

“There hasn’t been a consistent approach to strong implementation and that’s hurt Thailand, big time,” he said.
20,000 Bureaucrats

“We have 20,000 bureaucrats who don’t teach but are running schools,” Education Minister Teerakiat said in the July 12 interview, signalling that one of the main obstacles to reform may be the Education Ministry itself. “In Vietnam, there’re only 70 in their ministry.”

Teerakiat, who has a background in child and adolescent psychiatry, said corruption has been another problem.

“If I were like the previous politicians, I’ll be the richest man this month,” he said, pointing out the education minister has discretion over four billion baht in unspent education budget funds.

Teerakiat said a bottom up strategy that gives schools and universities more autonomy to make decisions is the best way forward. The same principle should apply to teacher training because it suffered in the past from rigid central planning that demoralised teachers, he said.

Teerakiat announced a new voucher system earlier this month that enables universities and colleges to offer their own courses, and gives prospective teachers freedom to choose areas they want to be trained in. He’s also asked his department to come up with a plan to establish a new Ministry of Higher Education.

“The website for teacher training, usually there is only one or two hits, if you are lucky,” he said. “Yesterday alone: 28.8 million hits. It’s just amazing to see when you use the market 
system, when you empower them, when you abolish the central planning, use the bottom up approach, things work phenomenally. It has never happened in Thailand.” — Bloomberg