Photographer: Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg

Thailand's Skills Problem Is Slowing Down Its High-Tech Push

Updated on
  • Education Minister says past efforts to boost standards failed
  • One-third of students functionally illiterate, World Bank says

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 Southeast Asian nation, or one made by Tesla Inc.?

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

Teerakiat Jareonsettasin

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

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 Southeast Asian neighbors. 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 Program for International Student Assessment results ranked it 54 out of 70 countries, even though education received about a fifth of the 2.73 trillion baht ($81 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 realizes it needs to upgrade workforce skills to support the $45 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 percent 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 Southeast Asia Country Director in Bangkok.

“On the one hand, Thailand is rapidly aging, 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 digitization and internet penetration make Thailand an attractive destination for IT companies to pilot new products, said Anip Sharma, a senior vice-president with responsibility for Southeast Asia at global education sector consultancy Parthenon-EY.

“But it’s not a great place to develop a product,” said Sharma. One of the biggest problems, he says, 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 programs 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 8 million members across Southeast 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, signaling that one of the main obstacles to reform may be the Education Ministry itself. “In Vietnam, there’re only seventy 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 4 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 demoralized 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.”

For more on the difficulty of building a new startup hub, check out the Decrypted podcast:

— With assistance by Sunil Jagtiani

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