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Thailand has been tinkering with its schools and universities for years, to little effect: It still overspends and under-delivers. Now Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy has seen its fastest decline in more than two decades after being battered by the coronavirus, and students are protesting. It’s no accident that one of their demands is a serious overhaul of a system that prizes compliance and conformity over learning.

Better education is far from the only, or even the main, request voiced during student-led demonstrations that have been gathering pace for weeks. Marchers want a revamped constitution and fresh elections; they have broken a long-held taboo by calling for changes to the monarchy. Yet a school system that castigates minor violations of dress and grooming rules, overlooks bullying teachers and produces mediocre results is a microcosm of the systemic rigidity that has brought growing numbers onto the streets. This weekend Bangkok saw the largest crowd since a 2014 military coup.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s government isn’t blind to the country’s combination of slowing productivity growth and stalling investment. Over recent years its rate of expansion has lagged behind neighbors like Vietnam, and even Malaysia. That should be an economic incentive to listen, and act accordingly.

Real change, though, requires slashing the ministerial bureaucracy, decentralizing, and allowing freedom in the classroom — near-impossible steps for a former junta head leading a sometimes unruly coalition. To his credit, Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan has more than once addressed uniformed high-schoolers massing outside his office. Yet his plan, the latest in a string of initiatives over recent years, is still heavy on buzzwords and light on action.

Thailand — aging and short of skilled workers — can ill-afford to continue avoiding the issue.

Throwing money at the problem won’t be enough. Education has regularly amounted to a fifth of government spending, even if that proportion has shrunk of late — yet as much as 80 percent is consumed by fixed costs like salaries, with little apparent reward. Teachers climb the ranks regardless of student results, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that in both national tests and international lists, scores are grim. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s most recent assessment, published last year, pointed to deteriorating reading scores, now lower than in any previous review. English skills, key for the digital economy, appear to be worsening, too, with Thailand now 74th out of 100 countries in one proficiency ranking. And it’s deeply unequal, with a wide gap between small, rural institutions and urban ones.

Political turnover doesn’t help. Over the past two decades, Thai education ministers have on average stayed in place for less than a year. Little has changed beyond the superficial: As access to instruction increased significantly after a landmark 1999 act, but the effect was shallow. Even high-profile efforts like then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s “one tablet per child” pledge amounted to little. The private supplier struggled to deliver the number required, foundered, and the junta eventually scrapped the policy.

Prayuth promised change back in 2014, but has instead pushed Thai morals and values, hardly the 21st-century overhaul and devolution that was needed.

Thailand isn’t alone in wrestling with the dilemma of how to balance unyielding social and political structures with the need to produce creative, problem-solving workers for the future. Hong Kong is grappling with the same problem of how much questioning is allowed before students are considered to be subverting authority. Indonesia has struggled with high-volume, low-quality education. What is clear is that past efforts, from Yingluck’s tablets down, have had minimal impact. Even simple measures like easing rules on haircuts, now reaffirmed, failed to trickle into classrooms, while a shift to child-centered education, away from teacher-directed efforts and learning by rote, has been interpreted in myriad ways over two decades.

The difference is that this time, the economic imperative is louder. Thailand needs to sustain growth rates above 5 percent to hit its target of becoming a high-income country by 2037, according to a World Bank report published before the pandemic. That means it needs productivity to grow at 3 percent and investment to add up to 40 percent of gross domestic product. For comparison, productivity growth fell to just over 1 percent over 2010-2016, while private investment halved since 1997 to 15 percent of GDP in 2018. It doesn’t help that Thailand’s schools and universities rank below global peers, while research spending is inadequate.

In a country where university students have uniforms, even the loosening of school haircut rules is a small victory for individualism. It’s nowhere near enough. For now, the greatest source of optimism is high-school students themselves. Even in a stifling environment, they have spoken out. They deserve to be heard.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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