BANGKOK – Thailand’s education standard has been a subject of concern among authorities for some time. Over the past few years, the performance of Thai students has been less than impressive, even worrying.
According to the recent Program for International Students Assessment (Pisa) in 2015, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan continued to dominate international rankings.
Thailand, however, came 54th out of the total 70 countries assessed, with scores dropping in all subjects compared to the 2012 assessment. Classified by subject, Thailand ranked 54th for math, 57th for reading and 53rd for science.
What are the factors that contribute to such an abysmal quality of education in Thailand. Is it money? Perhaps not. According to a new report from the OECD titled “Education at a Glance 2017”. Thailand spent 4% of its GDP — some 20% of the annual government budget — on education but the country ranks at the bottom in terms of quality education.
So, the finger has been pointed at the pedagogues — the teachers. Many people believe there are not enough teachers in Thailand.
DEARTH OF TEACHERS A MYTH
“In Thailand, we always hear about the teacher shortage problem. Schools do not have enough staff to teach in all classrooms. So, people assume that if universities keep pumping out more and more new teachers, we will be able to eradicate the problem, but the problem of the teacher shortage in the Thailand isn’t so black and white as the fact is that the shortfall isn’t present in all areas of teaching,” said Prapansiri Susaorat, chairwoman of the Education Deans Council of Thailand (EDCT).
The figures prove the belief that the dearth of teachers might be wrong.
Indeed, every year there are 40,000-50,000 new graduates with bachelor’s degrees in education. However, only 5,000 of them have a major or have expertise in science, maths or English — areas in which Thai students are lagging. Another subject that not so many students in education take is “special education” for students with special needs. Students with special needs are children who are mentally challenged or children with physical disadvantages.
“Over the past five years 80 universities and colleges that offer teacher preparation programmes across the country have taken in more than 230,000 teaching students overall, but we found that only 18,982 and 16,357 of pedagogical students across the country picked mathematics and science as their majors respectively,” she said.
Ms Prapansiri said all parties involved in the education circles and teacher production should be concerned about the situation since if they allow the trend to continue, mass unemployment among graduates of teaching programmes as well as a huge number of teachers teaching outside their area of expertise will become unavoidable problems.
TOO MANY TEACHERS IN THE FUTURE
According to data from the EDCT, Thailand is producing more than double and almost three times the amount of schoolteachers needed each year.
“Some 40,000 to 50,000 teachers are trained each year and only about 20,000 are hired — meaning we now train roughly 2-2.5 teachers for every one position available. If calculated from this data, it means we have a surplus of 20,000 to 30000 teachers each year,” Ms Prapansiri said.
She estimated that five years from now at least 100,000 teaching graduates will find it hard to get jobs.
“If we look at the supply-demand mismatch, there is a high possibility that less than half of the students who are studying education as a major now will be hired to work in the classrooms after graduation,” she said.
Mr Prapansiri said the oversupply problem arose due to calculation errors in supply and demand for teaching posts as universities in Thailand do not discuss among each others what the job market looks like now and will look like in the future or if should they altogether gradually reduce the student intake over the next five to 10 years to be in line with the country’s low birth rate.
“Everyone has their own recruitment plans. Moreover, some universities and colleges use teaching courses as a cash cow, emphasising quantity over quality. They deliberately even break the rules by enrolling more students than allowed,” she said.
For example, in 2016, 11 universities were found to have taken in more teaching students than permitted. One university had taken in more than 2,500 students when it was only allowed 500.
Meanwhile, there have been reports of substandard courses in some universities. Some courses have not been approved by Teacher’s Council of Thailand (TCT). Students who took these programmes were not provided licences by TCT, and cannot teach in schools after they graduate.
“That was not fair because the university broke the rules, but the students were punished. What a regulator like the Office of the Higher Education Commission (Ohec) should have done was just bar them from recruiting the next batch of students until they can fix their standards to be par with the regulations. These money-hungry universities use students as hostages and they are destroying the whole system,” Ms Prapansiri said.
Another big problem is too many “out-of-field teachers”. The term is used to describe “out-of-field” teaching — teaching a subject without specific training in that subject.
“Many schools still lack teachers in specific areas such as maths and science. Their solution is to find out-of-field teachers to fill in the gap. This situation is predominantly found in small rural schools where a teacher has to teach all the subjects by themselves,” Ms Prapansiri said.
These out-of-field teachers might rely on teaching methods that are traditional and ineffective, such as solely using the textbook in maths.
They might be less able to help students in their learning. It can be devastating for a confident and competent teacher to be suddenly feel inadequate because they are having to teach unfamiliar content.
For maths, the situation at primary schools in rural areas is dire. Ms Prapansiri estimated that up to 50% of students may be taught by an out-of-field mathematics teacher.
“This might be one of the reasons why Thai students always rank at the bottom in international assessments, even though the government spends 20% of the national budget or 4% of GDP on education,” she said.
Siridej Sujiva, dean of the faculty of education of Chulalongkorn University, suggested that teacher-training institutes should work with each other more closely in order to set a long-term direction together in which areas should be promoted or limited.
“Faculties of education in each university need to adapt with the times and focus more on producing quality teachers in high-need areas. They must emphasise quality over quantity,” he said.
Mr Siridej said some universities have already discussed how to develop educational programmes to create teachers that meet demand.
Some universities have also encouraged teaching candidates to switch from studying in areas where there are already too many students to high-demand areas, such as special education, foreign languages and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).
Mr Siridej said he did not mind that the Education Ministry recently allowed people without teaching licences to apply for teacher posts as it might help schools to get more specialists in some subject areas, though many academics argue that untrained teachers do not know how to teach effectively nor understand child psychology.
“People without teaching licences are now allowed to teach first, then take training courses to get licences later. These people should be trained first before they are allowed to stand in front of our classrooms,” he said.
Sombat Kochasit, chairman of the Council of Rajabhat University Presidents of Thailand, said faculties of education at all 38 Rajabhat universities have started adjusting to improve the quality of teaching students.
For example, they have limited the maximum number of teaching students in each programme to 30 and the student-teacher ratio must be 10:1, she said.
Ms Sombat said Rajabhat universities have come up with a strategy to gradually reduce the number of teaching graduates over the next 10 years to be in line with the country’s low fertility rate.
“We already emphasise quality rather than quantity. We also produce around 4,000 teaching graduates in needed areas, especially STEM, through a closed system, which means that over the next 10 years we might be able to solve the shortage of teachers in these fields,” she said.
She also urged the TCT to overhaul its licence system. Instead of giving general licences to new educational graduates, the TCT should also issue new licences for teachers who majored in specific areas.
“If teachers’ licences are more specific, it would guarantee that we will have more quality teachers who have a deep understanding of the subjects to do the job,” Ms Sombat said.
By Dumrongkiat Mala