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Thailand & Education. A tale of misunderstandings & misconceptions.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the story you are about to hear is true. Only names have been changed and altered in order to protect the privacy of everybody involved. This is the city: Bangkok. This is the country: Thailand. 

It is the year 2014 A.D. – or, as local tale tellers call it, 2557. The adventure that is about to unfold however has its roots way before our current time began. It is rooted deeply within the urge of Siam to be, despite being proud of never officially having been conquered and colonized, just like everybody else. To be able to compete and compare with western (and eastern) educational systems without paying the price (38,543 virgins – or, alternatively, hard work) for it. Hence the once mighty Siam now tries very hard to sneak its way into the league of extraordinary education by buying partnerships with oversea institutions but without actually providing top level education itself.

This is the setting that plays host for our tale of Thai education. A tale full of misunderstandings and misconceptions. Corruption and cheating. Missing standards and worthless degrees. You might feel intrigued by now but be warned. Once you went down the dark path that is education in Thailand you might not be able to think of education the same as you did before. Are you sure you are willing to pay that price? Then, without taking any pill, follow this dark path down the rabbit hole. At its end you will not find enlightenment but the truth and nothing but the truth.

The sorrows of a young teaching apprentice

It’s the year 2554. Our young and somewhat naive teaching apprentice just left his everyday labor job in his home state of Alemannia and set out to find a higher good to fight for, a reason to work for, his purpose and destiny. His first stop, as chance would have it, was the remote area of North-Eastern Thailand. Starting his educational experience in a ‘Vocational College’ – a college for those students who want (or need) to study subjects related to the ‘real’ world and real work.

When first taking on his assignment out there in the wild heart of Thailand our young teaching apprentice felt insecure and not well enough prepared to take on the task that is educating students and providing them with top notch knowledge. Upon his arrival at the college he was assigned to teach 30+ hours of classes each week all by himself without any guidance or supervision. A tough task for someone without classroom experience as such, but, as we all know, people rise with challenges and eventually master them. Hopefully. This is a game of chances however since, if you assign such work to someone who is not determined to learn and put effort, blood, sweat an tears into it, it can go terribly wrong. Gambling with students’ education is always a dangerous thing and the willingness of the Vocational College to do so without even knowing the new volunteer teacher just shows how little value is paid on the quality of education. As long as there is some foreign face to show it’s all fine.

This mantra should follow our teaching apprentice all over Thailand. While he started to enjoy teaching and bonded with students and improved his classroom handling and studied everything remotely related to teaching & education the college continued to hire foreign faces to simply have them around and show them off. No Master’s degree? No problem! No Bachelor’s degree? No problem! No teaching degree? No problem! As long as the passport says ‘native speaker’ it’s all good. Because we all know you don’t need much education in order to teach. In a foreign country, with a foreign language and a completely foreign culture.

Speaking of which. When our young protagonist raised his voice due to concerns regarding the level of education offered he mostly was shut down with comments referring to different cultures and mindsets. He shouldn’t be to narrow minded and more open and everything would be fine.

After three semesters of teaching on vocational college level our protagonist felt like he developed enough teaching skills and gave back enough (time, motivation) to the community so that it was time for him to move on. The past 1.5 years have been quite frustrating in terms of educational excellence but also quite interesting and challenging in terms of classroom experience and leadership skill development. He has been voted ‘best teacher’ three consecutive times (which at least shows a good connection to students) by the student body and has been invited to guest teaching all across the province. Besides that his articles, published in electronic books and blogs, brought him interviews in magazines and on TV. These positive responses made him feel more confident regarding his teaching skills and ultimately led to his decision to not returning to his prior labor but to stay within education and to pursue another, greater, goal. Teaching and researching at University.

Higher Education. The Rise and fall. 

Said and done. After making up his mind to stay in education and to strive for students with a more open and hungry mind the (well actually not so) young teacher, soon to be lecturer, found his way into a private University in Thailand. He felt incredibly proud and happy to have made it and being accepted as University lecturer. He always considered his university professors as some of the most important people he met and was excited to slowly becoming part of this elite circle.

His respect for the profession and the university was enormous and his motivation to improve, learn, research and publish was as high as it could get from the very beginning.

And it lasted. And lasted. And lasted. Until his first few classes started, the midterm exams came around and talks with colleagues became more frequent. Quite soon, when daily work life set in, it became quite obvious that most others, thought to be brave and motivated educators, didn’t really pay to much value to their profession. Even worse: Most professors did not even seem to like what they were doing. When asking about advice regarding classes a common response from the elders of the faculty would be “mai pen rai – don’t worry. just wing it” – at a University. One of the most expensive Universities of wonderful Siam. You would certainly think that students, who pay lots of money to study at this exquisite institution would stage demonstrations or public hearings to voice their disappointment. However, and that’s where the sadness becomes even worse, the voices of concern or disappointment were not very strong. It seems as if the system of not caring worked for students as well as for faculty and academics.

The first part of the tragedy

As youngest and newest member of the clan of ‘Ajarns’ motivation, as mentioned before, was high and so was the willingness to prepare and hold classes. Each and every class would be unique and should combine fun as well as ‘aha’ moments for students who took it. Furthermore no class would be cancelled and if classes had to be postponed they would have been ‘made up’ within the shortest time possible. That was what he thought was right and so that was what he did.

However that was only him. Most distinguished colleagues did not bother showing up on time, teaching all the way through or making up for classes that had been cancelled. In fact it looked like most colleagues didn’t want to be in the arena that was their classroom.

Classes, very often, weren’t unique and got repeated throughout several semesters – even if the class name changed. This means certain Ajarns would use their slides from Subject A also in Subject B or Subject C. Even though those subjects are supposed to be different and students who took subject A also had to take subject B. How disappointing!

Since the mentioned approach to class management seemed to work for most scholars it was difficult for our protagonist to find help or an open ear. The first time he felt lost and lonely in midst a renown facility of higher education.

The second part of the tragedy

Besides being disappointed by the work ethics of colleagues and superiors another disappointment came into place and increased dissatisfaction with the educational system of higher education in the Land of Smiles. When judging student’s work focus should always be on performance and willingness to try – not personal favors and likability. This mantra was what the young teacher had in mind when he conducted his lectures. Therefore, poor students from neighboring countries who tried and studied hard received good grades. Because they deserved it. Students who did not bother to attend classes or to prepare for exams and assignments failed. The global language of educational institutions. So he thought. In Thailand however, it seemed to be different. More importance is measured towards family names and standings within the society. If a poor student receives a bad grade or fails it seems acceptable, if a student with important parents fails however he or she should receive more chances to make up for failure during class. And even if he or she does not deliver good work, simply writing down ‘something’ already counts as ‘good enough’ to get a pass.

Since this attitude did not go along with the protagonist’s ethics he refused to act according to this ‘suggestion’. That did not matter much though since the elders of the faculty simply overruled his decision and changed grades without his approval anyways.

This obvious mistreatment of ethics and responsibility – which is being labeled as ‘being nice’ in the holy halls of Thai higher education – not only confused but also saddened our tragic protagonist. Realizing that education is nothing more than a good that is being traded in exchange for money or favors left the (way to idealistic and probably naive) world of the young Ajarn in pieces. Again the worst part of it was that everybody seemed to be fine with the way things work in Thai education.

The only time when things would change a bit was when students from far far away would join the local halls of education as part of exchange programs. Those foreign educated students would usually be quite surprised by how education in Thailand works and would question local style and complain about it. Those complaints however would usually be responded with a brief ‘that’s our culture’ statement and after all was said and exchange students left back home all the comments and complaints would simply be ignored and local jesters would entertain the emperors of education again and distract from ever growing problems and discrepancy between Thailand and the rest of the educated world.

Seeing this gap growing and being invited by the QA team of the University the young instructor thought he needs to stand by his principles and answer honestly. So when the research team (QA) asked questions about the quality of the faculty he answered honestly and explained why he thought that some things needed to be changed. The QA team however did not want to hear that and asked his superiors why he would say such things. His superiors then said that’s ‘cultural difference’ and he wouldn’t mean it like that. – And that’s how you get rid of unwanted feedback.

The latest act.

By now the young instructor has grown. In both age and experience knows how to avoid trouble but still can’t ‘just live with it’ as suggested by many of his friends and family. This leads to more and more intense confrontations with superiors (some even yelled at him) that have been around castle ‘fakus educatus’ for ages and are afraid of any kind of change. On the other hand the castle always tries hard to keep him and not to have him quit is assignment with the faculty since, apparently, they are in the need for dedicated – international – instructors. This need, right now, leeds to a lot of hire-and-fire actions. Foreign instructors are being hired without possessing the appropriate qualification. And there it goes again. To say it with a local idiom: Same same, but different. Look foreign and your qualifications do not matter too much – in some places.

The final act needs yet to be written but so far it is obvious that education in Thailand goes hand in hand with misconceptions and misunderstandings. The idea of working hard for good education seems as foreign as the idea of living on Mars. Why should one work hard if one could just buy it?

As the journey continues we are about to see and hear more of the adventures of the young instructor trying to make it work in the land of smile while not losing all of it himself.

To be continued….

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  • myanmarstartups

    Great article. Looking forward to hear about future experiences!

  • Thanks & no worries. More coming soon ;-)

  • Sarat Riansoi

    Great article really! I am Thai but this is quite new to me especially the issue concerning ‘how things work’ in University level. Although, i think you could not actually generalize this thought on every universities in Thailand but still it sure needs to be improved. Looking forward to hearing the newer ones soon!

  • Hi Sarat. Thanks for reading through and commenting. Appreciate it! Agree that one can’t generalize of course. There are always differences and I sure hope that my experience doesn’t speak for everyone but, just as you mentioned, it shows that there is definitely a lot of room for improvement.

    Just to make sure that comes across: I’m not hating on Thailand – I’m here because I want to be here and appreciate the chance to be part of the ‘change’ that is, very gradually, happening. Hopefully :)

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  • DBS

    Unfortunately, not surprised in the least.
    Having been through one of the so-called top universities of Thailand as a student (at a much older age than most), I came to see what was going on and it disgusted me severely. I don’t think much of my degree and don’t even really want to tell anyone that I graduated here. It is such a farce. One can get a degree at any level of university here without breaking a sweat. Although I suppose it could be a little more difficult for students raised up in systems like this and have never really learned much coming in. They might need to crack open a book now and again.

    Another thing I experienced that you didn’t mention (you may or may not have seen the same), was a very strong prejudice against foreign students. Sometimes it even comes out in official policy. I have seen completely inept Thai students given opportunities that they didn’t deserve in the least! While very good, diligent foreign students were passed over and sometimes not even allowed to be given consideration. I’ve seen a Thai student, who knew virtually nothing about the research, have their name added to a pHD thesis of a foreign student by the foreign student’s advisor in order to “help Thai students”. And when the foreign student objected, the advisor threatened to remove themselves from their role, which would have completely destroyed the foreign student’s scholarship and chance to finish their pHD. So they were forced to comply.
    I know a guy who failed out of virtually every class, at a very well known university, but was allowed to graduate for a mere 200,000 baht “gift”.
    There is plenty more as I’m sure you know…. It is sad, but I keep hoping that I’ll be able to see some kind of improvement in my lifetime.

    I admire your persistence and positive attitude!

  • Thank you very much for your comment and for sharing some more insights. In regards to the foreign / Thai student injustice. I have seen such things as well of course. Especially the ‘helping the Thai student’ out excuse was brought up quite frequently. In order to not make it too obvious though usually a few hand picked foreign students would be paraded around as excellent students and receive some awards – but that’s mostly to show that Thai students could also hang with foreign students in terms of academic achievements.

    To also say something positive though: This past semester I had some really hard working, smart and dedicated students in my classes who worked hard for their grades. Just to make sure people don’t think I’m always complaining.

    Thanks for the nice words at the end. I think all we can do is work hard, lead by example and try to be part of the change.

  • Putthisak Philips Panomsarnnar

    I do appreciate on what you are doing as a change maker. It’s true that education in Thailand is a great irony. people who have passion on teaching do not dare to do it, according to the Thai norm. There are many family that think smart children should be on other careers such as doctor or engineer so people becoming teacher in Thailand not all of them are passionate on what they are doing. As a result, lack of passion generates many problems to the system.Students do not have enough motivation to reach their goals.

  • Couldn’t agree more. But we’re here to change it, right? From a student’s and from an educator’s side!

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  • Vincent Wu

    When talking about education, what is the best for student? It seems to most people that pouring down every drop of knowledge to them is somewhat reasonable. However, knowledge (to me) needs to be seeked and self achieved. It means that student themself must aim to be educated. Our society (Thai) don’t encourage this thought to Thai kids. Due to this fact, it is difficult for instructors to actually “teach” students what they plan in mind. That’s why teaching contains a lot more than “teaching.” It involves with classroom phycology, how to have student’s attention, how to make boring topic more enjoyable. Moreover, instructing someone effectively is not only required those qualities above, but a teacher also need to have that “heart” of molding. To make a good education, in my point of view, both factors (student and teacher) must be perfectly matched. A perfect education in Thailand is nearly impossible, because student and teacher look for a different goal. Teacher wants to teach but student want to chill. How can “a perfect education” be created, if two main ingredient move in opposite direction.