6 June 2024

Dana (giving) is recognized as a virtue in Thai culture, meaning almost all citizens are familiar with the idea of charity and donations. But this month a debate on what the state – rather than charity – should provide has gone viral across Thailand. The hot topic was sparked after rock star Artiwara “Toon Bodyslam” Kongmalai decided to stage another charity run to raise funds for impoverished children.   

“Why doesn’t Toon question existing state mechanisms, the current charter or the new education law instead?” asked Athapol Anunthavorasakul, a Chulalongkorn University education lecturer.

Many Thais agree that combatting poverty and Thailand’s appalling level of inequality is the duty of the government, not celebrities and other private citizens.

That opinion began trending earlier this month when the hashtag #whydoesToonrun? rippled across social media.

In a bid to halt the growing wave of criticism, Artiwara’s wife Rachwin explained that he began his charity runs for poor kids last year after the Equitable Education Fund (EEF) contacted his Kaokonlakao Foundation for help.

“EEF hopes we can help raise public awareness about the risk of very poor children dropping out of schools,” Rachwin said on December 25, as controversy raged over the rock star’s charitable efforts.

Last year, his charity run raised Bt27 million for impoverished and vulnerable students. Artiwara recently announced plans for another charity run early next year.

Thai star Toon Bodyslam’s new charity run questioned

Efficient state policies vs charity

Chula lecturer Athapol conceded that charity could be useful in certain cases – such as in crises that need urgent solutions where government help could arrive too late. However, knowledgeable people should realize that charity cannot compensate for structural problems in society, he added.

“If Toon is worried about dropouts, he should encourage the public to question state policies and management,” the outspoken educator said.

Athapol pointed out that Thai education is not lacking in funding, and that several mechanisms are in place to prevent kids from drifting away from schools.

“Toon should not turn a blind eye to such facts, otherwise the real problems will simply be swept under the carpet,” he commented.

Thailand’s huge education budget

Of all ministries in Thailand, the Education Ministry receives the biggest budget. It was allocated Bt356.44 billion in fiscal year 2021, dropping to Bt332.39 billion in 2022 amid the pandemic-related economic crisis.

The Thai state offers free education for 12 years, while also providing the Student Loan Fund to ensure cash-strapped students can further their education. However, because student loans are only granted to children from families earning Bt360,000 per year or less, many have no choice but to give up their studies.

Flaws in charter?

The 2017 Constitution stipulates that the state must provide 12 years of free education. But unlike the 1997 Constitution, the current charter states that the period of free education starts at pre-school age, not Pathom 1.

Drafters of the 2017 Constitution said the change was made to support early development when young brains are developing quickly. However, a problem with the new policy has emerged. When the 12 years of free education ends at Mathayom 3 – typically 14 years of age – nearly 50 percent of graduates decide to not pursue further education.

According to the National Economic and Social Development Council, yearly education expenses for senior-secondary students averaged Bt7,607 in 2020 each. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that only 60 percent of Thai children complete senior secondary education.

Mathayom 3 graduates usually enter the labor market as unskilled workers and end up earning low pay all their lives. But if they can further their studies, for example, in a vocational field, then their job and salary prospects improve significantly.

Role of the EEF

The storm of criticism buffeting Artiwara quickly engulfed the Equitable Education Fund, too. Established under the 2017 Constitution to curb educational inequalities, EEF received a large budget of up to Bt7.6 billion this fiscal year. Critics are now wondering why EEF still needs help from Artiwara and others.

Pumsaran Thongliemnak, an education economics specialist at EEF, said that while free education provided by the state was a good foundation, much more money was needed to help cash-strapped students further their studies.

“Fund-raising via charity events is a way to solve these problems in the short run,” he said via Facebook. “If we can do it, let’s do it. [But] if we want sustainable results, debates on the structural allocation of resources must be conducted to achieve long-term solutions.”

EEF provided scholarships to 949,941 cash-strapped families in the fiscal year 2019. Under the scholarships, a kindergartener received Bt4,000 a year while a primary, secondary, or vocational student received Bt3,000 a year.

EEF continues to provide scholarships, while also seeking help from allies like Artiwara in a bid to boost educational opportunities for underprivileged kids.

Curbing the dropout crisis

About 57,000 students dropped out of school this academic year, according to a survey conducted by EEF and Office of Basic Education Commission. However, some of these children were placed back in schools thanks to the efforts of relevant agencies.

Prof Sompong Jitradub, a prominent education specialist, said that if teachers and local authorities joined forces to keep students in the school system, the number of dropouts could fall below 20,000 in academic year 2021.

He said that aside from poverty, behavioral problems and a lack of equipment for online learning was also driving up the number of school dropouts.

He added that some students left school for other reasons, including the need to care for elderly or bed-ridden family members, lack of housing security, and transportation problems. These issues also deserve attention, he said.

Equitable and quality education

For Athapol, education is a public service that the state is duty-bound to provide to citizens. In general, the more people are educated, the better their skills, earnings and mental health.

Athapol said several factors were needed before equitable and quality education could materialize in Thai society. Among them are accountable and reliable political institutions, strong economic and social institutions, and stable families.

“Tackle the root causes of problems,” he concluded. “Don’t rely on charity runs.”

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk