11 July 2024

With a retired policeman at the helm of the Education Ministry, teachers and educators can only hope that Thailand’s education sector does not decline further under the new government.

“I don’t have any expectations,” Tanawat Suwannapan of Kru Kor Sorn (Teachers Ask to Teach) said about the appointment of Pol General Permpoon Chidchob as the new education minister.

“I just hope he won’t add burdens to Thailand’s education.”

Permpoon’s background

Brother to Bhumjaithai Party patriarch Newin Chidchob and also former transport minister Saksayam Chidchob, Permpoon graduated from Ramkhamhaeng University’s Faculty of Law.

He joined the police force in 1984 and spent 37 years in the ranks before retiring at the age of 60 in 2021. In other words, the new education minister’s career experience is limited to police work.

Bhumjaithai’s control of education affairs

Surprisingly, coalition leader Pheu Thai allocated all three education-related Cabinet seats to the Bhumjaithai Party. Before this government, Pheu Thai had always taken charge of the Education Ministry dating back to its time in power as the Thai Rak Thai Party in the early 2000s.

But now, Deputy Education Minister Surasak Phancharoenworakul and Supamas Isarabhakdi, minister of Higher Education Science Research and Innovation, also hail from Bhumjaithai.

Surasak graduated from Rangsit University’s Faculty of Business Administration and comes from a political family. With his mother in local politics and his elder sister a former MP, he first entered politics by winning a seat in the Ayutthaya Provincial Administrative Organization.

He began his parliamentary career in 2011 when he was elected as an Ayutthaya MP. He was re-elected in 2019 and again earlier this year.

In Parliament, he headed the House committee on tourism and also joined an ad-hoc committee on the Kra Canal project and the Southern Economic Corridor. However, this is his first Cabinet appointment and he has no experience in managing educational affairs.

As for Supamas, she graduated from Chulalongkorn University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. She was elected as an MP for the first time at the relatively young age of 28 in 2001. Supamas has also been re-elected to Parliament twice.

Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul, who is now a deputy prime minister, acknowledges that the future of Thailand’s education sector is now in his party’s hands.

“We are preparing to invite highly qualified people to help with this important mission. After the government delivers its policy statement, we will begin implementing policies immediately,” he said. “I can affirm that ministers from our party are suitable for the job.”

Bhumjaithai party leader Anutin Charnvirakul

For example, Surasak would quickly address the problems of teachers’ debt and student loans, he added. While campaigning for votes, Bhumjaithai Party promised interest-free student loans and even a five-year grace period.

Education policies

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is due to announce his government’s policy statement in Parliament on September 11.

According to his draft policy statement, the government will reform education to support lifelong learning. People will be taught to possess moral integrity, discipline, and pride in their homeland. Decentralization will be promoted, while learners’ potential will be strengthened based on their individual aptitude. Suitable learning equipment, including modern educational technology, will be made available.

Research will be promoted, both in the social and applied science spheres. The focus will be on cutting-edge research as Thailand sets its sights on developing knowledge, technology and innovations. At the same time, the educational sector will ensure Thais are given knowledge of the country’s history and learn to appreciate its key institutions.

Teacher quality is also highlighted in the draft policy statement, along with measures to support the wellbeing of students. The government will also promote means for students to generate income so they can support themselves during their studies.

What do experts think?

Prominent educator Prof Sompong Jitradub said he can’t help feeling that the wrong person has been chosen to head Thailand’s Education Ministry.

“Not only does he have no political experience, but he has also never expressed his vision on educational issues before,” the academic commented.

Prof Sompong Jitradub

Given the magnitude of Thailand’s educational problems, Sompong is worried that the new minister may not be able to find concrete solutions and prepare Thais adequately for the future.

“If he sticks with the old bureaucratic system, more problems will follow. Today, students want to express themselves and exert their rights and liberties,” Sompong pointed out.

Asst Prof Athapol Anunthavorasakul, who teaches at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Education, said he hoped the new minister would appoint knowledgeable advisors.

“If you recruit the same old faces, you will get more of what the country has struggled with over the past two decades,” he warned.

Asst Prof Athapol Anunthavorasakul, Faculty of Education, Chulalongkorn University

Both Sompong and Athapol underlined the importance of the National Education Bill, which is still pending in Parliament. This draft law is crucial because it will bring wide-ranging reform to improve Thai education, the academics said.

Little hope?

Independent academic Nicha Pittayapongsakorn, a former researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), does not believe that the new government will be able to push for structural reform within Thailand’s educational sector.

“This applies to whoever heads the Education Ministry too,” she said.

She pointed out that the Education Ministry is a huge agency with more than 400,000 civil servants under its supervision. Unlike other ministries, the Education Ministry has as many as four highest-level C11 officials. It also has numerous committees. So, communication and coordination within the ministry is difficult.

It also takes solid technical leadership to run such a massive organization. Without such a technical background, it takes at least a year to get the gist of how things work, Nicha said.

“By that time, a Cabinet reshuffle may have happened. And the minister may bow out or simply be moved to another ministry,” she said.

Nicha added that she had looked into the educational policies of all political parties and discovered that none focus on restructuring the educational sector, which should include both soft reform (vision & culture) and hard reform (regulations, organizational structure, etc).

Messages for new Cabinet members

Sompong said that even if the new Cabinet members for educational affairs have no experience in the field, they could get off to a good start by opening their minds and working with the new generation.

Tanawat shared the same view, saying that listening to the voices of students, teachers, parents, and educators could pave the way for the formulation of practical solutions.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk