School’s out: Thailand’s education and skills crisis

By Craig Keating, Former Senior Analyst, Australia’s Office of National Assessments (ONA)

In the second of three articles on Thailand’s economic challenges, Craig Keating finds poor and declining education standards are threatening to exclude individual Thais — and the country — from Asia’s next wave of high-value jobs.

Thailand’s education system isn’t giving Thais the skills employers want. Unless qualitative improvements are made, this will hold back productivity and investment. It will also hamstring plans of Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government to make Thailand a more advanced and productive economy. Social inequalities could widen further, as only those with access to better quality education — principally in urban areas — will get the higher-skilled, and higher-paying jobs.

Thailand trails many of its fellow ASEAN states in education outcomes. Proportionately, fewer Thais complete school (Graph 1). This isn’t explained by relative wealth: Indonesia and the Philippines, with lower GDP per capita, rank higher. Lack of continuity at the top hasn’t helped. Since 2001, Thailand has had 21 education ministers.

Graph 1: Education attainment as a proportion of the population aged 25 plus

Graph 1

Data sources: World Development Indicators. Data is not available for Laos, Myanmar, or Vietnam, nor for Cambodians who have completed a bachelor’s degree or equivalent.

Numerous studies have found around one-third of fifteen-year-olds are functionally illiterate (unable to manage employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level) in the Thai language.  People in rural areas are the most disadvantaged.  A 2019 World Bank report found the proportion of functionally illiterate 15-year-olds in rural villages was as high as 47 percent.

English-language ability is also poor and, by some measures, going backwards.  Thailand has dropped in the Switzerland-based English First’s English proficiency index from 49.7 in 2017 to 47.62 in 2019.  In 2020, English First ranked Thailand 89th—behind Singapore (10th), the Philippines (27th), Malaysia (30th), Vietnam (65th), Indonesia (74th) and Cambodia (84th).  These findings are consistent with other studies, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) internet-based test.

Thailand’s education system has long prioritised rote learning and conformity – even university students are required to wear uniforms – over critical thinking.  In a 2016 test of logical thinking and analytical skills, just two percent of students passed.  The education minister at the time, General Dapong Rattanasuwan, acknowledged students’ weak critical thinking skills.  But nothing seems to have been done: it was only in October 2020, that the then education minister, Nataphol Teepsuwan, ordered his ministry to revamp the basic education curriculum to better develop analytical thinking skills by 2022.  However, any analytical thinking wasn’t without limits: his ministry announced it would persist with instilling the royalist ideology of “nation, religion, monarchy”.  Conformity with elite values remains a key objective of the state system.

Education quality matters, not least because many foreign companies are looking for young, productive, highly-skilled, English-speaking workers – not Thailand’s forte.  In 2020, the Asia Productivity Organisation found Thailand lacked the skills, research, and innovation needed to compete successfully in higher-value markets.  In 2019, a study by Thammasat University and the Office of the Education Council reported only 14 percent of Thai workers had the skills to work with advanced technologies, which threatens to leave it behind in ASEAN’s pursuit of a high-tech industry 4.0 agenda.  Compounding these problems, Thai wages are higher than most of its neighbours (Table).

Table: Manufacturing worker base monthly salaries (US dollars)





















Source: 2020 JETRO survey on business conditions of Japanese companies operating overseas (Asia and Oceania.

The Prayuth administration understands — at least to some degree — that Thailand needs to upgrade the skills of its workforce if the country is to be an attractive manufacturing base for higher-valued manufacturing.

To “fast track” the process, the government wants to attract skilled foreigners. In September, cabinet approved measures to attract ‘high potential’ foreigners, including highly-skilled professionals. Its plans to introduce a ten-year visa and to tax eligible foreigners at the same rate as Thais could prove attractive. But its idea that lowering duty on alcohol and cigars by 50 per cent will entice foreigners shows a lack of appreciation of what are the primary considerations of the people it is targeting, especially those with families.

However, it appears that it doesn’t want the foreigners to stay. It hasn’t relaxed restrictions on foreigners owning property. Nor is the government facilitating a path to citizenship. So few skilled foreigners are likely to commit long-term.

At the same time, the government is doing little to build up the skills of Thais to meet current and future employer needs. Without this, many Thais will be denied the opportunity to participate in the higher-skilled economy that the government wishes to create – and the higher incomes and standards of living that this would entail. It will also perpetuate longstanding employer concerns that Thailand lacks sufficient skilled workers. Further, without a viable alternative, there will be little incentive for agricultural sector reform, an anchor on the country’s productivity.

Not yet an innovation nation

Similar weaknesses afflict the government’s plans to increase Thailand’s productivity through growing research and development (R&D). The Prayuth administrations have continued — and increased significantly — support for R&D, that was initiated by the preceding Yingluck Shinawatra government. R&D expenditure in 2017 (the latest year for which Thai data is available) exceeded one percent of GDP (Graph 2). The Prayuth government wants to double it again over the next seven years, when it aims for R&D expenditure as a proportion of GDP to reach 2.2 percent – a lofty goal, which would exceed the proportionate expenditure in 2017 of both Australia and Singapore, though not in the same league as either Japan or South Korea (Graph 3).

Graph 2: Thailand: Research and development expenditure (% of GDP)

Graph 2

Note: The World Development Indicators lacks the data for 1998, 2010, and 2012. Data sources: World Development Indicators.

Graph 3: Research and development expenditure (% of GDP)

Graph 3

Data sources: World Development Indicators.

The relatively recent decision to prioritise R&D will take years to bear much fruit. The increased expenditure under the Yingluck and Prayuth administrations has more than doubled the number of researchers involved in R&D per million people from 539 in 2011 to 1,350 in 2017 – a remarkable increase in just six years that demonstrates the effectiveness of smart policy interventions when government has the will. Still, Thailand lags behind more advanced economies in terms of the proportion of its population working as R&D researchers (Graph 4).

Graph 4: Researchers in R&D (per million people)

Graph 7
Data sources: World Development Indicators.

And it is probably too soon to see an economic return on the investment in such a short timeframe. Certainly, the increased R&D spending is associated with a rise in the number of published scientific and technical journals as a proportion of its population – albeit from a very low base. However, there is no discernible trend yet in the proportional number of patent applications (Graph 5) that could be expected as a country transitions to a more knowledge-based, higher-value economy. And Thailand still lags behind more prosperous regional countries on at least two measures of R&D outcomes (Graphs 6 and 7)

Graph 5: Research and development – indicators of progress

Graph 5

Data sources: World Development Indicators.

Graph 6: Scientific and technical journal articles per one million people in 2018

Graph 6

Data source: World Development Indicators.

Graph 7: Patent applications per million residents

Graph 7

Notes: No data available for Myanmar. Japan had 1,943 patent applications per million people (2019); South Korea 3,319 (2019). Data source: World Development Indicators.

This is to be expected, as there is a lag between increasing R&D expenditure and patent applications, if Singapore’s experience over the past twenty years is anything to by. It will likely take a decade or more of sustained and increasing R&D expenditure for Thailand to approach its more prosperous neighbours as a knowledge-based economy.

It’s a similar story with Thailand’s tertiary education sector. In October, the government said it wanted several Thai universities to be ranked amongst the world’s top 100 by 2031. However, not one of three well-known world university rankings: Times Higher EducationQuacquarelli Symonds, and Shanghai Ranking rank a Thai institution in the top 200; and one doesn’t place a Thai university in its top 500.  It will be a Herculean task to raise just one university — let alone several — more than one hundred places in a competitive ranking in just ten years.

Moreover, this focus on higher education aspirations ignores the need for qualitative improvements in Thailand’s school system. As noted, schools are not equipping a large number of Thais with the skills that today’s manufacturers are looking for, let alone the future, higher-value, higher-technology industries which the Prayuth government wants. Nor are the schools providing students the critical thinking skills needed if Thai universities are to compete successfully with their international counterparts. Without a strong foundation, the government’s plans to attract high-value manufacturing with an internationally competitive tertiary education sector seem destined to fall short.

Craig Keating is a former senior analyst with Australia’s Office of National Assessments (ONA).

Banner image: Thai government teacher and students. Credit: Shutterstock.