University autonomy prompts concern over student fees

Thailand’s government is continuing to allow universities more autonomy, claiming that this will deliver administrative flexibility and freedom from state bureaucracy. But it faces opposition from students and academics concerned about fees and lack of accountability.

Last month the Thai parliament approved the first readings of three bills that make the three main universities in Bangkok – Thammasat, Kasetsart and Suan Dusit Rajabhat – autonomous bodies, granting executive and administrative power to their councils instead of the universities being subject to the Ministry of Education, as they currently are.

The bills mean that the universities will no longer be guaranteed state funding subsidies per student, as financial responsibility will fall on the universities, but they will receive an annual block grant from the state budget.

Among Thailand’s 172 universities, there are 15 universities that are already autonomous and 65 state universities. The rest are private institutions, community colleges or institutes.

“The goal of making universities autonomous bodies has nothing to do with having more independence or flexibility,” claimed Kengkij Kitirianglarp, a lecturer in the sociology faculty at Chiangmai University, which became autonomous in 2008.

“The state pushes the financial burden on the university to administrate, so that the state becomes less responsible for peoples’ education,” he told University World News.

Kengkij said that since autonomous universities receive block grants instead of per-student state subsidies, they are driven to earn additional income by opening profitable ‘special’ (commercial) programmes and recruiting more students, while facilities and lecturer numbers remain the same. This unavoidably affects the quality of education.

Statistics compiled by the ThaiPublica website show that after King Mongkut Institute of Technology, Ladkrabang, became an autonomous body in 2008, student fees increased by around 40%.

Burapha University, which also became autonomous in 2008, has raised fees by at least 40% and student numbers have doubled, with around half of them enrolling on commercial programmes. It has been speculated that the university might decrease student numbers on ‘normal’ courses while increasing intakes for commercial programmes.

Pakorn Areekul is a former leader of the Student Front against Autonomous Universities, a network of student groups at some 10 universities, which staged weekly protests early last year to oppose the autonomous university bills.

He said the bills would deprive students of guaranteed rights to education and give too much power to university councils. However, the protests did not stop parliamentarians from approving the first reading of the three bills in March.

Pakorn, a recent graduate of Burapha University, said autonomy from Thailand’s bureaucratic system could be good in terms of institutional flexibility and faster academic cooperation with other institutions.

But he called for a proper review of the bills by the university community before submitting them to parliament. Also, university councils should allow more participation by students regarding tuition fees.

“We think the university should have academic excellence, independence and quality, but it should also guarantee that all students have equal access to education,” he told University World News.

Pakorn added that student groups were preparing to submit a parallel bill to parliament, proposing a ceiling on tuition fees, more student participation in university councils and income-contingent loans.

Greater autonomy also affects university employees, including administrative staff and lecturers.

Under the autonomous structure, university staff may trade social welfare benefits – such as family-inclusive healthcare supported by the state – with a 1.7% increase in salary. Employment contracts must be renewed every one to three years, while previously people were employed until the retirement age of 60 years.

“Since the university needs to make a profit, it reduces all the ‘unnecessary’ costs, which affects employees’ job security,” said sociology lecturer Kengkij Kitirianglarp.

“It reduces the bargaining power of academics and staff in the university, which unavoidably affects academic freedom, among other things.”