Bills to ‘privatise’ four major universities passed

Thailand’s military-dominated National Legislative Assembly has passed bills granting four major public universities increased autonomy, which opponents regard as a step towards privatisation.

But the move has been criticised by students as hasty and lacking in proper scrutiny and bypassing participation from the community, including students and staff.

The four institutions, Thammasat University, Kasetsart University, Suan Dusit Rajabhat University in Bangkok and Khon Kaen University – the largest university in Northeast Thailand, the country’s poorest region– previously came under the Education Ministry and received state subsidies based on the number of students enrolled.

However, under the new regulations, passed on 8 May, they will become autonomous institutions under state supervision. They will receive an annual block grant from the state but have the autonomy to manage their finances, programmes and curriculum design, as well as campus investment.

While it is seen as a more efficient way to run universities, critics say despite the more effective management, it raises concerns about whether universities will be driven to raise income by operating commercial programmes, hiking tuition fees, or increasing the number of students per lecturer; and about transparency within the university management boards.


The day before the bill was passed on 8 May, the Student Council of Thammasat University submitted a 2,700 signature petition to the Assembly. They argued the bills needed more time and input from students who are affected by the changes.

They demanded student representation on the University Council to increase its accountability.

“We did not oppose this bill, but we want to know what we will get for what we pay. We need to voice our opinion and know which channels would be available to raise our future concerns,” said Piyapong Nimkulrat, a Thammasat Student Council representative.

Students from Kasetsart University launched a poster campaign to call on the Prime Minister to stop the implementation of the autonomy policy.

However General Narong Pittatanasai at the Education Ministry said in March, after the junta’s cabinet approved the bills, that students did not have to be consulted as it was not the first time universities were being given increased autonomy.

The bills were put forward during previous civilian governments. However, due to opposition from student activists and political unrest, they could not be passed until the current government came to power after a military coup in May 2014.

Some university lecturers have said privately that university administrators wanted to take advantage of military rule to push through their bids for increased autonomy that could increase salaries of some professors and management but reduce the benefits and terms of others. University staff are no longer civil servants under the new autonomous system.

There are currently 16 autonomous universities nationwide, while 65 remain as public universities under the Ministry of Education. In 2007 Khon Kaen University was among those set to be given autonomy by the then unelected government but had to pull back due to public opposition.

No student representation

The Thammasat University Council, which will now have the highest decision-making power in that university, will consist of 12 university representatives, including the rector, faculty representatives, deans and staff. Another 15 will be selected from external experts and eminent persons, whose terms in office can be indefinitely renewed under the bill. There is no student representation on the council.

Student Council representative Piyapong said the structure is “self-serving”, as the experts appoint the rector, with the approval of the university council, and the rector, with the university council approval, appoints the experts. Moreover, some of these experts and eminent persons have been on the council for more than 40 years, he said.

“It’s okay for them to be in power, but they should be checked and balanced. They should not hold the monopoly on power, because we need fresh perspectives for university governance to make it truly effective,” said Piyapong.

He said that although other prominent universities such as Mahidol University and Chulalongkorn University, which became autonomous in 2007 along with five other institutions, have been presented as a success, Thammasat University may be different.

Mahidol and Chulalongkorn have some stable income from associated hospitals and other properties and lands. However, Thammasat has outsourced some university management to private companies, resulting in higher prices for canteen food and university dormitory facilities, he noted.

Absolute authority

The bills were passed amid the enforcement of Article 44 of the Interim Constitution, which grants absolute power to Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the military coup, to give any order deemed necessary to maintain public peace and order.

Under this Article, the authorities can also detain anyone without warrant up to seven days, and prohibit any public gathering of more than five people.

In April, military officers disrupted and prevented a group of students from Burapha University in the coastal town of Bangsaen, Chonburi province, from organising a public forum on the autonomous university issue.

Two students were briefly detained for questioning. Burapha University itself became autonomous under a previous military government in 2008, when the bill was passed in a similarly rushed manner. Tuition fees rose significantly at the university after it was given autonomy.

Kasetsart University students said on their campaign’s Facebook page. “Whenever there is a parliament hearing about autonomous universities, it is always met with student resistance.

“But under the military rule, we cannot do anything and that’s why things get breezed through [parliament]. Many university rectors who are also sitting in the National Legislative Assembly drafted, pushed, heard and voted for the law, all by themselves.”

Others to follow

Other universities such as Silpakorn University in Bangkok and Chiang Rai Rajabhat University in Northern Thailand are on the list for the next round of hearings for autonomous universities.

Students from Chiang Rai Rajabhat University last week launched a petition to oppose the autonomous university policy, and called for more participation and transparency in the hearing process.