Junta moves to tackle university governance problems

The Thai government has invoked Section 44 of the country’s interim constitution, which gives it sweeping powers “for the sake of reforms in any field”, to deal with chronic problems afflicting a number of universities, raising fears that the autonomy long enjoyed by higher education institutions is under threat.

The move came after a decision in July by the head of the Junta, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, to invoke Section 44 under the interim constitution which came into being after the military coup of May 2014, to allow the Ministry of Education to intervene in university affairs.

The latest interventions occurred last month when the Education Ministry took over the administration of two public universities, Burapha University in eastern Chonburi Province and Rajamangala University of Technology Tawan-ok, with four campuses – two in Bangkok and others in Chonburi and Chanthaburi – following protracted disputes over the selection of university rectors.

“Some university councils have taken advantage of legal loopholes to seek to promote their own personal interest or to remain in position. There have been cases of harassment against opponents which resulted in several law suits. Such problems have obstructed authorised actions and education reform procedure,” said the 3 October announcement by the National Council for Peace and Order, as the military government is called.

It gives the Education Ministry the power to appoint a special committee comprising five to 15 members to investigate and annul the university’s governing council decisions and even to suspend student recruitment activities.

Education Minister Dapong Ratanasuwan said Section 44 gave the ministry the freedom to deal directly with university problems. “Section 44 now has given us the power, so from now on every problematic institute will have to adjust and improve,” he said in June, according to the Bangkok Post.

Under these powers, the Education Ministry dissolved the university councils at the institutions, replacing them with special panels directly under the ministry to oversee all administrative operations and to determine a process to pick the university chief.

In some cases, university staff themselves sought state intervention. A dispute over the rector’s position led a group of Burapha University lecturers and staff to petition the government to invoke Section 44. Earlier this year, disagreements over the academic qualifications of lecturers at another public university led to the murder of two lecturers as well as a suicide.

However, in the case of Rajamangala University of Technology Tawan-ok’s Uthen Thawai campus, the ministry involvement was reportedly opposed by the acting deputy rector, Seubpong Moungchou, on the grounds that the government-appointed special panels might not resolve the institution’s problems either.

Sweeping powers

Section 44 of the interim constitution which came into being some weeks after the military coup in May 2014, allows the head of the National Council for Peace and Order to issue an order to restrain and perform any action deemed necessary, regardless of whether such an action interferes with legislative, executive or judicial force. Such orders are deemed “lawful, constitutional and final”.

Thai public and private universities have previously enjoyed autonomy, separating the administration of higher education institutions from the state. Each public university was governed by its own university act.

The university council was the supreme administrative body responsible for all campus affairs including the appointment of the rector, budgeting, asset management and developing curricula. The Education Ministry’s involvement was restricted to recognising university programmes and curricula.

Burapha University and Rajamangala University of Technology Tawan-ok are not the first to have their autonomy stripped. In July, Chaiyaphum Rajabhat University and Surin Rajabhat University suffered the same fate – due to long-standing conflicts over the selection of their respective rectors.

Private universities have not been immune. In January, the ministry invoked Section 86 of the Private University Act to set up a panel to act as a university council of Assumption University, a private Catholic university with three campuses, in Bangkok, Samut Prakan Province and Hua Mak, following a long conflict and management crisis at the university.

Assumption University saw disruption to teaching during weeks of factional disputes, alleged assaults and intimidation over who had the right to supervise the university after the incumbent rector, Bancha Saenghiran, a Catholic priest, was temporarily suspended by the university council in June.

During the dispute, banks reportedly suspended payments into the accounts of university staff, as it was unclear who had the power to authorise payments at the university.

The situation was resolved by August by the special panel which took control of the university for several months. Once resolved the panel said it would withdraw and hand back control of the university to the Catholic foundation that set up the institution.

Mixed reaction

The response to the Education Ministry’s action was mixed with some warning of a long-term negative impact.

Kamjorn Tatiyakavee, permanent secretary at the Education Ministry, said Section 44 was a temporary measure under the interim constitution. The long-term solution lies with a new Higher Education Bill currently being considered by the National Legislative Assembly which would, among other things, increase the ministry’s power to intervene in university problems.

The new constitution, once drafted, will replace the interim constitution, including Section 44, with university affairs regulated under the new Higher Education Bill. Several higher education institutions and some academics oppose the bill saying it will have a negative impact on academic freedom.

Pawit Thongroj, former secretary-general of the Office of the Higher Education Commission, which oversees the sector, told local media he agreed with the new decision because the problems in the university system persisted despite outside monitoring. To him the new bill can provide long-term solutions and support higher education reform.

“The checking mechanisms can’t cope with university problems. We rely totally on university councils to act but the council has become part of the problem itself. The question is who will take responsibility,” he said.

However, Surichai Wan-kaew, professor emeritus at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, warned against the use of Section 44 and its negative impact on the intellectual autonomy of the university. He believed that university problems can still be addressed through existing laws and regulations.

“Some people asked for government intervention because some universities created problems and did not try to solve them. I am afraid that while Section 44 may help solve immediate problems, it may result in long-term damage as well. The universities will gradually lose their autonomy, which is crucial for them to perform as an intellectual instrument of the society,” he told University World News.

Thailand has 170 public and private universities. According to Education Permanent Secretary Kamjorn Tatiyakavee, about 10% – nearly 20 universities – are facing critical problems that need immediate action. Of them, 11 universities have been found to be recruiting more students than they are permitted. The rest face problems of alleged corruption, lack of good governance and conflict among administrative members, he said in an interview with local media.