Surprise election results renew hope for education reform

Outdated teaching and curricula and other legacies of Thailand’s authoritarian past will hopefully fade away in schools and universities, following the surprise electoral victory of Thailand’s Move Forward Party which, among other issues, campaigned for radical changes to Thai education.

Riding a wave of support from millions of young voters, Thailand’s Move Forward Party emerged the unexpected winner of elections held on 14 May, beating even political powerhouses that dominated Thai politics in the past decades: the military-backed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on one side, and the well-financed opposition Pheu Thai Party on the other.

Move Forward secured 151 of the 500 seats in Thailand’s lower house of parliament, according to preliminary results from the election commission. Pheu Thai Party, led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, which has been Thailand’s main opposition party for the past two decades, came second with 141 seats, leaving the pro-military parties trailing.

In addition to promises to bring radical changes to Thai education – from ending corporal punishment and freeing teachers from the drudgery of numerous duties unrelated to teaching – Move Forward campaigned for the reform of draconian lèse majesté laws that protect the Thai royal family from criticism, even from interpretations by academic historians.

Youth and students

Change to the law was a key demand of the youth and student-led 2020 pro-democracy movement.

Several activists who led the pro-democracy protests in 2020 were Move Forward candidates and won seats in the election, among them Chonticha Jangrew. The activist-turned-lawmaker said she was “shocked” by the results. “I didn’t think we’d have that many votes,” Chonticha said. “I suppose right now many people really want to see changes.”

She credited the party’s victory partly to university students, many of whom had taken part in the street demonstrations in 2020 and who reached voting age for the first time this year. While their number alone wasn’t a decisive factor, Chonticha maintains the students played a big role in swaying their older peers and family members.

“They weren’t just voters; they also helped push others to support Move Forward’s agendas,” Chonticha said.

The Move Forward win “is a big move [forward]”, said Athapol Anunthavorasakul, who teaches at Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of education. Reforms, many of them aimed at primary and secondary education, will likely reverberate through the hallways of colleges and universities in the long term, he told University World News.

Move Forward has promised to ‘revolutionise education’ through a set of 20 policies. While some are pledges also found in other party platforms – such as free tuition, free school lunch, bilingual education, a sufficient budget for every school and transparency in spending – others reflect the Move Forward’s self-branding as a leading bastion of progressivism.

Its policies include ending violence in schools, abolishing rituals like flag-honouring ceremonies, introducing student councils and forcing school regulations to comply with human rights.

Haircut rules, uniforms even for university students and copycat militarism introduced during junta rule in the 1970s and continued for decades, could become a thing of the past. Students still stand ramrod straight every morning to honour the national anthem, while teachers patrol in search of dress code infractions; violators often have their hair sheared on the spot.

Social hierarchy and submission to ‘those in higher places’ are taught as an inseparable part of Thai identity. Disobedient students, sometimes as young as four, are slapped or beaten in front of the class, to set an example.

Social democracy lens

Athapol said its platform set Move Forward apart from other election contenders – even from some of its allies – by approaching education as a public good, rather than a profit-driven enterprise or a means of training students for future job markets.

“We can see that Move Forward views education through the lens of social democracy,” he said, adding that he hoped the party would inject this approach into higher education and challenge the perception that universities only exist as an investment for future careers.

“Higher education in recent years has come to be seen as a labour market. It’s all KPI [key performance indicators] nowadays,” Athapol said. “Students who cannot afford tuition are told to rely on student loans. They are told that if they don’t have money for [higher education], they have to take out loans and pay for it themselves.”

“The government has to invest in fields that do not necessarily benefit the job market in a tangible way, like philosophy, drama and lesser-known languages. The government needs to find incentives for people to enrol in these fields, to keep those arts and sciences alive,” he said.

Benefits to higher education

Although Move Forward’s election pledges do not directly deal with higher education, apart from a vow for the government to disclose past college admission exam papers so students can prepare better, Tanawat Suwannapan, a public school teacher who also runs an education reform advocacy group, said the party’s policies on primary and secondary education will benefit students when they reach universities.

“In my opinion, if Move Forward manages to reform basic education, it will also affect the quality of university students,” Tanawat said. “Many university students in our country lack a solid grounding. The skills of researching information, analysing and critical thinking – all these are only taught for the first time during a bachelor’s degree.

“So the quality of our students isn’t as good as it should be, and once they graduate, they get a job that’s way below their degree [qualification].”

As yet, it is unclear whether Move Forward or one of its allied parties will take control of the all-powerful education ministry.

Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat said at a news conference on 18 May that cabinet posts will be decided later, without specifying a timescale.

“It is not the time for that discussion yet,” he said.

While he hopes to be prime minister, this will depend on the outcome of coalition talks with other parties to reach the 376-seat threshold required to secure the premiership.

Education: A ‘gargantuan bureaucracy’

Tanawat noted that the first – and perhaps biggest – obstacle to fulfilling Move Forward’s education pledges is a gargantuan bureaucracy. Nearly 30,000 schools and 400,000 teachers nationwide are overseen directly by the ministry of education. It is beset by bloated spending, policy shortfalls and fierce turf wars among bureaucrats.

It’s no surprise, Tanawat said, that the ministry post is seen by politicians as unattractive. “The ministry of education has been a major challenge for many governments in the past,” he said. “Politicians have always regarded it as a B-grade ministry … it’s a bureaucracy that’s highly centralised and resistant [to change].”

But he believes if they are put in charge of the ministry, Move Forward, with its energetic, youthful visionaries who prioritise the welfare of teachers and students, will manage to shake it up and force meaningful reform. He noted that politicians from past administrations had preferred to compromise with high-ranking civil servants.

“I think Move Forward has a way to change it from within, because teachers within the system also see the problems, and they’ve seen that Move Forward is aware of those problems,” said Tanawat, who publicly endorsed the party in the 14 May election.

The ‘guts’ to make changes

“Of course, we’ve seen what students learn in class; they are force-fed state ideologies, but no one had the guts to root it out. I believe that Move Forward will have the guts to confront it, and design the best education models for the students.”

Chulalongkorn’s Athapol also welcomed Move Forward’s bid to tackle the rigid hierarchy that plagues Thai education, but he warned that any overzealous attempt at reforms, no matter how well intentioned, could backfire.

He pointed to the party’s novel proposal to have school directors’ performance assessed by the teachers, and the teachers assessed by their students – replacing the current norm of a non-negotiable, top-down assessment, a common problem for many teachers.

He warned the new system might be abused by teachers who hold petty grudges against their supervisors or, say, students who dislike teachers that assign them homework. That’s why it’s important for the party to clearly communicate the principles of empowerment and participatory democracy behind those proposed reforms to educators and students alike, he added.

“Thai society hasn’t had a conversation about this for a long time now. We can’t even agree on how to teach our [country’s] history! This is supposed to be a shared vision for our country, so the party shouldn’t [be in a] hurry to set down any direction yet.

“Let’s discuss the directions together. It might take longer than they planned; all this can’t be achieved within a year, but it’s worth it.”