Higher Education in Thailand
Policy borrowing is a major topic in field of comparative education. On the surface the idea is relatively simple: one group of policy makers borrow the ideas of other policy makers to improve a system of education. This usually is described as borrowing “best practices.” But the work of many comparative education researchers has shown that who borrows what policy and for what reason is much more complex. We cannot, as Michael Sadler warned in 1900, assume a picked flower in one part of the world will blossom in soil at home. My guest today, Rattanna Lao, dives head first into the debates on policy borrowing in her new book, A Critical Study of Thailand’s Higher Education Reforms: The Culture of Borrowing, which was published earlier this year by Routledge.
She argues that although the Thai state has always been an active borrower of western ideas, the perseverance of a ‘Thai-ness’ discourse has often been used to suggest its so-called independence and idiosyncrasy.
Rattana Lao received a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and is currently a lecturer at Pridi Banomyong International College, Thammasat University in Thailand.
Citation: Rattana Lao, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 7, podcast audio, December 7, 2015. https://freshedpodcast.com/rattanalao/
Will Brehm 1:36
Rattana Lao, welcome to FreshEd.
Rattana Lao 1:38
Will Brehm 1:40
Your newest book looks at policy borrowing in higher education, Thailand. You specifically look at about the last 100 years of the development in higher education. Before we talk about the more recent developments in higher education, could you just explain what the system of education looked like in Thailand, historically, maybe before modernization, and westernization, and globalization?
Rattana Lao 2:08
Yes, actually, before education as we call it today is very, very recent development. It’s actually 100 years old. But before it, education happened at two levels: one, at the palace. So, like the elites and the nobility would go in the palace and study things inside the palace. And for the commoners, education happened at the temples, and mostly they learned about Buddhist texts or local medicines or local tradition. So that was before we had a concept of what school is.
Will Brehm 2:45
And so in the late 1800s to about the 1950s, you call that period, the “period of modernization”. What happened at this time in higher education? What were the developments that define this moment?
Rattana Lao 3:01
Like I said before, education came through the businessation processes, when Thailand wanted to modernize. And the modernization of education happened, actually before higher education itself. So when King Chulalongkorn wanted to modernize the country, he created a few schools, the Royal Pages School. Those weren’t higher education. So it was just education for the elite and nobilities in order to become like modern civil servants. But then in 1916, the first university was established. So this was after quite a few years of secondary and primary education in Thailand. And it was during this time that the existing professional schools that existed before came together and became Chulalongkorn University. Chulalongkorn then had four faculties: the faculties of art and science, engineering, public administration and medicine. You can see that all of these faculties are related to civil servants’ missions. And they were very linked to ministries. And all the classes were taught by foreign professors. And they were very teaching intensive. You have to see that before 1916, before Chulalongkorn was established, most of the elites and the princes went to Europe for higher education. So there were people who were educated through higher education, but it wasn’t in Thailand. And during this time, the purpose was clearly to train the elite to become modern civil servants. So the elites who could not afford it, who didn’t go to Europe, and access was very limited. But 20 years later, we had a second University, which was Thammasat University. It was created in 1934, and this university was created after the transition of the absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy. So now the concept of university changed from training the elites to train the mass. At the same time, there were three more universities created before 1950s, which were all located in Bangkok, and all were linked with different ministries. So this was before 1950s. Things were still very elitist, very limited, and everything was linked to the creation of civil servants.
Will Brehm 5:36
And after that, after the 1950s, you say that there was this massification of the university system. How did the university expand? And why did it expand? Did it change its focus of elite civil servant training?
Rattana Lao 5:54
Yes, it expanded in several ways. And we have to understand that such expansion came from the involvement of American influences in Thai politics and economic as a whole. So we shifted from a focus to European elitism to American massification. And such expansion happened in different levels. One is in terms of location. So, before this period, as I said before, all of the universities were in Bangkok. Now three universities were created in the regional area, such as Chiang Mai University in the north, Khon Kaen University in the North East, and Prince of Songkla University in the south. And then in terms of access, the creation of new universities allowed access to expand tremendously from like, in 1965, we had only 2% of gross national enrolment ratio. But the current number until the present is nearly 30%. And we also witnessed the creation of two Open Universities in Bangkok. So now this is another change because before this, all universities were “limited access”; the students had to go through very competitive entrance examination, and receipts were linked to the numbers of human resources needed by each ministry. But this period, that is an increase of access and increase of opportunities available, and it also includes a provider. Because in 1969, the private education act was promulgated. Up until that point, only the public university was a function. But now, the private became involved in higher education. And in terms of the subject areas, we also saw massification of interest as well, because there were more subjects that are not that were not related to the need of the civil servants. So they were more comprehensive universities, there were more universities that focus on technologies, there were more courses on business during this period.
Will Brehm 8:04
What type of American influences did you find during this period?
Rattana Lao 8:10
The most evident example is the creation of comprehensive university. Of the three regional universities I mentioned before, because before this period, universities in Thailand, each university had a characteristic to be linked with a particular ministry. For example, Mahidol was linked to the Ministry of Health, or Thammasat was linked to political and legal aspects. But then the influence of American comprehensive universities redefined the concept of what university should be. So university should teach courses beyond the interests of the state. There should be teaching more on business. There should be teaching more on the arts. All in one place. So, the concept of comprehensive university was very new to Thailand at that time.
Will Brehm 9:04
And how did these influences travel to Thailand? Is there a person that brought them over, or many people?
Rattana Lao 9:14
Actually, it happened in three levels: one at a governmental level. So during this time, Thailand received – and it was during cold war, right – so Thailand received financial aid from the US government. And there were US personnel traveling in and out of the country. And there are many interesting works on American involvement in Thailand during the Cold War. So education was no exception to that. In terms of the foundation … and Fulbright was one of the main organizations involved in sending Thai scholars abroad to the United States, as well as sending American technical assistance to Thailand. So during the 1960s, 1970s, there were nearly 7,000 Thai students going to the United States for education. So a lot of educators, particularly educators, brought back with them the concept of university in the US, and began to shift the thinking about education from European influence of creating the gentlemen and creating elite in order to create the mass and equal opportunity.
Will Brehm 10:29
And the more recent period from the 1990s, you call one of globalization and internationalization. What changes happened in the Thai higher education sector at this time?
Rattana Lao 10:41
Yes, the changes can be divided into levels, one at the ideological level. As I mentioned before, Thailand went through a Europeanization of education. And then it went through Americanization of education. But since 1990s onwards, policy papers, literally the rhetorics of global trends and global inference. So the shift of focus, instead of being a bilateral inference, it became an international point that instead of targeting particular country, it became this international trend as a concept of reference society. And at another level, two things are evident. 1990s, this is America USAID-funded policy paper, which became very important for the thinking of Thai higher education. They introduced the term of “internationalization” to Thai higher education. So there was the first time such term was introduced. And since then, there was a push to create international programs, and their push for international collaborations. As things stand, there are nearly 2,000 international programs in Thailand. So this was one of the shifts of policy, and also, the influence of international ranking on strategic thinking has become the main influence for many Thai universities. So we see that every time international ranking is announced, Thai media and leading Thai universities just use it as a goal that Thai universities need to keep moving toward. “World class university” is another term that became fixated in the mainstream thinking of Thai higher education.
Will Brehm 12:39
And this study of yours uses history to really understand the various ways in which Thailand has borrowed various policies in higher education from other countries. But also, like you said, multilaterally, more internationally. This is what we call “policy borrowing” in the field of comparative education. And you argue that it’s much more complex than this common-sensical notion of sharing best practices between, or among, nations. Can you explain what you mean by the idea or the concept of “policy borrowing”?
Rattana Lao 13:21
Yes, because normally, we believed that generally, when we talked about going to study from abroad, or policy visit from abroad, there is this assumption that we borrow, we learn, we copy from somewhere else, because it works. Because this policy is proven effective to address some kind of problem. But it doesn’t have to always be the case. Policy borrowing and lending is an analytical lane to not just describe, but also analyze why such policy traveling opposite borrowing takes place. So it can also come because of political reasons. It can happen because economic reasons, or it can also happen because of cultural reasons. So it doesn’t always have to happen because it works. And many times the literature shows that policy failures in many countries were silent when the borrowing takes place. It is being mentioned anyway, even if it doesn’t work, from the original country. So policy borrowing and lending is more interested in the more critical dimension, rather than the descriptive or the common sense notion that it works. That’s why we have to borrow it.
Will Brehm 14:35
And can you give us an example of policy borrowing, perhaps in the period of modernization: the late 1800s to the mid 1950s, or so?
Rattana Lao 14:48
Yes. So, the most important period is also the concept of education itself, is a borrowing construct during that time. And so, we witness that, for example, when you borrow something, it doesn’t happen; that’s the policy itself. It can happen from the discursive level. So during that time when Thailand wanted to modernize, and wanted to create new schools, Thai elite created the discourse that without these schools, and without this act, Thailand would be left behind, Thailand would be colonized. So the use of external trade of colonization to justify the creation of the school is one of the most evident forms of policy borrowing discursively in Thailand. And during that period, the need to become civilized, the need to become modernized, was used as a main justification for the creation of the first university, for instance.
Will Brehm 15:50
And why would certain policy elites want that outcome?
Rattana Lao 15:58
Because without which, this is also back to Gita Steiner-Khamsi work on the politics of borrowing and lending, that the creation or the use of external forces, or the reference of these external forces, create a coalition for politically contested reforms, right. So the use of bringing something from elsewhere, bring the groups together. In the case of historical development of Thailand, for example, before Rama the fifth centralized the country and created an absolutist state, the power was aggregated among great families around the court. And, in order for the King to centralize such power he used education, modern education, Western education, to bring these different groups together, and say that these different groups had to work for the nation, or had to work for the state. So the school, at that time, as a borrowed concept became the site that bring together different conflict and political interests.
Will Brehm 17:10
And it’s domestic politics we’re talking about. So there’s some domestic political issue, like the king wanting to bring a diverse group of people together, perhaps under one banner of Thai nationalism. And the ability to promote that through schools was seen, or it became easier to promote that through the borrowed concept of schools. So, it’s this domestic political issue that looks for borrowed ideas from outside, perhaps. Is that correct?
Rattana Lao 17:46
Yes. And I have to highlight that those of us who are looking at policy borrowing, focusing on what is called social logic. So, we are looking at different cultural, political and economic reasons at the local level that create fertile grounds to borrow or talk about, or bring about, or adopt, policy from elsewhere. So it’s not just you know, there are these American influences, or there are these European influences that come into Thailand, and we are passive recipient of this. But, we were active agents of borrowing and selectively borrow these ideas. Talking about selective borrowing from that period, for example, as I mentioned before, traditional education was happening in temples. So when the foreign concept of schooling came in, the Thai state didn’t have the money to create schools separately. So many of the temples’ grounds became the schools. And that’s why we have a lot of temple-related schools in Thailand, even until today. So that was another clear evidence of this selective borrowing.
Will Brehm 19:04
Would that be, would that be considered economic borrowing?
Rattana Lao 19:10
I think the rationale to bring in the school, to borrow, was politics. But the implementation of it had an economic dimension. Because I think when we talked about economic borrowing, the literature highlights more or less the aid dependency, that aspect rather than the half-hearted development that happened.
Will Brehm 19:37
And has there been any economic aid dependency in Thailand that has influenced borrowing of any sort?
Rattana Lao 19:48
During the American period, it’s more characterized as economic borrowing, because a lot of seed fundings came from American economic assistance to transform universities or to actually create new universities. So those were the period that would be more economic of borrowing.
Will Brehm 20:07
And you also use the term “culture of borrowing”. What do you mean by the culture of borrowing, as compared to the politics of borrowing, and the economics of borrowing?
Rattana Lao 20:21
So, the politics of borrowing, for example, looks at the political justifications of why borrowing takes place, right? Sometimes it happens because such borrowing process has a political benefit. As I mentioned before, it brings different coalition’s together, or it makes the context that policies at the local level, easier to be implemented. If you talked about things that happen elsewhere. And meanwhile, economics of borrowing talks about the aid dependency in developing countries, where, because the aid was coming in there for the borrowing, or the implementation takes place. Some of the work talks a lot about the economic dependencies of borrowing, which create educational divergence or convergence in various countries. So when I came to do fieldwork in Thailand, I had these two concepts in mind, and I was looking particularly at the quality assessment (QA) policy for higher education. But after interviewing and researching with more than 80 policy elites and implementers, it wasn’t one of the two that actually created the justification for QA. The most immediate aspect that people talked for the need of QA is the global trend. So they say that we need it because it’s a global trend. We need it because everyone was doing it. This word was repeated again and again, and when I read the interviews, I realized that it wasn’t just politics, or economic reasons. There is also cultural reasons. Country like Thailand shows that there are cases where policy elites give a cultural significance or policies give a cultural significance for the policies that come from Western countries, or come from what they perceive to be more developed or more civilized. So the terms culture of borrowing actually was based on earlier work of Mike Apple and Takayama, that they talked about cultural politics of borrowing, which is looking at this aspect of cultural factors that influence the decision.
Will Brehm 22:41
And would you say that it’s the culture of borrowing or the politics of borrowing or the economics of borrowing? Is it one or the other? Or is it a combination of all three that you can see in any one example?
Rattana Lao 22:56
I think it’s a combination of these three. I think they are not mutually exclusive. They are working, and they are overlapping in some cases. The cultural reason was there, but they also had a political ramification of some aspect. It was economic that began it, but because of cultural influences, or cultural factors helped to also justify it. So in the case of Thailand, even though I differentiated different periods into this each term, in the close reading of it, it’s not mutually exclusive. You can see the remnants of different things that play out.
Will Brehm 23:35
And perhaps for some future researchers that are listening to the show, how did you operationalize, or even just simply define, the concept of culture?
Rattana Lao 23:50
The concept of culture. It’s almost accepted norms or what become the logic, or what become accepted definition of that culture. Of course, different readings give you a different notion of what culture is, but in this term that I look at it, it is things that is not contested, or it is thing that being taken for, that being accepted. Because when I interviewed, when I questioned why we had to have this policy, or why different things was introduced in Thailand, when they said that everybody was doing it, there was a concept of normalized. There was not even a question … it is not even a question. So, in terms of culture, I’m not saying that 100% had to be agreed, but this is what a general norm, or the assumptions of that particular case.
Will Brehm 24:55
And so maybe you could go into this quality assessment example a little bit more deeply as a recent example of policy borrowing that has elements of the culture of borrowing that you describe?
Rattana Lao 25:09
Yes. For example, when I mentioned … Actually, you have to see quality assessment in relation to other quality policies that Thailand has. So Thailand, when I coined the terms of “cultural borrowing” for this policy, it is not just QA in a single factor. Because Thailand has quality assessment, Thailand had internal quality assurance. Thailand had qualification frameworks. And when you justify or question the policy makers, the first imminent answer is always, “Australia is doing this”, and “Japan is implementing this”. So because of this logic, that Thailand has to be at par, there is this embedded logic that Thailand wants to be at par, or being accepted as a modern civilized nation. It keeps making it easier for policymakers to just bring in different policies on top of the other with the same justification. In some societies, it might be harder to justify this logic of cultural borrowing, because there is a local resistance. But in the case of Thailand, we see, at the policy elite level, let me highlight that these policymakers find the justifications by copying or borrowing other people’s examples. Even if these policies QA to QF, all the qualification frameworks were contested at the origin countries. Of course, when we looked at Thailand as a system, not everyone agreed with the policy elites. And that’s what we struggled in the country at the moment, because there is a contrasting conception of what quality is, of what quality should be. But because there is this constant fear of falling behind, we keep introducing new forms and new indicators, to the point that no one else had the time or energy to focus on the core purpose of education. Which is teaching and research.
Will Brehm 27:17
What have been some of the biggest surprises that you uncovered putting this book together?
Rattana Lao 27:26
The biggest surprise is … I will say the one of the running thread across the chapters in this book is not that Thailand happily adopt westernization or happily adopt Americanization. There is a constant tension between two cultures, between different systems, in every policy that Thailand has embraced. So just because I say that the country is easily adopt Western concepts or Western policies, that didn’t mean that it didn’t go through conflict or negotiation or contestation. And in fact, conceptually, the culture of borrowing is built on the concept of ambivalent. That a country accepts, at the same time, resists the policy or the cultural inference. So in this case for Thailand, it shows in every policy that no matters how much the elite said we want it from abroad, that is a nationalistic sentiment, from the elite itself, to try to justify the tiniest or the Thai idiosyncratic features in everything that we do, even if QA. For QA, for example, we still have to have some indicators about how Thai we are. So, it should not suggest that Thailand is always embracing westernization, and it embraces it with a nationalistic paradox. So, my surprise is how consistent that we have maintained this paradox over 100 years.
Will Brehm 29:10
Well, we very much appreciate your contribution to the world of policy borrowing and I recommend the book highly to all the listeners out there. And Rattana Lao, thank you very much for joining FreshEd.
Rattana Lao 29:23
Thank you, Will.