Adaptability is key to national survival

Covid-19. Technological disruption. Climate crisis. These have happened at a rapid pace that challenges the adaptability of people around the world. Is Thailand prepared to withstand these challenges? Ask the children — the future of the country — and their answers, according to the 2018 PISA Survey of 15-year-old children around the world, are not so encouraging.

Some 63% of Thai teenagers said they could not adapt well enough when change arises, and they cannot sufficiently adjust to new cultures, which is crucial in an interconnected world. That is not all. More than half said they found it difficult to cope with pressure and interpersonal problems. The result highlighted that we are ranked 60 out of 65 countries in terms of adaptability skills.

The global pandemic severely hurt children’s education in Thailand and their peers around the world. The World Bank, Unesco and Unicef estimated that children in the Covid-19 era will lose about $17 trillion (585 trillion baht) in future earnings.

Currently, most Thai children are poorly equipped with the skills to meet the challenges ahead. In addition to low academic competence and difficulty adjusting, the pandemic has hindered Thai children’s learning even further.

School closures due to the pandemic caused students to lose more than 10% of class hours in 2020 and 18% in 2021. Student performance fell drastically, especially in English and mathematics, which are essential for job advancement.

The disparity has also widened. According to the Education Equity Fund, the number of poor children nearly doubled from 760,000 in 2019 to 1.2 million in 2021. Nearly 5,000 students in Si Sa Ket province in the Northeast, for example, do not have digital devices for online classes. Nearly 500 of them did not even have proper tables and chairs for studying at home.

The pandemic also hit the workforce hard. Unemployment among those in the 15-24 age group reached an all-time high. Income in all sectors dropped significantly as job insecurity increased.

Besides the pandemic, technological disruption has also affected the workforce, particularly from artificial intelligence (AI). A skilled workforce is not an exemption as AI technologies are used to process microfinance loans, create artwork, and produce all forms of writing in a blink of an eye; or even, in Estonia, used for settling small claim disputes.

On top of that, the climate crisis has further accelerated the need for the workforce to reskill. More than six million jobs will disappear when industries move to a low-carbon society. But the shift to renewable energy will create 24 million new jobs by 2030, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Only those with new work skills will survive the rapidly changing job markets.

Despite the government’s vow to reskill Thai workers, the statistics are dismaying. Only 309 out of 14,600 courses for higher education study to produce future workers are collaboratively designed by universities and enterprises. The courses by the Department of Skill Development similarly reflect that only 20 of 605 courses have done so.

According to the World Bank, the economic and financial potential of Thai citizens at the age of 18 far lagged behind their peers in other countries. Thailand’s human capital index is only 61%, compared to Singapore (88%), Hong Kong (81%), Japan (80%), and Vietnam (69%). It goes back to the unequal and outdated education system amid gross disparity and a culture of censorship.

Nearly half of Thai students do not finish high school. Only 3-4 % of the top 10% poorest population receives an opportunity to reach bachelor’s degrees or diplomas. Meanwhile, the top 10% richest population has 15-20 times more likely than that.

Furthermore, only some of the students in the Thai education system have a chance to be equipped with adaptability skills. TDRI researchers have found that the nation’s centralised curriculum is still largely irrelevant to real-life situations.

Besides, Thai society seems unsafe for critical thinking. According to recent political news, criticisms are viewed as a challenge to authorities that must be discouraged. Such hostility robs the young of creativity and adaptability.

These problems might bring despair, but don’t give up hope just yet. To offset the outmoded education system, Thailand needs to provide lifelong learning opportunities and spaces for people of all ages. After all, every generation is hit by the pandemic, technological disruption, and climate crisis. Everyone needs to relearn and reskill to brace for change.

The answer to the rigid school system is lifelong learning spaces that are modern, open, safe for new thinking, and relevant to real-life situations.

To be relevant, these new learning channels must be responsive to the needs and interests of people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities. Instead of restricting learning to schools, each city must make use of existing spaces, including parks, historical sites, libraries, or even nearby streets and neighbourhoods for people to learn. These learning spaces must be open and safe enough for people to question authorities and push for change.

The challenge is how to make all this happen when nearly 40% of Thai students have not visited outside-school learning spaces. Most of them said these venues were too far away, and they were too tied up with school. That’s why local governments have a crucial role in designing and implementing learning ecosystems.

The example of the project “Whole City” in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, highlights sufficient infrastructure that enhances learning. Classroom members can use public transport for free to explore outside-school learning spaces. The students learn by exploring the topics relevant to their lives outside the classroom, with teachers acting as facilitators, not as owners of knowledge.

Another example is the city of Suwon in South Korea, which has more than 600 lifelong learning centres for people of all ages and interests to learn or share their expertise. The city has over 20 arts and cultural centres and over 118 modern libraries. The people also have a voice in the planning and use of their learning spaces which, on average, are only 10 minutes from their homes.

How do Bangkok and other cities in Thailand follow suit? First of all, allocate a sufficient budget. Next, adjust learning goals with the aim of equipping people with the skills to be adaptive. Importantly, allow for new thinking — make the spaces easily accessible and censorship-free. As a result, extensive learning opportunities will arise and then help close the education divide and reduce inequality.

The central government needs to overhaul the government’s outdated purchasing system and red tape so schools and learning centres can invest in modern education technology more effectively.

For example, procurement barriers for different education units to share the cost of e-learning programmes should be removed. It must also collaborate with the private sector and civil society to modernise the central curriculum and classroom teaching. With state incentives, the private sector can also fill the gap by creating public learning centres to share their expertise with society.

Thailand is stuck in an autocratic culture and intolerance that stifles free thinking. The media can help break the impasse by building a safe environment for open discussions to foster tolerance and respect for differences.

The challenge ahead is immense. But if there are enough alternative learning spaces to help people open to new ideas, dare to face the challenge, and learn from mistakes so they can grow, then there is hope yet for Thailand.

Article by Charika Channuntapipat and  Pongtat Vanichanan

Charika Channuntapipat, PhD, is a Research Fellow and Pongtat Vanichanan is a Senior Researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).

First Publish: Bangkok Post on 4 JAN 2023

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