Woefully underprepared

Originally published with The Nation on 13th June 2017

Last month, schools across Thailand began a new academic year. 

The new school year brings with it new friends, new teachers and new experiences, but one aspect of school life will remain unchanged: the outdated and ineffective system of teaching, learning and assessment, so appalling it now threatens to abandon children in a previous century, implying a “Thailand 0.4” instead of the government’s dream of a national reboot.

The failings of the education system have been well documented, with the country consistently ranking poorly in international reports. Traditionally, graduates from Thailand’s substandard education system were at least guaranteed some form of employment, as the country positioned itself as a hub for low-cost labour. As such, official unemployment figures remained low and the country was able to employ Thai Lao or Lao and Myanmar migrant immigrants to fill the more dangerous occupations such as construction and fishing.

Unfortunately, the rise of robotics and automation will drastically reduce global demand for low-cost labour, as machines take over a vast range of occupations, operating more cheaply and more efficiently than people. This seismic economic shift, which has already begun, will have a huge impact on the economy, employment and social stability. Unless Thailand’s education system is radically reformed for the 21st century, millions of former students will soon be unemployed and unemployable.

It had been predicted that the robotics revolution would impact developed countries before affecting developing nations, with their low labour costs. However there is increasing realisation that countries like Thailand, which rely on low-cost labour, will be some of the hardest hit by the next industrial revolution. The World Bank predicts automation will wipe out two-thirds of all jobs in developing countries. A recent report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) concluded that in Southeast Asia, approximately 56 per cent of all salaried employment in Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam is at risk in the next 20 years.

The ILO report suggests labour-intensive sectors such as textiles, clothing and footwear, which employ millions of Southeast Asian workers, will be the hardest hit. The Asean Economic Community’s automotive industry, employing more than 800,000 workers, was also identified as a sector set to be hugely disrupted by the rise of artificial intelligence. In Thailand, the “Detroit of Southeast Asia”, the automotive sector accounts for around 10 per cent of gross domestic product and employs 10 per cent of manufacturing employees. With robots becoming better at assembly, cheaper, and increasingly sophisticated, over 70 per cent of workers are at high risk of losing work.

Deborah France-Massin, director of the ILO’s Bureau for Employers’ Activities, urges AEC countries to prepare for these changes: “Countries that compete on low-wage labour need to reposition themselves. Policymakers need to create a more conducive environment that leads to greater human capital investment, research and development, and high-value production.”

And it is no longer just manufacturing that is threatened by automation. New technologies will threaten more skilled employment, as well as work in the service sector, jeopardising millions of jobs previously considered safe from automation. Banking and retail will see unprecedented changes as machines replace humans. Self-service cash registers, already common at retail outlets in Europe and North America, will become a familiar sight in Thailand.

Students entering this new economic environment need to have the relevant knowledge and skills to remain competitive. The rise of automation and robotics will provide opportunities for the educated and skilled. Organisations will need tech-savvy individuals to monitor, programme and fix robots’ work. Individuals with the necessary skills to write computer code and programme technology will be sought to develop the next generation of software, applications and artificial intelligence.

Globally, there is a huge shortage of graduates with computer engineering skills. Developed nations are keenly aware they need more graduates with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills. For this reason, the US and much of Europe have made significant investments in promoting STEM education at schools and universities.

AEC neighbours Singapore and Vietnam are much better prepared for the next industrial revolution than Thailand. Both countries have significantly improved education systems which rank highly in international benchmarking. Students’ tech abilities and STEM skills are also high in these countries, along with an entrepreneurial spirit.

The Thai regime’s economic model “Thailand 4.0” is intended to make the country a hub for innovation and high technology. This “master plan” has been promoted to help the country escape the middle-income trap and become a competitive provider of technological hardware and services. However, without massive investment in STEM education, it is nothing more than a pipe dream.

The only progress towards providing students with relevant 21st-century skills has come from a handful of leading universities, demonstration schools and private schools. Unfortunately, opportunities for students to develop STEM skills are only being offered to a small elite of mainly Central Thai and urban students.

The majority of Thai children continue to be educated in a 19th-century system that requiring submission and conformity. It was designed to produce a workforce for factories. This helped create a low-cost, low-skilled workforce that attracted foreign manufacturers.

Unfortunately, for the next industrial revolution, workers need to be unlike robots, otherwise they will simply be replaced by automation. Today’s learners have to acquire 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving and creativity – the basis of STEM skills.

The government must accept the urgent responsibility for revolutionising education and human capital and radically update the country’s education system, overhauling the Ministry of Education. Ignoring this imminent economic transformation, with the immense social and economic repercussions, will have dire economic and social consequences.

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