Asia Takes a Crash Course in Educational Reform

Article excerpt

Southeast Asia's booming economy for decades masked deficiencies in educational systems. But now, in the wake of financial crisis, the region is bent on getting smarter faster

Asia's financial crisis may have a silver lining, at least when it comes to education. In the wake of the crisis that began in 1997, the limping Southeast Asian tigers are shoring up their educational systems to make their economies stronger and more resilient to the type of financial shock which has left the region reeling from recession.

In Thailand, a constitutional overhaul is leading to the biggest shake-up of the educational system since the days of absolute monarchy. Indonesia has introduced an emergency scholarship system. Malaysia is launching its first computerized "smart schools". And Singapore has begun a campaign to teach innovative thinking.

Despite differences among the Southeast Asian countries, a few main threads run throughout their approaches. First, these countries recognize the need for a quantum leap in basic education and skills standards in order for the labour force to regain competitiveness. Second, rote learning is giving way to a new call for creative thinking. Finally, in Thailand and Indonesia, authority over curricula and spending is being decentralized to make education more responsive to local needs.

Even before the crisis, it was clear educational systems in many cases were lagging behind economic development in Southeast Asia. For three decades these countries had ridden the crest of export-oriented economic growth. An important pillar of the growth was cheap, unskilled labour. However, in recent years countries like China, Viet Nam and India have undercut the cost of labour in Southeast Asia. This left Southeast Asia less competitive in provision of bargain-priced labour for basic manufacturing. Meanwhile, skills training was not keeping pace with the global market, making it difficult for these countries to compete in high added value industries such as information technology (IT).

In Thailand and Indonesia, though all this was apparent prior to 1997, governments dragged their feet about addressing the deficiencies. It was easier to put off much-needed reforms then because the economies were growing quickly, overall standards of living were improving and there was little pressure on governments to undertake important reform. Malaysia and Singapore have generally been forward-looking when it comes to education. The fallout of the crisis has increased their resolve to develop even more sophisticated educational systems.

Thailand revamps its constitution

"There's a link between our education and economic models," says Professor S. Gopinathan, Singapore's National Institute of Education (NIE) dean, in reference to his country's educational system. "Our economy has been based on export-led industrialization, which requires reasonably educated and obedient labour, as well as capital and markets. But the new economic paradigm will be value-added in an entirely different kind of way: the ability to use knowledge and data."

In Thailand an ambitious education reform bill, which lays the foundations for the most radical shake-up of the pedagogical system since the British-educated King Rama VI (1910-25) introduced compulsory education to the country, is set to be approved by parliament.

Deputy Education Minister Somsak Prisanantakul calls it a "turning point for Thai society", that will lead to less state dominance of education, and more public participation. It amounts to what is being called a new educational constitution, incorporating the right, enshrined in Thailand's new "people's" charter adopted in late 1997, of every Thai to 12 years of state-paid education - compared with the current average in practice of 5.3 years.

During the 30 years up to the financial crisis that began in July 1997, as per capita gross domestic product quadrupled in real terms, primary school enrolment grew from around 70 per cent to 90 per cent. …