Education in Thailand’s Deep South: not a secular matter

If the Thai government wants its education reforms to succeed, it must collaborate with local religious institutions, an expert has argued. Yet Thailand’s new constitution deliberately eradicates the role of local religion in the country’s education system.
Currently, at least 2,103 tadika (Muslim primary schools) operate in Thailand’s southern border provinces, in which some 204,550 students are enrolled. There are a further 473 pondok (akin to a middle schools), schooling some 44,648 students. 
 
Previous Thai governments have recognised the crucial role of local religious organisations in schooling Thailand’s youth through initiatives such as funds to support their work.
 
But Thailand’s newly promulgated constitution has deviated from past constitutions in omitting a role for local religious organisations in administering education.
 
Section 54 Clause 3 of the new constitution prescribes that, “The government must ensure that the people receive the education that they desire at various levels, while also promoting life-long learning. The government will co-operate with local government and the private sector to administer education at all levels”. 
 
There is no mention of religious organisations, in contrast to the 2007 Constitution whose Section 80 Clause 4 clearly reads, “The government must promote and support decentralisation so that local governments, religious institutions and the private sectors have a role in administering education”.
 
With no role for these institutions in the land’s highest laws, religious educators have been left wondering whether they can expect any support from the government in the future. The role of local educators may be all the more vital with the new constitution also bringing cuts to universal education. 
 
While the 2007 Constitution provided for free education until a student’s 6th year of high school, the new constitution only promises fee-free learning until a student’s 3rd year of high school.
 
The new constitution comes as Thailand’s education system is increasingly criticised by international rankings. According to the 2017 results of Thailand’s own national standardised ‘O-Net’ testing, the average student failed four out of five exams. This year only 10 Thai universities made Times Higher Education’s annual top 300 tertiary institutions, with 6 of the 10 having fallen in rank since last year. 
 
Pol Col Tawee Sodsong, the former secretary of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre and current advisor to the Prime Minister, is one person who has submitted concerns over the constitution to the junta’s Education Reform Committee. The Committee has been given a two year timeframe to draft laws and reforms related to improving the country’s education system. 
 
On 12 April 2017, Tawee outlined the unique culture of education in the Deep South that makes local religious institutions crucial to the administration of education. The public talk was given to make the 10th anniversary of the Centre for Islamic and Arab Studies at Princess of Naradhiwas University.
 
 
Pol Col Tawee gives the public talks at Princess of Naradhiwas University.
 
In the Deep South where Islam predominates, students from kindergarten until university are likely to follow a religious curriculum (emphasising, for instance, Islamic studies and language) alongside a general curriculum. For example, it is common for primary school students to attend school from Monday to Friday, and study religion at a mosque-based centre on Saturday and Sunday. 
 
While there are seven public and two private universities in Thailand’s Deep South, it is not uncommon for students to pursue tertiary education in other countries with large Muslim populations. One reason for the student outflow is that tertiary education as it currently stands in the Deep South may be failing to tangibly improve career prospects. 
 
According to the 2015 First ASEAN Youth Inter-Dialogue, students in the Deep South reported viewing the public service as one of the few available routes to channel their higher education qualifications, but such positions are few and far between. Tertiary study seems disconnected from the Deep South’s economic reality, where agriculture continues to dominate.
 
Disappointed graduates seeking work abroad may be limited again to unqualified jobs. The cause seems once again rooted in the border provincial local education system. For students hoping to study and work abroad — and for foreign students coming to the border provinces — qualification and credit transference  is difficult since there have been few efforts to harmonise local curriculums with the education systems of neighbouring countries.
 
Despite the problems embedded in the Deep South’s education system, Tawee views religious education institutions as key to the region’s development. First, Tawee argues that education in the border regions should be made relevant to local context, with coursework oriented towards solving social issues. Princess of Naradhiwas University, for instance, was originally born from a collection of agricultural, technology, medical and vocational colleges.
 
Second, Tawee stresses the importance of streamlining local education with international standards so that foreign qualifications can be transferred easily. On one hand, students must be supported to pursue education abroad. On the other hand, Tawee believes the Thai government should invest in the Princess of Naradhiwas University as it — and the broader Deep South region — has the potential to itself be a knowledge hub in the Islamic world. Tawee points out the high volumes of Muslim students coming from both other Thai provinces and other Southeast Asian countries to study in the Deep South.
 
For Tawee, the Deep South’s religious institutions are membered by countless intellectuals with deep local connections able to lead a reinvigoration of education in the region. But with Thailand’s new constitution leaving no room for religion in education, the future of pondok, tadika and other local organisations is unclear. 
 
 
A pondok school in Pattani Province (Photo from Muslim Thaipost)