How did we get here? A 20-year retrospective (continued)
Social outcomes: Improved access without the quality
We start with education. People have been getting much improved access to education. The percentage of relevant population completing secondary education increased from 41% to 64% between 1999 and 2012. The percentage completing tertiary (vocational or university) education has more than doubled, from 14% to 33% over the same period.
The problem now is quality. The OECD administers a well-known test for secondary students across more than 70 countries called Programme for International Student Assessment – PISA (15). Thailand’s students have been scoring progressively worse in all the 3 areas covered by PISA: math, science, and reading. The problem is mirrored by Thailand’s own O-net educational tests. If we take a look at 4 main subjects (Thai, English, math, and science) for Por. 6, Mor. 3, and Mor. 6 (the equivalents of grades 6, 9, and 12), they show that scores have dropped in almost every subject across almost every age group with few exceptions: Thai for Por. 6 and Mor. 3 and English for Por. 6.
The quality problem is reflected not just by educational tests, but also by the market. Schools and universities are not producing the kind of skills sought by the market. Real wages have been fairly stagnant across all educational levels for quite some time. The returns to education (the wage premium that better educated workers get relative to less educated ones) typically increases as a country gets more developed as an increasing premium is put on skills. But quite strikingly in Thailand, the returns to education have been relatively flat over time and recently slightly dropped from 1.5 in 2001 to 1.4 in 2010. Not surprisingly, an increasing proportion of university graduates end up working in clerical rather than professional positions. Over the past decade, the percentage of new college graduates working as professionals dropped from 40% to 28%, while those working in clerical positions rose from 22% to 30%. (16 )
The problem isn’t inadequate budget. Thailand spends 4% of GDP on education, higher than Singapore (3%) (17). The Ministry of Education is the ministry that gets the highest budget allocation (22% of total spending), about 3 times the Ministries of Public Health, Labor, and Commerce combined. Its annual budget has increased by nearly 200 billion baht and has more than doubled over the past 10 years. The question is what we—and our students—have been getting for all these taxpayer resources.
In the area of health, basic outcomes have improved. We live a bit longer. Since 1990, our life expectancy has increased by about 2 years to 74 years, a little less than that of Vietnam (75). People in a lot of other countries live longer than we do. Our life expectancy used to be the 46th highest in the world, but now we are down to the 81st. (18) Infant mortality has dropped markedly (19). The incidence of diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV has dropped off somewhat from their peaks. The number of households that go bankrupt due to health care expenditures has dropped dramatically, thanks to broader health insurance coverage. (20)
But quality of access remains uneven. The number of physicians and hospital beds per 100,000 populations in Bangkok is about 5 times and 4 times that of the Northeast, respectively. The same goes for advanced medical equipment. There are 12 times more MRIs per 100,000 people and 3 times more dialysis machines in Bangkok than in the Northeast.
But perhaps most worrisome on the social front are the problems associated with our youth. 40% of children are not living with (both) their parents: 17% are in single parent households and 23% are living with other relatives. The average annual number of criminal cases committed by minors and juveniles has increased by 40% since 1996. Most of these cases have been drug-related. It is not just our youth that are having problems, but also the children of our youth. In just 2011 alone, a staggering 114,000 kids were born to teen moms.
(15) PISA is an international study which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students.
(16) SCB Insight Report (2011), "How businesses will need to adapt to the changing workforce?"
(17) Educational Statistics (2011), Office of the Education Council
(18) World Bank, TFF analysis
(19) World Bank
(20) Report on health of Thai people, 2013, Thai Health Promotion Foundation