It is widely acknowledged that the recent economic turmoil in Thailand in part stems from lack of educational quality, which results in the country not being able to compete effectively in the global arena. Part of the reform package promised by the Government to such organizations as the World Bank and the IMF thus stipulates that educational reform be one of the priorities of reform that Thailand needs to undertake. This condition, together with the already existing calls for more efficiency and less cumbersome bureaucratic infecting the Thai university system, resulted in the guideline that each state university in Thailand should get away from the bureaucratic system while remaining public university. Chulalongkorn University thus is drafting a new Royal Act for itself in response to these calls for more efficiency and excellence. The draft law, when it is completed, will be submitted for approval by the Parliament.
It may sound strange to foreigners or those who not acquaint with the Thai way of life that Chulalongkorn is going to draft a law to govern itself by itself. But the situation would not be too strange or too self serving if the law shows clearly how Chulalongkorn positions itself more as the public's university, one that responds to the needs and interests of the public. Thus, the question that needs to be answered first of all in drafting the new law is: In what ways will the Thai public benefit more from the new law than the previous one? This question always needs to be in mind of all those concerned with drafting the law and the public has every right to demand how the new act will make their lives better.
One thing the University can do in order to ensure public accountability is that members of Parliament should have a portion of the seats in the University Council, in addition to senior experts, members of the Faculty Senate, and university administrators. As the highest organ of the University, the University Council sets the overall policy and direction of the University as a whole. Thus, in a democratic system, it is fitting that representatives of the people should have a say in the governing of the University. This, however, does not mean that the direction of the University should follow that set forth by the majority party or parties which happens to rule the country at a particular time. Nor does it mean that the University should be under the control of politicians. (Something academics dread so much.) On the contrary, if the democratic system is to be trusted, having political representatives will help ensure the University's link to the public. Politicians are usually more in touch with their constituents than the members of the academic community. Therefore, they know more about the needs and problems affecting the country and can well contribute to the direction and policy of the University by providing their viewpoints. Moreover, as ones who are directly involved with legislation and governing, they are in the position to get a broad vision concerning the country as a whole, vision that academics might not know well enough. At the very least, politicians will provide a different point of view than those provided by senior experts or academics, and if Chulalongkorn is to be a real public institution, such participation seems to be necessary.
Some have voiced their concerns that if politicians are to be given a say in the government of the University, they would pursue policies which might affect academic quality, such as increasing the number of admitted students. But it is easily demonstrable that the country as a whole will stand to lose if such policy is actually implemented. If significantly more students are admitted, individual attention obvious decreases. Today it is difficult enough for students and their teachers to know each other's names. And if there are more students, each one will be more remote to the teachers. As any kind of academic excellence in the students comes from the teachers, such remoteness does not bode well for the quality of Thai university graduates at all. The solution, therefore, is not to cram more students to the existing universities, but for the country to have more universities, each roughly equal with one another in quality and student-teacher ratio. Governments typically do not seem to see this option on their list of high priorities, which leaves one wonder how committed they are on improving the citizens' educational level. Quality does not come cheap. And nothing if not quality is required for the country to remain competitive.
Such public accountability may seem to conflict with the University's autonomy. The latter is a value because without it freedom of academic research and expression would not be possible, and this would seriously undermine academic excellence. As a public institution, it is not possible for Chulalongkorn University to be completely autonomous. As long as Chulalongkorn receives government budget, either in the old form of itemized allocation, or in the newly proposed form of lump sum grant, the University still needs to demonstrate how the fund is spent. It must show how, that is, the fund allocated to the University return as benefits to the public and the country as a whole.
Another way that Chulalongkorn can do to demonstrate the benefits of its new charter is to strive for and maintain academic excellence both in research and in teaching. Research will benefit through its solution of problems affecting society. Even basic research will benefit because it enhances understanding and figures in the education of the society as a whole when it is translated into ordinary language for the public. Teaching obviously benefits because Chula students will turn out to contribute to the society.
Probably the only way to ensure academic excellence is through reviews of works and performances. Thus, the new law should be based on a clear intention of inculcating the culture of evaluation. Research output are evaluated through the usual method of peer review. The problem, however, is that the concept of peer reviewing is apparently little understood outside the small circle of committed, serious researchers. Some faculty members do not put much faith on peer reviewing because they believe that their works do not stand a fair chance of being positively reviewed. That may in some cases be true, especially in highly specialized field where in Thailand there is a dearth of qualified researchers and where one or two personalities can dominate an entire field of study. Such a situation is indeed a bad one because academic quality cannot be guaranteed when there is a ground for doubt that these senior personalities are not doing their jobs in good faith. When one or two persons dominate a field of study, they have a tremendous amount of power which they are capable of wielding arbitrarily against younger and upcoming researchers in their field whom they perhaps perceive as a threat to their dominance.
However, since there are no other effective methods of evaluation other than peer review, such a situation where senior academic personalities dominate the whole area of study need to be counterbalanced by increasing the number of researchers in that and indeed in all areas. This is another reason for building more universities in the country or converting existing institutions into ones. This will create more jobs for researchers in a given area of study who can review one another's output so as to ensure the quality of each piece of research in a particular field. Thus reviews should not only be performed by senior members of the discipline, but should be democratically shared among a selected group of practitioners in the field who do not have to possess academic ranks higher than those of the reviewees, but who do possess adequate academic prowess to review the work in question.
In teaching the matter is somewhat similar. Reviews of teaching performances are notoriously difficult to do. The ideal way is to measure the achievements of students who have taken the course by the teacher to be reviewed. But there are myriad ways of testing achievements, as everyone knows. Another way is to ask the students to help evaluate the teacher. This idea, nevertheless, has received a resistance from teachers who believe that students would use this as a leverage against the teacher. Another idea is for colleagues in the same academic department as the teacher to be reviewed to review his or her performances. All these methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and much study and discussion is needed before a method acceptable to all can emerge.
Chulalongkorn University's bid to get away from the bureaucratic system will never be substantial if the attitudes of its community do not change. Having distanced itself from the state machinery, the University gains an actual neutrality and hence the confidence of all sectors of the population, some of whom are against the government, so that it can become a place where all parties gather and attempt to understand one another. By providing a space where the underprivileged are welcome to participate in discussions on an equal footing with the authorities on matters of their concern, and by providing background information to substantiate the discussions while remaining neutral, the University can perform a great service to the nation in need of alleviating the potentially explosive conflicts between the haves and the have-nots. Today meetings between the government authorities and the people affected by their decision usually take place within the government's own compound, putting the people at a disadvantage as the game is played in the government's "home field." When the University hosts such conferences and provides expertise and information which put both parties of the dispute on an equal footing, it will have done a lot toward creating a fairer and more equal Thai society. And when the University formally distances itself from the state authorities, it will surely perform the task better, thus placing Chula firmly as the public's university.
Soraj Hongladarom teaches philosophy at Chulalongkorn University. He
contributed this article in his personal capacity.