Failing To Fail In Thailand – OpEd


Thai universities are complicit in producing graduates that that are poorly equipped with the analytical skills and academic competencies required of them.

Lecturers (and in some cases Administrators) at Thai universities are failing the students and their country by not failing students in examinations. I am not saying to deliberately fail students, more so now with the complexity of teaching during a pandemic, rather Faculties need to admit to everyone when students are unable to manage university level academics. Because the negative impact of not doing so falls on the students at university and society. For example, next time you have problems with a Thai company, realize that the graduate you are dealing with may never have been pushed to to devise solutions to problems by themselves, and thus be unable to properly deal with the situation – especially if it is not a routine-type problem. Do not believe me. As evidence for this, one need only look at the exams given and Blooms Taxonomy – or better yet, ask universities’ members a few probing questions.

Two major factors contribute to this reluctance to fail students: 1) a skewed numbers game and, 2) Thai culture. Commercial realities contribute to Thai universities playing a warped numbers game to get enough students to fill their courses, more so the so called “international” programs. These international programs are delivered in English and are generally around two to three times the cost of a program taught in Thai. Thus, having large numbers of students in the international programs provides a significant boost to the university’s revenues, reputation and perceived education quality. To date, students have not minded paying as there are perceived and real benefits of graduating from a program taught in English. Employers can claim to hire graduates that can communicate in English. While this perception all round makes for a fair degree of satisfaction and happiness; the reality is both dysfunctional and disappointing. Unfortunately, little research has been done on graduate effectiveness in the workplace in Thailand.

Culture is the second major factor for this failure to fail. No one wants to admit failure and no one wants to lose face or make others lose face. Thus, lecturers find it difficult to fail students. “It is not nice to fail a student. You have to do everything to help them. You cannot let the average grade be too low. They are nice students” and more are common excuses. The culture of admitting things directly is a not there. As a result, students who should not be in programs are allowed in, they limp through a broken system because the system only ejects non-payers, even if resultant graduates have limited functionality in a workplace. Some prestigious universities do admit failures but very rarely. Inefficiency is thus rife in Thai businesses (few formal studies exist). Hence a high number of employees is promoted as a sign of a good business.

Failure can be good once we learn from the failure. The Thai system does not encourage learning rather passing and going through the system. By encouraging learning, it would be easier to admit failure because failure would be recognized as a learning situation. Failure also teaches curiosity and grit. Why did I fail? How can I avoid failing? Also, failure sends a message to others that slacking off has consequences. Students have access to support resources that can help them succeed. From experience, even if a lecturer advertise the resources Thai students do not use them. Students have good reason to expect that they will pass with only minimal intellectual effort or academic rigor. Alas, failure cannot be graded; only you learn or not.

To be fair, Thai students are not alone with pre-class preparation and pre-reading class material. For example in the USA it was found that students do not read outside class material given and did not prepare before going to class. However, proper preparation and planning is a requirement for all working professionals and life in general.

Greater all-round effort is required to help students be not afraid of failing and see it as part of the learning process. Faculties should provide effective support structures for students who may lack the maturity or aptitude for the programs available. For example, mentoring, flexible classes and course structure, competency-based assessment, better part-time programs, or supplemental exams can help turn failure into success particularly for the students whose situations may have changed since entering. These ideas are not new but rarely applied in Thailand. Once the support structure is in place the onus is now on the student to become well rounded. To develop the skills so, as graduates, they can take advantage of situations they may encounter.

After acknowledging a problem needs to be addressed, Thai universities need to reassess their purpose and operating models. It is not only about money even though traditional prestigious universities in the USA are lowering their entry requirements to cover cost. Students should not be allowed into programs they are not qualified for. Clear entry requirements and expected learning outcomes would help in entry vetting. Quality businesses vet customers. Universities need to adapt to the prevailing conditions. Afterall this is what is taught at universities. There may be financial consequences but what has been shown is there is a demand for high quality programs. By focusing on providing quality as a public good, universities’ relevance and financial existence can continue. Consolidation of universities’ programs can provide considerable academic and cost advantages. Thus, better utilizing and addressing financial concerns.

Similarly, Thai universities are a long way behind their more entrepreneurial US counterparts in terms of fund raising, alumni endowments, and having income generating ventures. There are ways to address reduced financial position with reduced traditional applications. Few Thai universities offer part-time undergraduate degrees or night classes to gain a degree or professional advancement programs.

Lecturers and deans need to push back on the system that focuses on gross numbers without concern for the details attached to the numbers. Proper lecturer assessment needs to be done too. Assessment is time consuming. While critical self-reflection may go against current cultural norms but culture changes naturally, so a push would not hurt. Academic programs also need thorough assessment. ASEAN University Network Quality Assurance AUN-QA is slowly being rolled out to Thai program but slowly. The quality assurance process is highly regarded and offers guidance to participating universities. However, from previous involvement, some Thai universities do not see its potential extensive usage.

Creative solutions are required but these solutions cannot come from graduates who are not taught to question, push and be creative. And who see failure and problems as something to avoid rather than a challenge to achieve excellence. Fair failure is needed.

*Dr. Mariano Carrera, Business Lecturer, Dhonburi Rajabhat University, International College, Thonburi Campus, Bangkok, Thailand

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