By Fabian Drahmoune

KHON KAEN – Yesterday, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) passed bills to privatize Khon Kaen University and three other higher education institutions. The continuing privatization of Thailand’s universities raises concerns among student activists and academics who warn of soaring tuition fees, exclusion of lower income students, and too much power moving into the hands of too few.

As Thailand remains under military rule, many question the timing of the recent push to transition more universities from a public to a so-called “autonomous” status.

In addition to Khon Kaen University (KKU), similar bills were passed for Thammasat, Kasetsart, and Suan Dusit Rajabhat Universities.

University privatization plans have been the target of student protests in recent months. Last Thursday, students from Thammasat University presented a petition with 2,702 signatures to the NLA, calling for more transparency in the privatization process and student participation in the university’s affairs

On April 8, a student activist rolled out a protest banner from the roof of KKU's “Complex” (Food and Service Center 1) and distributed pamphlets in opposition to the planned privatization of the university. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

On April 8, a student activist rolled out a protest banner from the roof of KKU’s “Complex” (Food and Service Center 1) and distributed pamphlets in opposition to the planned privatization of the university. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

In early April at KKU, a student activist climbed onto the roof of the campus’ centrally-located Complex to roll out a banner featuring the message: “Khon Kaen University Company Limited – University President-Dictator.” He was calling to oppose the government’s push to turn the public university into a privatized institution.

The initiative for an autonomous university system began in the 1990s and accelerated due to pressure to privatize public services from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

Since then, 15 universities out of 185 tertiary education institutions nationwide have transitioned to the autonomous system, almost always accompanied by student protests.

Once made autonomous, universities leave the state’s bureaucratic system and set up their own administrative and budgetary structures. All decision-making power on management and financial matters as well as personnel and curricula policies is held by the university council.

According to the draft of Khon Kaen University’s new charter obtained by The Isaan Record, this powerful body is composed of 30 members, the majority of which are royally appointed for three years and can be reappointed.

The council is dominated by high-level, Bangkok-based officials, but also includes the university’s president and administration, five elected faculty members, one elected representative of university staff, the governor of Khon Kaen Province, and at least one representative from the Ministry of Education.

The university council can act independently on administrative and budgetary matters without having to wait for the central government’s approval, as it is the case for public universities.

Proponents of this system stress that it brings universities more flexibility and independence from state bureaucracy, but critics warn that it will decrease the accountability of the university administration.

Khon Kaen University’s main student activist group, Dao Din, criticizes the lack of student participation in the process and is concerned that after the transition the university council will be able to wield unchecked power over the university affairs.

“If it was really necessary for [Khon Kaen] University to become autonomous, then we students want to take part in the decision-making process,” said 20-year-old Phayu Boonsophon, a Dao Din member from Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Law.

According to Dao Din, the university held a public forum on the issue to gather opinions from the student community nearly a decade ago. Since then, the university has been quoting this one-time event as evidence of student inclusion in process of privatization.

Student concerns are shared by Yukti Mukdawijitra, an assistant professor at Thammasat University. The efforts to move universities into the autonomous system comes with greater centralization, Dr. Yukti told The Isaan Record over email.

“In an autonomous university, professors and lecturers, as well as supportive staff and students, will be under tighter control,” Dr. Yukti wrote. “The president and the board of referees of the university are more powerful and there will be much less participation from representatives from the faculties.”

In contrast to a public university, its autonomous counterpart no longer fully depends on state funding based on the number of students, but instead receives an annual block grant from the state budget. For this reason, autonomous universities are driven to find other sources of revenues through, for example, increased tuition fees or profitable “special” programs.

Concerns have been raised over the potential commercialization of educational services, equity, and access to higher education by lower income groups.

In 2012, the website ThaiPublica found that tuition fees at Burapha University increased significantly after it became autonomous in 2008. The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences raised semester tuition rates of its regular programs from under 10,000 baht to 14,000 baht, an increase of at least 40 percent.

“The state is responsible for providing education to its people free of charge. But when the state is dominated by capitalists, then education immediately becomes a business,” says Decha Premrudeelert, a long-time education activist in Khon Kaen. “As a consequence, the poor have less access to higher education and the gap between the rich and the poor gradually widens.”

Public universities in the Northeast have a special responsibility, as the region is Thailand’s poorest, explains Alongkorn Akkasaeng, Assistant Dean at Mahasarakham University’s College of Politics and Governance. Unlike universities in Bangkok, universities here offer education to a high number of students from low-income families.

“Khon Kaen University needs to decide if it wants to make profit or support society by offering education,” Dr. Alongkorn said.

Students might not be the only group affected by universities’ transition to an autonomous status. Even though university administrative staff and lecturers receive a slightly higher salary in the autonomous system, they may be granted fewer benefits, as they are no longer employed as civil servants.

“In public universities, almost all employees are civil servants who are better off in terms of health care and retirement plans. Essentially, I think privatization is a process to reduce costs and spending on the social welfare of employees, including professors and lecturers,” said Dr. Yutki.

However, the push to privatize Thailand’s universities has not met significant opposition. If done right, autonomy from the government’s bureaucracy can translate into a more efficient university administration system and might consequently improve the quality of education, explained Sathaporn Reungtham, Assistant Professor at Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“The only problem is that until now the university’s administrators have failed to answer how the autonomous status will exactly improve the university’s situation. There is a lack of accountability that makes me not very hopeful about this whole process,” Dr. Sathaporn said.

After the coup in 2006, seven universities were hastily made autonomous, including the country’s oldest educational institution, Chulalongkorn University, in spite of student protests. At that time, only Khon Kaen University withdrew its bid for autonomous status in response to public opposition.

This time around, it seems like Khon Kaen University’s administrators seized the moment to change the university’s status without public scrutiny.

In a bid to prevent protest from students or faculty, wrote Dr. Yukti, “it is clear that the administrators of universities want to take advantage of the military rule.”

Following last year’s military coup led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, several presidents of major universities were appointed to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the military junta’s rubber-stamp parliament.

Student activist Mr. Phayu claimed, “Khon Kaen University President [Kittichai Triratanasirichai] volunteered to become a member of the NLA only to propose this autonomy bill and then raised his hand to pass it.”