ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

Confronting Southeast Asia’s Big Education Challenge

Regional countries have yet to confront serious remaining problems in their education systems.

David Hutt
Confronting Southeast Asia’s Big Education Challenge
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On October 5, the world commemorated World Teachers’ Day, and key Southeast Asian countries did not miss out on some of the commemorations. The theme of the Cambodian Interior Minister speech to a room full of teachers was “digital study”. Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith called on his country’s woefully paid educators to shoulder more responsibilities. And the Philippines marked the event for the first time, with the Department of Education handing out prizes to some 4,500 public school teachers.

It isn’t entirely surprising that Southeast Asian leaders would toast this arbitrary observance. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has promised first-rate education as a way of Thailand becoming a developed country by 2036. Cambodian and Lao governments know educational standards must be improved if their economies are to move away from low-cost, low-skilled manufacturing. Indonesia vows to build a “world-class” education system by 2025.

But the results are far from impressive. Tests by the OECD in 2015 found that 42 percent of Indonesian students were failing science, mathematics and reading standards. The same Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) tests ranked Singapore, an outlier, top of all 72 countries surveyed. For reading skills, the next Southeast Asian country on the list was Vietnam, ranked 32nd, and then Malaysia in 49th. Thailand came in the bottom 20 countries for all three standards (The latest results of the PISA tests, conducted in 2018, will be released in December).

In 2017, UNESCO asserted that “Thai governments, past and present, have failed to provide access to universal basic education, a basic obligation of any decent government,” as the Bangkok Post reported it. Only 67 percent of Cambodians and 77 percent of Laotians reach the last grade of secondary education, according to the UN Development Program’s records. Cambodian men, meanwhile, have 12.2 expected years of schooling, according to the UNDP’s latest estimates in 2017. By comparison, Thai men can expect 2.3 more years, and Singaporeans 3.8 more years, of schooling. Even East Timorese men, from the region’s poorest nation, on average (13.2 years) can expect 1.7 more years of education than Laotians and 0.9 more years than Filipinos. Burmese men, on average, only get 9.8 years of schooling, less than men from war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Given that these figures are for men, one should expect fewer years of education for women given existing inequalities on this score).

So what is going wrong? The most obvious (and arguably most easily alterable) reason is the relative pittance some Southeast Asian governments spend on education. For instance, one place above Cambodia on the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI) rankings is Eswatini (or Swaziland). It spent, on average, 7.1 percent of GDP on education between 2012 and 2017, compared to Cambodia’s 1.9 percent.

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The list goes on. One place ahead of Laos is Vanuatu, which spent 2.6 percentage points more during the same period. Belarus is ranked three places ahead of Malaysia for HDI and spent 5 percent of GDP on education, 0.2 percentage points more than Kuala Lumpur. Moldova, ranked three places ahead of Vietnam and Indonesia, spent 6.7 percent of GDP on education, compared to Vietnam’s 5.7 percent and Indonesia’s 3.6 percent. Thailand is one of the only Southeast Asian countries that outspends its nearest HDI competitors when it comes to education.

Throwing more public money at the problem would be one thing to do – especially if it is used to raise teachers’ salaries, which would make teaching an attractive and lucrative career for the educated middle-classes and reduce bribery. Public school teachers are woefully paid across Southeast Asia, even though this is not an issue confined to just the subregion alone.

In the Philippines, salaries are around $400 per month, and roughly half that in Cambodia. As a result, in Cambodia there are 43 students per teacher, one of the worst ratios in the Asia-Pacific. In most other Southeast Asian nations, it is half this, and in Western countries around 12 per teacher. Also in Cambodia, small bribes for pens and textbooks are almost expected, and lecture notes are sold for about $0.25 a day, while successive ministers haven’t really been able to deal with the bigger problem of students playing teachers for good exam results. (The first attempt to do so, in 2014, saw the national grade 12 final exam pass marks fell from 83 percent to 26 percent). University professors tell them that they aren’t allowed to fail students, who have paid handsomely for degrees.

More public funds is arguably what Southeast Asia’s less developed countries need. But it isn’t the magic bullet. Indonesian administrations must spend 20 percent of state budgets on education; Malaysian and Thai governments spend about the same. But they too have problems. The Indonesian government plans to build a “world-class” education system by 2025, but a report last year by the Lowy Institute argued there is “long way to go before it will achieve that goal.” It argued that the root problem was “a matter of politics and power.”

East Timor is the poorest Southeast Asian nations, but its educational standards far outperform the likes of Cambodia’s or Laos’, and on some metrics are on par with Vietnam’s or Indonesia’s. Some 96 percent of East Timorese students reach the last grade of secondary education, almost a third more than Cambodians and a slightly more than Thais and Malaysians. East Timorese girls can expect 12.3 years of schooling, several years more than Cambodian, Laotian and Burmese girls – and only 0.5 years fewer years than Indonesian and Vietnamese girls.

But it isn’t only divisions between Southeast Asian states that matter. If there is one very obvious manifestation of the region’s growing wealth divide, it is seen in education. One report found that, in 2015, some $60 billion was spent on private schooling in the region, double the amount spent in South Asia and $10 billion more than the whole of Africa and the Middle East. In fact, Southeast Asians spent around two-fifths of how much Europeans and Central Asians paid for private schooling, a startling figure given the wealth of European citizens. Anyone who can scrape together enough money to pay for private education in Cambodia or Vietnam or Laos, even woeful private schools, does so.

As a result, already well-educated and well-earning households can afford to give their progeny a headstart. The poor, meanwhile, are left with underfunded and poorly-run state schools. Malaysia’s Khazanah Research Institute reported last year that “households with household heads with higher education and high-skill levels have household incomes three to four times more than those with no formal education or those in low-skilled jobs.” Two Vietnamese academics have published reports (here and here) on educational inequality this year alone. And when, in 2017, Thailand’s Education Ministry invited two Finnish experts to report on what is going wrong the country’s schools, they found “inequity” to be the most serious problem. “If you have a lot of inequalities in your education system, it makes it that much more complicated to increase the quality of education,” one of the researchers told the Bangkok Post.

But this isn’t just a concern of specialists. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the ruling coalition and likely Malaysia’s next prime minister, said in February: “The way our education system is now, it tends to create two classes. The rich and the poor. That’s why I feel reforms must have the government’s involvement.” In a debate in the Singaporean parliament in July 2018, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung noted a paradox of the city-state’s meritocracy. “Children today from more affluent families are now doing better that those from lower income families in school,” he said. “So, meritocracy, arising from a belief in fairness, seems to have paradoxically resulted in systemic unfairness.”

It’s not really much of a paradox. Parents want the best for their children. And if fee-paying schools are better than state institutions, then it’s only natural that wealthier parents fork out for extra costs. The divide isn’t that surprising, either. Educational standards between rural and urban areas are vast across the world, and were bound to widen in Southeast Asia as urbanization has quickened. Urban household sizes are also declining, meaning parents can afford to spend more on the education of their fewer children. Household incomes, too, have risen dramatically in the last decade. Meanwhile, international and private schools tend to teach English-language skills to higher standards, and English is considered a necessity in most white-collar jobs in the region.

But, as Ong Ye Kung was getting at, how do you stop educational divisions forming alongside wealth divisions? Governments coughing up more money would be a start.