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Uni rankings, wages need a bigger boost - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

The Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University rankings for 2018 are out, and the news is again not good for Thailand. Compared to the rest of the world, Thailand's top universities don't stand in good stead. Nor do they rank well compared to their peers in the region.

No wonder Thailand's structural economic challenges persist with dim prospects. Apart from higher education, another indicator that speaks to Thailand's inability to boost economic development through labour productivity and political reconciliation through decreasing income inequality are depressed wages. There are many avenues to promote Thailand's economic upgrading but these two are salient.

First, the QS rankings do not bode well for Thailand. Thailand's top three universities, namely Chulalongkorn, Mahidol and Thammasat, continue to languish, with downside trends. When it was entered into the QS rankings, Chulalongkorn came in at 201. Since then, it has declined steadily to 271. Over the same period, Mahidol began at 255 but stands at 380. Thammasat started in 2012 at 561 but has consistently been in the 600s since.

Instead of treating these rankings as urgent matters to be addressed, Thai universities are slow to respond, as if they are complacent, and resort to excuses and qualms about ranking criteria and this and that. Instead of forming something like a task force to tackle internal problems and challenges, Chulalongkorn kicks back on its reputation from the past and advertises itself as the top university in Thailand, which in turn shows how Thailand has become a bubble to many. Instead of turning outward to improve Thailand, both from within and in comparison to its peers in the outside world, many in the country turn inward, comfort and reassure themselves on past laurels, and put off accumulated challenges for future reckoning. As a microcosm of Thailand, Chulalongkorn has slipped compared to its past, and has slid dramatically when compared to universities elsewhere.

To be sure, Thailand has to exist and perform in a world of others. For the QS rankings, a big news flash this week is the debut in the top 100 of the University of Malaya (UM). UM began at 161 and has climbed steadily to 87 in seven years.

Unsurprisingly, Singapore's top two universities are in the big league with all the big names in the US and the UK. For the QS global standing, the National University of Singapore (NUS) ranks at 11 and Nanyang Technological University at 12, having placed in the 20s and 40s earlier. These two also top the QS Asian universities league table, which is dominated by Northeast Asian varsities from China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. For the Asian rankings, it takes some scrolling to get to Chulalongkorn, at 50.

University rankings such as QS are a rough and imprecise measurement that lumps diverse criteria that may not be comprehensive or balanced. But they are indicative. These rankings need to be disaggregated and dissected to tease out particular challenges and problems in certain sectors and segments of higher education system.

For Thailand, the main problem is that a military government, unless it is enlightened and benevolent, is not accountable to its people almost by definition. To maintain a semblance of legitimacy, it is more interested and incentivised to present good news rather than tackle hard problems. And the people have no recourse to demand more from government. For the university system, this means administrators and managers also are not accountable and therefore have no pressing incentive to do better.

While Thai universities have been dismal at the expense of the competitiveness of the labour force, local wages have remained depressed. Thailand's military government has not increased the minimum wage during the first four years of its rule. This year, the minimum wage will finally climb by 5-22 baht, depending on work location, to 308 to 330 baht per day, a 2-7% rise.

Yet previous governments also did not focus on longer-term productivity-driven growth with higher wages in mind. Although the government of Yingluck Shinawatra campaigned on higher wages, including a minimum wage of 300 baht per day and 15,000 baht a month for degree holders (along with the 15,000 baht per tonne for rice pledging), these were more like short-term, short-sighted pandering instruments for winning an election, not based on sound and systematic calculation or preparation for a higher-wage economic upgrade.

Part of the challenge for labour and wages is Thailand's geopolitical standing and geographic location as the hub of mainland Southeast Asia and the broader Asean region. The Thai market has critical mass, with a $410-billion economy and 70 million population. Its demography is a mixed blessing as its ageing population is offset by a steady influx of young migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar.

These migrant workers add up to several million people, as much as 13% of the Thai work force. As they offer relatively cheap labour, Thai wages remain depressed. In turn, producers and employers, along with certain industrialists, do not have the incentive to train and invest in their workers.

Thus Thailand has been stuck in middle-income status for some time, with poor prospects of getting out and moving up global value chains. Higher wages and incomes can spread the concentrated wealth to bridge the rich-poor gap and boost consumer spending to underpin more consumption-led growth going forward. This would have to be done in tandem with structural education reforms to be mutually reinforced. The first step to getting there is to have leaders who can visualise and own up to Thailand's medium-term crisis from its middle-income trap. Until such leadership can come up, Thailand's university rankings will stay down.