Teaching At A Thai University
Stickman has done an excellent job discussing the ups and downs of teaching English in Thailand. However, relatively little has been written on teaching conditions at the more exclusive Thai universities. Chulalongkorn, Thammasat, and Mahidol are examples of highly-regarded, tertiary educational institutions in Thailand. Certainly, there are others. My discussion and commentary will focus on one of the major, government-run universities, but not the community or private colleges. Currently, the major universities in Thailand with the best reputations are government-run. However, I believe the “new age” colleges like Shinawatra University in Pathum Thani will eventually give Chulalongkorn and Thammasat a run for their money!
So, what motivates me to take the time to write this article? Primarily, I want to ensure that anyone considering employment at the government universities is fully aware of the potential for culture shock and dismay with the Thai administration, management style, and overall working conditions. Please note I’m not saying you WILL experience culture shock and dismay. However, it’s a strong possibility! An additional motivating factor for submitting this piece of work is to initiate a dialogue that will, hopefully, enhance understanding and improve the overall working environment for all university lecturers (Thai and non-Thai).
I’d like to refrain from exposing my true identity and employer. At the same time, I need to provide a few details that will give credibility to this article. I’m not worried about the possibility of repercussions by my employer. On the contrary, if the university administrators bother to read this article, I will be encouraged and thrilled! You, as readers and potential employees, need to know I’m not a rogue and I have professional experience and credentials that allow me to make fair, unbiased observations and comparisons. Accordingly, please allow me to summarize my background and credentials in the following manner:
* I’m currently a lecturer at a very-well-known Thai university. I’m quite proud and honored to be a member of the faculty. I’m a foreigner from a Western country. I’m a native speaker of English.
* I have an advanced degree and numerous postgraduate certifications in teaching, management, and other noteworthy professional pursuits.
* I have over 22 years experience in the workforce. I have substantial and significant experience as a manager, supervisor, and administrator.
* I have no ulterior motives for writing and submitting this article. I firmly believe what I have to say is important and needs to be published.
Let me preface any further discussion by stating that I’m NOT an expert on university working conditions in Thailand. However, I’m willing to bet that my observations are not uncommon and are similar to many currently-employed-foreign lecturers in Thailand. I have worked at only one university in Thailand. Perhaps the only common employment standard among the government universities is the base salary. Concurrently, working conditions may differ within the same university depending on the office or department that employs you.
In order to keep this initial article relatively brief, I have chosen to limit my discussion to the following topics:
* My observations and opinion of Thai university management
* Everyday working conditions and facilities
I hope to discuss other important topics in future articles.
I’m going to be upfront in this article and make a few bold, and possibly controversial, statements. These statements and preliminary conclusions are based on countless observations, personal experience, and careful, albeit informal, analysis. I want to emphasize that the underlying motivation for writing about these problems is to provide information and eventually improve the job environment. Without a doubt, I believe my workplace can be one of the finest in Thailand if there was a genuine commitment by Thai administrators to make it that way. What follows, in part, are not revelations I’m proud to make, and I hope to report, at a later time, that I was wrong!
MY THESIS FOR THIS ARTICLE
Honestly, despite the great reputation of my university, and the fact that I’m very proud and honored to be a member of the faculty, I feel the foreign faculty members in my department are generally unwanted by the Thai administration. We are managed and treated very poorly. I feel we are merely warm bodies filling vacant spaces on a schedule. We are not treated like educated professionals. We are treated more like uneducated laborers. I get the distinct feeling we (foreign faculty members) are a “necessary evil” in the eyes of the Thais, and that’s the foundation for the way we are treated and managed. Native speakers are in demand by the students, and to enhance its reputation and / or remain competitive, my university must employee foreign faculty members. I also believe there’s jealously toward foreign faculty members because of our salaries. It appears our base salary far exceeds that of a Thai faculty member. In my opinion, most Western-trained and experienced faculty members cannot tolerate these working conditions for very long. The treatment is totally unwarranted, we feel unappreciated and somewhat abused, and most are looking for greener pastures. Despite the poor treatment by those in charge, I think Thai university students are motivated, respectful, not disruptive, and pleasant to be around. The students make it worthwhile to be a university faculty member.
DISCUSSION ON THAI MANAGEMENT AT MY GOVERNMENT-RUN UNIVERSITY
As previously stated, I have substantial formal education, credentials, and experience in management. If I know anything, I know something about leadership, supervision, hiring, interviewing, motivating and retaining educated employees, communication, and problem solving.
Thailand is a developing country. I do not expect Thai management to be on par with or as progressive as Western management. However, there are numerous management techniques and practices that are universally accepted, and their implementations are a legitimate expectation by educated and professional employees. Additionally, I do not expect to receive any type of special treatment because I’m a foreigner.
I’d like to use two adjectives to describe the quality of management at the university. The two adjectives are passive and invisible. As most of you know, having management that is passive and invisible can be a blessing. You will not be a victim of micromanagement, and you have a lot of freedom to do your job the way you think it should be done. Unfortunately, the down side of this management style overwhelms the positive aspects.
The Thai hierarchy at my university violates so many fundamental principles of management that discussing even a few of the problems goes well beyond the scope of this article. However, there is one fundamental that I’ll mention to provide an example of the scale of the overall problem. The management fundamental I’ll discuss is “communication.”
Two-way communication in any organization is absolutely critical. In this era of mobile phones and electronic mail, good communication is easier to accomplish. Incredibly, during my tenure at the university, I have never received any type of correspondence from any Thai official. For example, I was never welcomed by any Thai manager or administrator when I first arrived (verbally or in writing), I have not been provided information concerning the rules of the university or know where I can find answers to simple, job-related questions, and despite paying for health insurance from the first day of employment, I have absolutely no information about type/level/quality of health benefits provided by the policy. Recently, a colleague (a foreign faculty member) was hospitalized for a serious illness. The colleague immediately notified the department office of the emergency hospitalization. Despite being hospitalized for several days, the foreign faculty member never received any type of communication or visit from a Thai manager or administrator. Compounding the problem was the fact that the faculty member was new to Thailand, had not had time to develop a support/friendship network to assist during times of crisis, and lives alone. Upon returning to work, the total silence continued, and to this day, the colleague’s health and well-being have apparently been ignored by those with a worldwide reputation for compassion and hospitality. I don’t care what type of management style you choose to use, one thing is certain in my mind: it is a cardinal sin for managers/administrators to ignore or fail to visit their employees that have been hospitalized for illness. To me, this is unforgivable and additional proof that foreign faculty members are mismanaged and not wanted in my department.
SUMMARY OF EVERYDAY WORKING CONDITIONS AND FACILITIES
CLASSROOM TECHNOLOGY: It varies. In some classrooms, it’s quite good, with state-of-the-art overhead projectors, audio and video tape players, and large monitors. In other classrooms, all I have are an antiquated chalkboard and an overhead projector that’s just as old.
COMPUTER RESOURCES FOR FACULTY: This is one of the most frustrating things about the job. It’s frustrating because this is one of the BEST universities in the nation! Computers are very few in number, and online access is pitiful. Our department has no IT person (either dedicated or part-time) to address our needs and plan for the future (another embarrassing management failure, IMHO). We don’t need Pentium 4-type computers to do the things we need to do on a daily basis. I’m aware some businesses in downtown Bangkok are throwing away their Pentium 2 and 3 computers. Those throw-aways would be a great asset to my university. When I told a senior university employee of this fact, I was told it would be impossible to procure the throw-aways because of bureaucratic red tape. Thus, if I need a reliable computer, I have to go home to my PC, where my online connection speed is horrendously slow (about 26K) because of telephone line/switchboard limitations.
OFFICE SPACE FOR LECTURERS: All of us have a desk (Thank heavens!). Our office space is quiet and private-enough to prepare for classes. However, with the shortage of reliable computer access (see above), it really makes preparation unnecessarily difficult. Cleanliness in the office spaces is an issue. For example, the tile floors have not been stripped and waxed in years, and the walls badly need paint or coverings. My desk is probably over 20 years old, and I cannot secure the contents from a nosey student or co-worker.
LIBRARY: Very good. Probably the best asset of the university (except, of course, for the faculty members!)
FOOD: Cheap and very palatable. When I need to forget about lousy working conditions or substandard management, I head over to the cafeteria and pig-out on quality Thai food for about 20 Baht.
Let’s see, where do I start when discussing salary? Since we are a government-run university, Thai law sets our base salary. Currently, the overall base salary for a lecturer is about 25,600 Baht per month. This figure is a combination of salary (about 17,000 Baht) and a housing allowance (about 8,000 Baht). After deductions for taxes and health insurance, I see about 24,500 Baht placed into my account each month. At my university, this base salary is payment for 12 contact hours per week. Any contact hours beyond 12 per week earn overtime, but I’m not sure of the overtime rate. I believe the overtime rate is about 400 Baht per hour, but don’t hold me to that figure. If 25,600 Baht per month sounds disappointing, keep reading. There’s more to the salary story than the base salary.
My university, and I believe others are similar, offers extra paid assignments to most lecturers. These assignments vary from teaching the general public to contracts with local companies. For example, I teach a Business English class for four hours a week at a government agency. For most lecturers, these assignments are a lot of extra work, but the compensation is somewhat lucrative, especially when compared to the base salary. The hourly rate goes from a low of about 800 Baht to about 2,000 Baht. For my class at the government agency, I receive 1,200 Baht per hour. That equates to an extra 4,800 Baht per week, or about 19,000 Baht per month. Some lecturers have several of these extra assignments, and their total monthly compensation can be as high as 60,000 to 75,000 Baht. However, the lecturers that make that amount seem to be working all the time and rarely see a day off. Obviously, working long hours is not for everyone.
SOME POSITIVE THINGS
So far, I have not had many good things to say about teaching at my government-run university. Does that mean there’s nothing else positive to say? Nonsense! So, what is good about teaching there, and why don’t I walk out the door as soon as I can? Well, I’ve been tempted, on a few occasions, to leave immediately. But, I DID sign a contract, and if you leave the job, you lose your visa as well as your work permit.
My job satisfaction comes from the students. Overall, I believe Thai university students appreciate the effort we make in the classroom. They understand the role we are playing and the importance of learning English. Almost without exception, Thai students at my university are respectful and not disruptive. They are very good listeners, and most of them try quite hard.
Before accepting a position at the university, I made a personal commitment to teaching. This profession, more than ever before, is critical to the needs of a developing country.
I enjoy academia, and I truly believe I have some talent in the classroom. I must not allow poor managers and administrators to ruin my perception of the importance of teaching and education in Thailand or any other developing nation. Thus, I’m trying my best to grin and bear it. Needless to say, it’s difficult to accept a workplace situation where you feel you’re unwanted and unappreciated.
Living in Thailand has its advantages, and Stickman has covered those advantages quite well. I can’t tell you how often my low spirits have been lifted by the sight of so many beautiful women walking around. I’m not talking about female students, although very few university women have been hit with an ugly stick! I’m talking about the women you routinely and randomly encounter at the market, on buses, in eating establishments, etc. Thai women are extraordinarily gifted in the appearance department. As I recently explained to a friend, the average-looking woman in Thailand would be a 7 or 8 on a scale of 10 in my home country. I’m mostly amazed at their skin texture and complexion. Not all are gifted and gorgeous, but Thailand seems to have more beautiful women per capita than any country I’ve visited. I often stare, and it’s impolite in Thai culture to stare. But, at times, I can’t help it. There have been many occasions where I have wanted to walk over to a woman and tell her, in all seriousness, how damned beautiful she is (and NOT as a pick-up line). My Thai skills are too poor right now to do that, but in the future, watch out! I’ll probably get slapped, but what the hell!
I’d like to encourage a dialogue on employment issues at universities. Please write to me at email@example.com. I’ll check the account as often as I can and answer inquiries or questions as time permits.
At my university, if conditions are to positively change, I’m convinced the only way it will happen is for the foreign faculty members to organize as a group. Individually, we are easy to ignore and expendable. As an organized group, we WILL be heard and recognized.
I believe one of the greatest fears of the Thai administration is a perceived threat of any type of “job action” by the foreign faculty members (e.g. – a publicized farang-only meeting to discuss issues; formal correspondence signed and submitted by all faculty members; threats of classroom boycotts, etc.). I’m sorry it has to come to this, but educated professionals (Thai and non-Thai) do not deserve to be treated like outcasts. Times are changing, and the sooner the Thais understand their management deficiencies, especially their personnel management practices, the better off they will be.
Ironically, an excellent article appeared in the November 15, 2002-edition of the Nation, a respected English-language newspaper in Thailand. On page 1B of the Business section, the article entitled “Bosses Need to Brush-Up” summarizes a few of the most common deficiencies of Thai senior executives. According to the article, Thai managers lack transparency and versatility, need to demonstrate more substance and emotional intelligence, and currently cannot compete with managers from other Asian nations. Thus, I’m not the only person or organization who believes Thai management, in general, is lousy and needs vast improvement.
Your experience echoes so much of what I have heard from others in university positions. A lot of what you say could also be applied to regular schools too where more and more positions the English language department are being taken by farangs.