Exercises in Inter-University Cooperation
Rivalry between different Thai schools has lead to much violence. Technical and vocational colleges are particularly notorious for fighting among opposing students. A student had been killed in Ayutthaya around the time that I wrote my weekly column. As a result, I decided to promote the idea of two universities working together. After a special visit to the Siam Society, I was able to come up with some concrete examples that I could share with my students.
It is no secret that academic antagonism exists at the level of higher education. Top universities and private colleges are often seen as schools for elite aristocrats. The Rajabhat schools are labeled harshly as inferior institutes for peasants and agriculturalists. The technical and vocational schools are sometimes stereotyped as bastions for hoodlums who can’t qualify for anything better. The type of institute that students graduate from is likely to determine students’ opportunities as alumni.
Many people feel that this is part of a natural selection process. Better students rise to the top while less ambitious ones get training for the appropriate jobs. It can also be argued that these frictions improve Thailand by competitive development. However, it may be worthy to explore these scholastic divisions even deeper, because ultimately they shape Thailand’s social-economic future. What good are all these differing intellectual opportunities, if students of these schools can’t be brought together for the purpose of a common goal?
Even in a less populated city such as Ayutthaya, rivalry is persistent among higher educational institutes. I can recall a few tense moments when groups of students from the local vocational school hurled insults at my uniform-wearing tourism class while they rode inside a boat. It was too bad because the vocational school taught nautical technology. They could have bridged their divisions by producing information about boats, waterways, and river tours. This rivalry has gotten even worse in bigger cities in Bangkok. There have been numerous violent incidents between school gangs resulting in injury and death. This stands in sharp contrast to Buddhist principles of compassion and non-violence. Therefore, in the past month, I researched former experiments in inter-university teamwork that can illustrate students working together on a single project.
After a trip to the Siam Society library, I located data about Ayutthaya based projects dating from 1969 to the early 1970s. The focus of this research, under the umbrella of Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute (CUSRI) and Canadian sociologist, Jacques Amyot, sought to understand the process of modernization in rural Ayutthaya communities. A number of publications were produced as result. More importantly, these studies marked Thailand’s first attempt to bring several schools into cooperation on a common goal. Students contributed from Chulalongkorn University, Kasetsart University, and the Ayutthaya Teacher’s College (the latter finally became a public university in 2004). Although these studies are rather old they still shed light on the complexities and value of inter-university projects.
This research was conducted during a time when basic transportation and roads were lacking. The scholars didn’t even have electronic calculators to add up data yet. Computers were hard to access and nearly non-existent in Thailand. However, one of the more complex hardships to overcome was getting students to mix properly. Students from the same university wanted to stick together on sub-projects rather than join other schools in the spirit of camaraderie. Barriers divided t researchers in terms of economic class. Some Chulalongkorn students felt it beneath them to work with their counterparts from a rural university. Likewise, participants from Ayutthaya’s teacher training college viewed Bangkok students as privileged elites. Such stereotypes proved counterproductive to the research, so efforts were made to absolve them.
In an odd way, the research design itself reflected the conclusion of some of the studies. Ayutthaya residents felt that the city had a closed system, so that individual achievements did not produce social advancements. Small cliques and groups controlled society, and it was difficult to improve one’s lot without connections to more powerful citizens. Such fatalistic perceptions do little to encourage hard work or competitive spirit. If a student’s future opportunities have already been established regardless of advanced education, then what motive is there for to study harder or compete more effectively?
Even today these self-defeating ideas exist at the Rajabhats and vocational schools. Last week, I told my students that a class from Chulalongkorn might be visiting for a boat tour. They panicked like I never seen them do before. When I prodded them for the reason behind their fear, they provided a variety of excuses why they couldn’t work together: Their English is much better than ours. They are much smarter than us. They come from richer and more powerful families. Their universities are equipped with top-of-the-line resources. My argument was that these factors did not matter. They could still play an important role by organizing community resources and useful local networking. I am not sure if I convinced my students, but it is worth peeling away the layers of resistance to see where it could lead.
Inter-university projects can cut through these social differentiations. They thread students together on a common goal. And this is likely to contribute to Thailand’s well being. It strikes me that the CUSRI studies could be beneficial to update. The information was gathered prior to Ayutthaya’s tourism boom and the large scale arrival of westerners. How much have these traditional values actually changed? Do residents have any more hope than before? The conflicts between higher educational institutes persist, but why should they continue unchallenged? If former researchers could bring three schools together without access to public roads and electronic equipment, imagine what could be accomplished today with all this new technology.