The ICT Ministry has finally signed the deal with a Chinese supplier to order hundreds of thousands of tablet computers for free distribution to Grade 1 school children throughout the country. Delivering free computers was a manifesto promise of the Pheu Thai party which won the last election. What is the point of this policy?
Since 2001 and the election of Thai Rak Thai, the progressive forces in Thai politics have been seeking to reshape the labour market to take account of important changes in the international environment. Principal among these have been rising living costs, which has made it more difficult for Thai companies to compete purely in terms of low cost. The rise in importance of China and Vietnam as places where low labour cost manufacturing can take place has made this situation all the more apparent.
Over the last half a century or so, the Thai education system has been a dual system: children of wealthy parents can go to schools where they can learn English, advance to university and aspire to good quality jobs. The children of poor people, on the other hand, can expect just three years of secondary level education, which is just about enough to make them useful in factories or as migrant labour, especially if some particular skills are backed up with vocational training.
However, now that there is not so much need for low skilled factory work, people will need to be able to fit other kinds of jobs. All around the world, it has become evident that more and more jobs have an IT component to them – at the very least, people need basic computer and internet skills to interact with the world effectively. Meeting other people online will also help stimulate creativity and new thinking and this will be needed in the new labour force.
Currently, the digital divide in Thai society is perpetuating the dual education system which is no longer necessary or desirable in the future. Providing free tablet computers is, therefore, one means of helping to bridge the gap in future earning ability and indeed in society as a whole.