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Let Thammasat move students

May 18, 2001

Thammasat University prides itself on being not only a leading institution of higher learning but also as a catalyst for social and political change. Both objectives are noble. As an educational institution, it strives for academic excellence, particularly in the social sciences and in the humanities. Through its long history of triumph and tragedy, it has been relentlessly playing a conscious role in advancing the causes of democracy, justice, freedom of expression and human dignity.

So it is quite an irony for this institution, in spite of its grand tradition, to develop selfdoubt, or you may say complete paranoia, when it comes to dealing with its own need for physical expansion. An emotional debate is going on over whether Thammasat would lose its heart and soul, its roots, its political activism, its tradition, its history, its glamour, its legacy, if it were to move all of its undergraduate students to the more spacious Rangsit campus.

All agree that the Tha Pra Chan campus is crammed and overcrowded. It is impossible to add more buildings to this campus, which increasingly looks more like a gallery than an allround university. However, the campus is one of the momentous landmarks on Rattanakosin Island, on which Bangkok was founded some 270 years ago.

The university is sandwiched by the National Museum and Wat Mahathat, its rear overlooking the Chao Phraya River and its front facing Sanam Luang. In the 19th century, the site was the official residence of the Palace of the Front – Phra Pinklao, the Second King during the reign of King Mongkut. Later on Phra Pinklao’s son, Krom Prarajawang Bovorn Vichaicharn, the Second King during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, inherited the place.

It appears that the Thammasat conservatives and zealots, in an ugly atmosphere of mistrust, have gained momentum in their crusade for the under?graduates to stay where they are at the old campus. They would only consent to allow social science and humanities undergraduates to go to Rangsit, which lies some 50 kilometres from Bangkok, for a oneyear exile, during which time the students are obliged to take interdisciplinary courses to broaden their horizons. But after that, according to these naysayers, the students would need to come back to their roots at Tha Pra Chan, where, for the remaining three years of their formative life, they would focus on their major course work and on cultivating their Thammasat spirit.

Ideally, Thammasat wants its students to become learned men, as those trained in the Renaissance Age. A Thammasat graduate should go out into society as a man of letters, of high virtue and sound judgement, equipped with moral courage and a craving for democracy and social justice.

There is no problem with the pursuit of this high ideal. But is it really necessary that the main training ground for the Thammasat students should remain where it is at the Tha Pra Chan campus? After all, a monk may attain nirvana at a remote temple in the Northeast, without having to stay at Wat Mahathat. Moreover, the plight of the science, engineering or medical students never get the attention they deserve, for they belong to new departments or schools that have been established for only 15 years. These departments and schools are so new that the conservatives are ready to dismiss their significance for the past glory of Thammasat.

So goes the fury of arguments that oppose a hollowing out of the Tha Pra Chan campus so that this landmark site, due to its physical limitations, might contain its functions to serving researchers or acting as various academic centres. Looking forward, Thammasat really needs to make full use of its Rangsit campus to cope with a larger student body, with extracurricular and sports activities, and most importantly with redefined academic goals that suit its role in the 21st century.

The proponents of the hollowingout proposal are also to blame for their failure to come out straightforwardly with their master plan for the Tha Phra Chan, Rangsit and other provincial campuses. What everybody needs to do now is to redefine the goals of Thammasat and look forward to its academic standing not only in Thailand but also in Asia over the next 20 or 30 or 50 years.

Some crucial questions need to be asked: 1) What kind of university does Thammasat want to be? 2) What sort of students does it want to produce for Thai society and the world? 3) What kind of facilities and faculty members does it want to develop to meet its goal of building up a firstclass university?

Apparently, the old Thammasat strengths in the social sciences and humanities are necessary but not sufficient to represent the entire interests or goals of the university. A study conducted by the Institute of International Management and Development in Switzerland, has found that Thailand ranks at the bottom in technology infrastructure of all the 49 countries in its survey. The state of Thailand’s science and research and development is also ranked on the bottom rung. This is the main factor why Thailand’s competitiveness is eroding among nations going into the 21st century. Thammasat should play a leading role in addressing this critical problem facing Thailand.

Moreover, there are now three broad trends dominating the world – globalisation, technology revolution and financial market turbulence. If Thammasat wants to be a firstrate university and churn out graduates capable of meeting these challenges, it cannot afford to bank on its past glory in social sciences and the humanities. It needs to excel in science, technology, medical, engineering, and other scientific fields.

Obviously, the Tha Phra Chan campus is no answer to Thammasat’s future. The Rangsit campus can be developed into a university town, surrounded by SMEs or research centres benefiting from its research facilities. Students staying there for four years can also benefit from an excellent fouryear experience of sharing dormitories with their friends from all departments, without any discrimination.

If Thammasat is really clear about its goals, then it can move ahead to chart out its own territory. At this juncture, it looks as if it does not know its own aspi?ration, nor is it aware of the external forces shaping its future.

Thammasat is good at trying to manage the affairs of the country, but unfortunately it is not very good at taking care of its own business.

Thanong Khantong






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