The expansion of the bureaucracy and the military and the movement of the Thai into a rapidly growing private sector created opportunities for social mobility, although the major part of the population remained rural workers or moved into low-level occupations in the urban labor force. Associated with upward mobility, given the Thai orientation toward bureaucratic careers, was the availability of education. Expansion of education facilities beyond the secondary level occurred in the early 1970s. In 1961, for example, about 42,000 full-time and part-time students were enrolled in 6 higher education institutions, but by 1972 there were roughly 72,000 in more than a dozen institutions. The oldest and most prestigious universities, such as Chulalongkorn, Thammasat, and Mahidol, were in Bangkok. Many students attended universities outside Thailand, but these were more likely to be the children of Thai or Chinese who had already attained a fairly high socioeconomic position.
Education was necessary for entry into the bureaucracy, but other capabilities or characteristics, including political reliability and involvement in the patron-client system, also played a part in upward mobility within the bureaucracy. In the military, the system played perhaps a greater role than education. Military expertise as such did not seem to be an important consideration.
The sangha offered a special avenue of social mobility to some of the sons of the peasants at the base of Thailand’s socioeconomic pyramid. Positions in the upper tiers were filled by examination, and monks were offered higher education at two Buddhist universities (Mahachulalongkorn and Mahamongkut), which by the 1960s included significant secular components in their curricula. The Buddhist education system provided support for its talented students through the highest level; access to these opportunities by villagers might reflect the declining interest among the urban classes and the provincial middle group in a career in the sangha. The social mobility achieved through the sangha was not necessarily limited to those who were lifetime monks. Monks who left the sangha in their thirties and forties could legitimately enter other careers, and their education and experience in the sangha were helpful.
By the mid-1970s, the number of aspirants to the bureaucracy with undergraduate and even graduate degrees had begun to exceed the number of openings. Moreover, the economy was no longer expanding as it had in the 1960s and early 1970s (see Economic and Financial Development , ch. 3). Opportunities for upward mobility had lessened in the early 1980s, and children of families already established in the upper or middle reaches of the socioeconomic system were able to maintain their head start in a system that was no longer growing so rapidly.