Minister allows foreign universities in special zones

Thailand is poised to issue a new decree that will allow foreign universities to operate in its special economic zones under a plan approved last week by the cabinet and military junta, also known as the National Council for Peace and Order, led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha.

“At the moment the law does not allow for this and makes it very tough [for foreign universities] so for my policy I am using the military’s power under Article 44 of the constitution for the prime minister to allow foreign universities to be set up with exemptions from the rules and normal regulations. That can be done and will probably be signed within this week,” Thailand’s Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin told University World News on Wednesday.

"It has already been agreed,” he said. “It will be a very simple decree under Article 44 – it will say, 'those who are interested, please come, you will be exempt from the normal rules'.”

Article 44 of the constitution gives the junta absolute powers.

According to the reports, two junta orders under Article 44 of the interim constitution will have to be published in the Royal Gazette before talks with interested countries and institutions can start.

Countries such as Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom have shown an interest, Teerakiat said, speaking in London in the margins of the British Council’s Going Global 2017 conference.

He said this would provide the stability for universities to make long-range plans. “Article 44 will stay. Whatever government comes they cannot revoke [it] because it is part of the constitution.”

Approval for foreign university branch campuses will start with those who want to set up in the Eastern Economic Corridor or EEC, a project approved by the Thai cabinet last year and which includes the three Eastern provinces of Rayong, Chonburi and Chachoengsao.

Under the plan, the EEC is expecting to see some US$43 billion in direct foreign investment in industries and services in the next five years, in particular in industries such as health, smart electronics, agriculture and biotechnology, aviation, biofuels, and digital services under a plan known as ‘Thailand 4.0’ – a new innovation-led economic model.

Skills gap

The EEC is already simplifying and waiving onerous rules for foreign investment, and providing tax breaks for industries, and foreign universities will be crucial to plug the skills gap as these industries expand.

If foreign universities “just want to come in and open normal, mundane departments that the Thais can do like departments of MBA, we will not allow it because it does not serve our purpose. We are very focused on universities that provide science and technologies that our own country cannot do. Even institutions that focus on certain vocational skills, they can [come in],” Teerakiat said.

A committee chaired by the education minister will decide which institutions and programmes will be accepted, the minister said. “Once they are interested, we will invite them to come and we will look at their proposal but we don’t want to delay.”

He said the committee will set up a system of quality control that will be of “international standards”.

“The [foreign] universities will have to prove that they will have quality assurance.”

Teerakiat said foreign universities can already come into the country and collaborate with Thai universities but then they have to follow Thai university rules and are subject to “all kinds of extreme, stringent bureaucracy". For example, he said, “they cannot award their own degrees, they are just partners".

“The idea under this new decree is that they can award their own degrees, they can arrange their own teaching, they can bring in their own professors. There will be a tax ceiling that will be very encouraging. So, for example, instead of a tax of 37% for individuals in this country for high earners, it will be capped at 17%.”

Teerakiat said some 42 universities in Japan had already sent representatives to Bangkok. “They are already waiting” for the changes, he said.

He added that Carnegie Mellon University in the US was interested in setting up a digital technology degree in conjunction with a university in Bangkok. “They want to award their own degree,” he said.

Competition concerns

Not everyone is welcoming the new policy. Arnond Sakworawich, a lecturer in risk management at the Graduate School of Applied Statistics at the National Institute of Development Administration in Bangkok, has said overseas branch campuses on Thailand’s borders could jeopardise the country’s own universities at a time when the higher education market has been shrinking due to demographic decline.

During last year’s admissions cycle, universities had vacancies for up to 150,000 students but only 80,000 applied to sit the entrance test, he told the Bangkok Post newspaper.

But Teerakiat said people “shouldn’t be worried that they will steal students from Thai universities because the courses will be for different target groups”.

“Also, it is market driven. If they cannot get the students, they will fail. They will die,” the minister told University World News. “If they come we exempt them from all the rules, but they have to compete [with local institutions], and they have to survive so it is up to them.”

Suchatvee Suwansawat, rector of King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang and head of the Council of University Presidents of Thailand, said the changes would improve the country’s education and research environments while also allowing Thai institutions to learn from leading foreign universities.