Drastic population drop to hit higher education funding

Without reforms to the higher education sector, Thailand’s drastic population drop in recent years could affect the funding and quality of universities, education experts are warning after the latest round of the university central admissions exam saw a declining number of applications.

Some 80,000 Thai students nationwide applied for the central admissions examination compared to 100,000 last year. Some 110,000 places are available in the higher education system this year – already reduced from 156,000 available places two years ago.

Rapid expansion of universities, increased competition among education institutions and population decline are being blamed for the gap between higher education supply and demand, experts say.

One expert has even warned that three quarters of Thai universities are at risk of closure, particularly as the decline in the number of school leavers has coincided with a government policy of allowing in foreign branch campuses in special economic zones.

Arnond Sakworawich, a lecturer in actuarial science at the National Institute of Development Administration in Bangkok, told the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper that the policy would put many Thai universities in danger of shutting down.

Declining births

Higher education expanded rapidly during the 1980s due to an increase in population, where over one million babies were born each year. However, this has dropped to an average of 600,000-700,000 babies born each year in recent years. Currently, there are a total of 170 higher education institutions in Thailand.

According to 2015 statistics from the United Nations’ population division, Thailand ranks seventh in the world in terms of rapidly-aging population. The country’s economic planning agency, the National Economic and Social Development Board, also estimates that by 2040 the school-age group will drop to 20% of the population, compared to 62% in 1980.

The central examination acts as a clearing house system with universities considering students this year based on their exam scores. However, the exam has become less popular as fewer universities are involved.

The decline in central admission system numbers was expected as it is also attributed to the direct admissions that took place earlier, said Suchatvee Suwansawat, head of the Council of University Presidents of Thailand. More students were applying directly to universities, which have their own criteria for recruitment that are often considered to favour more privileged students, rather than through the central exam.

Private providers could be hit

Nonetheless, the drop in central exam applicants has been very high. Private universities have voiced a concern that they could be wiped out from the market if trends continue.

Private universities have been lobbying the Education Ministry to ease regulations so that they can set up branches in neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, for example. With the exception of Vietnam, Thailand’s ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations – neighbours all have rapidly growing youth cohorts.

Saowanee Thairungroj, rector of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce and president of the Association of Private Higher Education Institutions of Thailand, said that since public universities receive subsidies from the state, private universities – which currently account for 20% of national education provision – are at a disadvantage.

“If you do not have well-established funding sources for the education business, it is possible that you would have to be shut down or downsized,” Saowanee told Prachachart Thurakit, a Thai-language business newspaper, last October, adding that already 120 staff have taken up the university’s early retirement programme brought in to reduce the budget spending.

Quality concerns

Both public and private universities will have to become more competitive in order to attract students. While this has resulted in an increase in market-oriented programmes being offered such as restaurant management, property management or digital media courses, it does not always translate into a better quality of curriculum or resources experts say.

Many programmes and departments are offered solely to attract extra income for the universities, which has created a 'graduating-as-long-as-you-complete-the-payment' scenario rather than a focus on quality.

Investigations by the Office of the Higher Education Commission under the Ministry of Education last year revealed that at least 20 courses offered by 10 private universities do not meet the quality standards set by the ministry. Those named were found to lack qualified and sufficient numbers of lecturers or to have taken on too many students per course.

This year the Office of the Auditor General of Thailand said more than 20% of higher education courses at public and private universities failed to meet the required standards.

Some critics said lecturers in private universities had become burdened with the additional courses, resulting in less time to develop research to improve the quality of education. Even some of the country’s top universities have recognised the need to cut back on courses.

With some 40,000 students, Thammasat University, a leading university in Bangkok, is now considered “too big”, Thammasat’s rector, Somkit Lertpaithoon, said in May. The university was reportedly considering reducing social science places which are currently declining in popularity compared to a rise in interest in the sciences.

Among the courses that could be closed or downsized are previously popular majors in law, journalism and mass communications, Somkit was quoted by local newspapers as saying. However, universities have not yet committed to wholesale course cuts, and cuts to law and journalism courses at Thammasat University, for example, could spark major opposition from students and professors.

Foreign universities

Recent government policies allowing foreign universities to open satellite branches in Thailand’s Special Economic Zones could aggravate the situation, some university leaders fear, though some pointed out it would not affect local universities as the foreign universities would offer courses where Thai universities do not have expertise, such as robotics.

“Having international universities in the country will, on the other hand, push Thai universities to improve their quality of education and research,” said Yukti Mukdavijit, lecturer in the faculty of sociology and anthropology at Thammasat University.

“On another issue, it is possible that the study programmes offered by foreign universities in Thailand might not be as good as those offered in the main campus of those universities due to factors like the different standard of professors, the different standard of equipment, the Thai government’s regulations on higher education, and the limited freedom of speech in Thailand,” he said.

He added that it was essential that the universities should rethink how to spend their budgets more wisely than they do now.

“For example, instead of investing in improving student academic standards or providing funding to lower income students, many departments and universities are spending a high budget on renovating buildings or expanding more spaces while the enrolment is decreasing,” Yukti told University World News.

Duplicate courses also needed to be eliminated. “In each university, there are a number of study programmes that teach the same subject under different names,” he said.

However, the task of reforming universities for an era of declining numbers of students needed courageous and visionary university administrators, he said.