International programmes proliferate at universities

Falling birth rates are forcing Thailand’s universities to internationalise to produce the ‘innovative’ graduates that will spur on the country’s progress in a competitive world.

Many of the country’s leading universities have introduced international programmes that teach courses in the English language, and have opened their doors to foreign students, particularly from the Asian region, as part of Thailand’s integration into the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) market, as well as American and European students who come for semester-long exchange programmes.

From less than 2,000 foreign students two decades ago, Thailand now hosts some 30,000 foreign students including short-term exchange students, and is the third-most popular destination for students in Southeast Asia after Malaysia and Singapore.

Thai universities now offer over 1,000 international programmes in English, including in collaboration with universities in Australia and the United Kingdom. Statistics from Thailand’s Office of the Higher Education Commission show that the number of officially registered joint degree programmes – which involve studying for two years in Thailand and two years abroad – more than doubled in the three years between 2012 and 2015.

One such programme, at the prestigious Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of communication arts, attracted some 55 German students from Macromedia University of Applied Sciences last year. But Dr Jirayudh Sinthuphan, who managed the programme until the end of last year, warns that such programmes should not merely be teaching the subject in the English language.

Anglo-American models

“Thai society is very inward looking,” he argues. “When they look outwards, they often look at Anglo-American models [curricula]. Internationalisation should mean exposing the Thai students to the international community, not just English as a medium of study.”

For example, a course on ‘Introduction to Mass Communication’ in the three-year bachelor degree programme is taught straight out of a textbook published for American universities, with almost exclusively American examples. The programme also attracts a significant number of Thai students from upper class backgrounds, many of whom have been to the United States as exchange students during their senior secondary school years.

The school of business and economics at Chulalongkorn University has had a student exchange programme with Germany’s RWTH Aachen University for the past 14 years, where masters students and professors from each university spend a short period at each other’s university to gain first hand inter-cultural experience and awareness in doing business. All actively participating students are awarded a certificate that demonstrates their intercultural proficiency.

Most Thai universities’ ‘international programmes’ are designed to teach subjects – that are otherwise taught in the Thai language – in English, on a commercial basis.

Professor Worsak Kanok-Nukulchai, former president of the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok, argues that internationalisation needs to be properly defined.

“It should not be just the medium of teaching. [It should] promote respect for other cultures [and] this is what makes internationalisation real,” he told University World News in an interview, adding: “We have too many English programmes which are very cosmetic.”

Pointing out that AIT has been teaching exclusively in the English language for more than 50 years, he says that most Thais see AIT as a foreign university based in Bangkok. “We have only 30% of students who are Thai,” he said.

Thailand has not been a big sender of students to study abroad. According to UNESCO figures, Thailand’s outbound student mobility rate was only 1.3% in 2015. Meanwhile, between 1999 and 2012 inbound foreign students increased by 979%, to 20,309 students.

Increase in Chinese students

The increase in this figure since then is partly due to an increase in Chinese students at tertiary institutions, whose number rose from 4,618 in 2011 to 6,157 in 2015, according to the Bangkok Post. A four-year degree in Thailand is estimated to cost only quarter of that of a similar degree in the US.

China’s Global Times reported last year that the Chinese government is encouraging their students to study in Belt and Road Initiative countries in the ASEAN region, and Thailand is one of them. The Chinese government has been sponsoring some of the students and they are encouraged to learn the local language.

A number of Thai universities have attracted large numbers of Chinese students to their international programmes. Many universities, such as the privately owned Bangkok University, have been promoting themselves aggressively in China.

“In Thailand students feel more freedom and we can mingle with students from other countries. We don’t get this chance in China,” Yamfang Liu, a student from China doing a master of communication arts programme at Bangkok University, told University World News.

She said: “In Thailand the professor gives you advice and doesn’t force you to do it his way. In China, the professor wants you to do it his way.”

Many German students at Chulalongkorn University told University World News they see the Thai culture as “fascinating” and enjoy learning about the Buddhist way of life, and also enjoy tasting their “exotic” cuisine. They experience these mainly outside the classroom by interacting with society.

Reducing the Chinese intake

A professor (who did not want to be named) from another private university with a large number of Chinese students told University World News that they have been reducing the Chinese intake lately because it is costly to employ Chinese translators to help students with assignments, especially in business and humanities courses, where English language skills are important.

Thailand could benefit from internationalisation through research collaborations with foreign universities, argues Dr Peter Ractham, deputy dean of research and academic services at Pridi Banomyong International College (PBIC) of Thammasat University.

“Thai academics could come out of their shell working with faculty members from different countries [that would] give them opportunities to work together to do research,” he said.

Through PBIC he has been developing joint research with academics in neighbouring ASEAN countries to study social relationships in the region. “I see it as an emerging market, to do comparative social studies and case studies with colleagues in the ASEAN region” he told University World News.

Thailand’s ageing population is also a push factor for internationalisation of Thai university programmes, to attract foreign students. “Thai universities are struggling to find students because we are an ageing society,” notes Worsak, former president of AIT. “Students entering university this year were born after 1997, a year when birth rates [in the kingdom] dropped drastically.”

Thailand has a proud tradition of higher education going back many centuries and there are over 300 institutions of higher education across the kingdom. Thais also have a strong identity based on Buddhism and the Thai language.

Rush to lure foreign institutions

In June 2017, the government announced that the cabinet had agreed to invoke constitutional powers to push through measures to allow “high-potential” foreign higher education institutions to open branches in Thailand.

The prime minister’s spokesperson, Sansern Keawnkamnerd, said at the time: “If we wait, Thailand may not be able to produce the necessary human resources for the new trends in time.”

But the higher education sector fears that if the government allows institutions of higher education from overseas to create satellite campuses, many Thai universities could be in danger of shutting down because of falling birth rates and cohorts.

Last month, the government said it would establish a new higher education, development and research ministry to support the improvement of higher education institutions’ academic capabilities, make the spending of research budgets more efficient and promote the development of technology and innovations.

Worsak welcomes this initiative. “The existing system has too much paperwork and the entire system of education has been divided into silos; they don’t work together,” he said.

He believes that the new ministry will be able to integrate Thai higher education with research that can be applied to the real world. “Otherwise there will be no innovation,” he said.