Bold new ways needed to fix the higher education crisis

Thailand’s higher education system is under enormous pressure from a confluence of trends: changing demographics causing declining enrolments, as well as academic underperformance resulting from insufficient technological investment and educational innovation.

The system is over-built after expanding from 26 to 310 institutions of higher education over these past four decades.

As these educational institutions multiplied, the Thai middle class expanded dramatically. However, the Thai middle class is growing sceptical of the value of most Thai colleges and universities and increasingly seeks the quality and prestige of foreign universities.

Reflecting this, Thai universities continue to underperform in world university rankings. Given these trends, there is an urgent need for reform of the Thai higher education system.

It is inevitable that these trends will lead to closures, mergers and consolidations, along with the painful downsizing of administration, faculty and staff and reductions or eliminations in low enrolment and non-essential programmes.

These challenging trends, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, will be hard enough to address, let alone the more pressing questions of the systemic reforms that are needed to elevate Thailand’s low-performing higher education system to a more regionally competitive status.

Such changes can’t nibble around the edges of reform but rather must be bold and sweeping. These reforms could be very disruptive to Thai institutions and culture. But, if handled correctly, they could be opportunities for significant improvement in many institutions languishing in mediocrity. Here is how it can be done.

Thailand as a regional hub for education

Thailand’s higher education system should be rebuilt to become a true educational hub for the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region. The goal should be to provide a world-class university education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels for its own citizens as well as those in the ASEAN region.

Thailand has become a global leader in tourism and health services. Consequently, there is a readily available roadmap for Thailand’s higher education sector to follow.

First steps for Thai higher education would include raising its quality so that Thailand can keep more of its own students and attract top foreign students (and their tuition dollars) as well as expert faculty (both Thai and foreign).

Modernising archaic Thai immigration rules is necessary to permit foreigners to study or teach for longer periods of time in the country.

Also, the slow pace of government efforts to attract prestigious foreign universities to collaborate on projects in Thailand’s economic zones of opportunity has been hindered by Thailand’s predilection for insularity and tradition in a globally connected world.

Since the inception of its efforts at global collaboration eight years ago, there has been just one major project between Carnegie Mellon University and King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang. These partnerships need to increase five-fold and should mirror institutions like Yale-NUS College in Singapore and Duke Kunshan University in China.

Thailand must improve its world rankings

Thailand must up its game in terms of world university rankings by dramatically improving English instruction, teacher training and distance education.

Mahidol, Thammasat and Chulalongkorn universities as well as King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang score well in the Times Higher Education (THE) rankings every year. Thai universities are competitive with some high calibre ASEAN institutions, but they are way behind more prestigious Asian universities, and are non-competitive outside of Asia. To improve these rankings, several things must happen.

English must become the primary language of instruction at all levels of Thai education. Because English is the language of opportunity and is universally recognised as the worldwide language of education, health, science, engineering, finance and commerce, a more concerted commitment to English language instruction beginning at the earliest ages is long overdue.

Thailand also must hire better faculty (both Thai and foreign) with demonstrated research skills that will help to increase their university scholarship portfolios. This is crucial since 70% of THE university rankings are based on the quality and quantity of publishing in high impact, predominantly English-speaking journals.

The teaching of critical thinking skills must also be prioritised. Employers around the world are looking for individuals who can work in teams across cultures, think outside the box and solve difficult problems.

Traditional Thai ways of teaching are antithetical to this educational goal. They promote the professor as infallible with unquestioned authority.

As a result, the dominant mode of teaching in Thailand continues to be rote learning, which does little to promote critical thinking, limits student learning and undermines employability in a global marketplace.

Contemporary learner-centred collaborative approaches combined with flipped classrooms and group problem-solving strategies must replace the old ways of instructor-centred, top-down approaches.

Thailand must also strengthen its commitment to remote education if it is to be a hub for higher education regionally. This will require the country to invest more heavily in 5G technology and equip remote students with the networks and hardware needed for success.

These efforts must especially target adult learners, those who have left college and have not completed their degrees, those who have never started a degree programme and those who come from rural areas.

Keeping the best students

There is a brain drain at almost all levels of Thai higher education. Better students from wealthier families go to foreign universities for their undergraduate training. Those who go onto graduate education and postdoctoral work do the same. Many choose not to come back to Thailand because they know they can do better elsewhere where opportunities, salaries and advancement are greater.

Keeping Thai citizens in Thailand for their education or luring them to return once their international education is completed should be a top priority.

Education at a crossroads

Thailand’s higher education system is at a historic crossroads. The old ways of doing things, some deeply woven into the fabric of Thai culture, have produced generations of students with disappointing results and lost opportunities.

The government must resolve to strengthen its higher education sector by investing in bold new ideas that emulate the country’s success in health services and tourism, which can lead to greater prosperity for its citizens and a status for Thailand commensurate with its abundant natural and human endowments.

Kevin FF Quigley is a former Fulbright scholar and Peace Corps volunteer to Thailand. He was also Peace Corps country director to Thailand and former president at Marlboro College in the United States. Bruce B Svare is a former Fulbright scholar to Thailand and is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the State University of New York at Albany in the US. He is also a visiting professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand. Both have written extensively on higher education issues in the US and Thailand.