How can Rajabhat universities pull back from the precipice?

Thailand’s 38 Rajabhat universities have done so much to foster human development and expand the middle class in the post-World War II era – but now they are facing serious challenges.

Those challenges are also increasingly evident in other countries and regions: dramatic demographic shifts resulting in a smaller college-age cohort, increasing competition internally and externally and growing scepticism about their quality of education and whether the Rajabhats’ curricula equip most students for meaningful work.

These challenges are putting Thailand’s Rajabhat universities under enormous pressure, although this is perhaps not fully recognised yet.

Like many higher education institutions in the United States, Japan and Korea, Thailand’s Rajabhat universities are experiencing dramatic enrolment declines.

After a 15% decline in incoming classes over the past five years, the Ministry of Education is predicting that there will be a further drop in the next decade, dropping from 80,000 to 40,000 incoming students annually.

Such a steep enrolment decline will have enormous implications for the viability of the Rajabhat universities, which are important institutions in their home provinces.

The history of Rajabhat universities

Back in 1975, the call for increasing numbers of teachers to meet a goal of compulsory education through ninth grade due to a rapidly increasing population and a growing economy led Thailand’s teacher training institutions to become teacher colleges offering bachelor degrees in education.

Still under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, these teacher colleges were upgraded into Rajabhats in 1995. This change engendered significant challenges when in 2004 they were made Rajabhat universities.

With university status, Rajabhats were authorised to offer doctoral and other graduate degrees. These institutions were brought alongside other universities, overseen by the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation (MHESI).

Whether the Rajabhats were ready to take on the role of a full-fledged university is an open question.

Although the 38 Rajabhats are a modest segment of Thailand’s higher education sector, which has increased from 26 higher institutions in 1972 to 156 private and public universities in 2022, they have been the most important higher education institutions outside of Thailand’s four largest urban centres: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen and Hat Yai.

With the exception of the Bangkok-based Rajabhat universities, each Rajabhat generally serves one or two of Thailand’s 77 provinces.

With the Bangkok-based elite institutions academically and economically way beyond the reach of the then largely rural Thai population and very few regional universities, teacher colleges dramatically increased access to higher education in the provinces, responding to Thailand’s keen appetite for it.

There are many examples of how these institutions expanded access to higher education. A teacher college colleague and friend from the 1970s is just one example. This friend grew up in a remote, border district in Northeast Thailand, often described as the poorest part of the country. His father died when he was young; his mother had four years of education and never became proficient in the Central Thai language, the country’s official language.

As a bright young man, this colleague was admitted into the teacher college in his home province, where he did well and earned an associate degree. That enabled him to attend another teacher college in a nearby province, which offered bachelor degrees. There, he earned a degree in English and was hired to teach at the college where he had graduated just a few years earlier.

These teacher colleges expanded access not only to national but global education. Because of his industriousness and with the help of government scholarships to upgrade the academic backgrounds of teacher college faculty, he earned a masters degree and then later a doctoral degree in linguistics from a university in the United States. His son graduated from an Australian university.

MHESI’s approach

Recognising the challenges to Thailand’s higher education sector, and especially the Rajabhat universities, MHESI established a series of goals to improve their quality and competitiveness. Among the major goals for the Rajabhats are that they should:

• Reinvent themselves by significantly revising their curricula.

• Improve their international standing by achieving better international rankings by increasing the publication of their faculty in international journals, among other things.

• Strengthen the teaching of foreign languages, especially Chinese and English.

• Enhance their connections with their surrounding communities.

While these goals, especially the fourth, are generally sound, the question is whether the Rajabhats have the resources – time, talent, funding and knowledge assets – to achieve them.

There is also a related question of whether achieving these recommendations will actually enhance their competitiveness, if every Rajabhat follows the same policy prescription.

Even if some goals are achieved, they may not necessarily help the Rajabhats to maintain the enrolments needed to be sustainable. Also, even if they could reach the targeted enrolments, they may not be recognised for quality in some offerings.

Although it makes considerable sense to revise their curricula to better connect classroom learning with the world of work and modify the timing and content of courses to attract more students, this is no simple task.

Similarly, strengthening the teaching of foreign languages is an important recommendation. However, if the past is prelude, as the poet Wordsworth suggests, Thailand’s limited success in teaching English during the post-World War II era despite having mandatory English language instruction shows this will be a considerable challenge.

For a variety of reasons, including excessive emphasis on grammar and pronunciation as well as slow responses to the adoption of novel teaching approaches that could link to diverse jobs in the future, this leaves many Thais having a low motivation to improve their English proficiency.

With the geographic proximity of China, growing economic ties and generous funding of Chinese language study, along with the numerous joint degree programmes between the Rajabhats and Chinese universities, suggest that the prospect for improved teaching of Chinese is far brighter than it is for English language instruction.

There is plenty of evidence that increasing the publication of articles in English language academic publications requires enormous resources. As we are also coming to understand, international publication is a process fraught with peril; while it may improve a university’s international ranking, it doesn’t necessarily translate to greater student success.

Very few institutions, outside of the elite universities in Thailand – such as Chulalongkorn, Thammasat and Mahidol – have the resources to provide the research and language support necessary to achieve this international publication goal on a sustained basis.

A potential downside to all these goals is that they apply to all the Rajabhats despite their varied strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Rajabhats situated in large urban centres – like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Suan Sunandha – have more resources and are much more likely to achieve these goals.

Some Rajabhats, including those in the border areas or large tourist centres, are well positioned to achieve the teaching of the foreign language goals. All of the Rajabhats, however, can and should strengthen their relationships with their surrounding communities, developing programmes that respond to national policies and their own specific contexts.

Ways forward

If all the Rajabhats follow the MHESI’s ambitious goals, and it is likely that they won’t all implement them well, this will not enhance their competitiveness.

Rather than attempting to achieve all the MHESI goals, the Rajabbhats should play to their comparative advantage, focusing efforts and resources where they have the greatest possibility to make a difference. For most Rajabhats, that is repositioning so that they focus their resources on strengthening connections with their communities.

Although this is common knowledge, it is worth stating the obvious: universities can’t exist without students. Given the dramatic decline in college-age students over the last two decades, the Rajabhats are experiencing a significant decrease in enrolment.

This has clear implications for their finances. Therefore, it is imperative that they rethink their focus and strategies to attract more students. That may be through expanding dual-enrolment programmes where secondary school students can enrol on Rajabhat courses, as well as expanding lifelong learning opportunities for mature students.

Thailand, like many Asian countries, has a rapidly ageing population with an ongoing need to learn and adapt to sustain and improve their citizens’ quality of life. With mandatory retirement at 60, and even if it increases to 62 or 63 given increasing life expectancy, attracting mature students is a significant opportunity for all the Rajabhats.

To effectively increase the number of both younger and older students, the Rajabhat universities will need to meet their students on their terms: flexible courses, hybrid learning models, short courses and many more certificate courses.

Faculty and staff have to be refocused to accomplish this. Before then, they need to look within and attempt to become the very first group to develop a future-oriented mindset and retrain students to accommodate the changing learning environments and platforms.

In addition, each Rajabhat should have what is commonplace in most universities but not in Rajabhats – a dedicated team recruiting and retaining the students they need to be viable.

On the edge of the precipice

The Rajabhat universities, which have done so much to advance development and provide educational opportunities for millions of people in Thailand, are on the edge of a precipice. They will have to adapt in significant ways or risk closure or forced mergers. This will require changes in mindset, policy and practice.

In Thailand, as in many other countries, it is difficult to make adjustments in the higher education sector. This process of making needed changes should start with university councils, senior leadership and faculty.

To make needed changes, the Rajabhats will have to act swiftly, smartly and strategically. Time is not an ally. Over the last few years, we have seen higher education globally adapt quickly and respond to the pandemic’s challenges by moving to meet the urgent need for online learning.

We are hopeful that Thailand’s Rajabhats will recognise their perilous enrolment circumstances and make the alterations needed so that they can continue to serve Thailand’s higher education needs, gaining recognition for doing what has been their expertise for decades: serving their local communities’ educational needs.

Kevin Quigley is former president of Marlboro College, which merged with Emerson College in the United States in 2020, and was recently a Fulbright senior specialist working with the leaders of the Rajabhats in Northern Thailand. Porntip Kanjananiyot is former executive director of the Thailand-US Educational Foundation and a senior official at Thailand’s higher education ministry. Quigley and Kanjananiyot presented these ideas to Rajabhat leaders at a workshop in May 2022.