East-West consortium to tackle global challenges, SDGs

Universities in Thailand and the United Kingdom are working together as a major consortium of institutions to facilitate research on global challenges, improve the internationalisation of Thai universities and expand their focus on development issues.

The consortium includes seven Thai and 14 UK universities partnering on 15 research projects. Another aim is to assist Thailand’s ambitions to revamp its universities to become globally competitive.

The first three-year project started in 2020, with a memorandum of understanding signed in 2021, and this year it was extended until the end of 2025, with collaborations covering a range of areas such as development studies, chemical engineering, life sciences, medicine, architecture, and agriculture and forestry.

These topics “speak directly to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), geared to improving the future of the planet and all those that live on it”, according to the British Council which is working with the Thai Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation to form a partnership and knowledge-sharing platform between universities in the two countries.

Helga Stellmacher, country director (Thailand) of the British Council, told University World News the UK-Thailand consortium, similar to the council’s work elsewhere in Asia, is “designed to foster collaboration between the UK and countries wherever we are working to make sure that it fosters a more inclusive and globally connected higher education system”.

But the project has broad aims including mobility of PhD scholars, capacity building, how to build partnerships and set up joint degree programmes, she said, adding that a secretariat has been set up at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University – a project partner – to coordinate the consortium.

Community-based projects

Thailand has a number of community-based projects which universities are hoping to expand and develop through the consortium.

“We have been engaged in community development for 53 years already. We have a lot of local knowledge on community development studies and it is important that through this consortium we can bring our local knowledge to international recognition,” Nitinant Wisaweisuan of the Puey Ungphakorn School of Development Studies at Thammasat University in Bangkok told University World News.

In another consortium project, Chulalongkorn University is partnering with the UK’s University of Sussex, University of Bristol and London School of Economics and Political Science to develop new methodologies to solve local and global flood-related challenges and climate change impact.

As one of the top 10 countries globally to be affected by extreme weather in the past two decades, Thailand has a high incidence of severe flooding.

The partners will use high-resolution climate modelling to develop flood risk maps for Thailand, research how government policies have shaped communities’ responses to flooding and how community knowledge and resilience can be applied to creating better flood management policies in the country.

Introducing ‘sufficiency economics’

According to Wisaweisuan, Thammasat’s school of development studies does not have an international programme or programmes of exchanges. “So this will be a great opportunity to expose our staff and students, to gain international visibility,” she said.

She also hopes to introduce the Thai Buddhist development concept of ‘sufficiency economics’ to its UK partner in the consortium: Lancaster University.

Sufficiency economics was promoted by the late King Bhumibol of Thailand around the three guiding principles of moderation, rational thinking and prudence. Under this philosophy, sustainable development can be achieved only when there is a balance among economic, social, environment and cultural spheres.

"We are selected to receive funding from the Thailand International Corporation Agency (TICA), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to organise a two-week annual training course on 'Sufficiency Economy Philosophy: the Engine towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals' for officers of developing countries, such as Bhutan, Laos, Cambodia, South Africa, Chile, Uganda and Tonga, with the aim that they can utilise the sufficiency economy philosophy to design appropriate strategy, policy and actions to achieve the sustainable development goals," said Wisaweisuan, adding: "We try our best to introduce this to our UK university counterparts when they come to Thailand so that they can experience the actual community development."

A successful example of sufficiency economics can be seen in the Baan Nong Khao Community Welfare Fund project in Tamuang, Kanchanaburi province, which won the annual Puey Ungphakorn Prize in 2020 for best practices relating to the revival of cultural values and norms to strengthen social cohesion.

“The Baan Nong Khao village is rich in culture, reflected in the various styles of loincloth fabric and famous artistic old-fashioned designs of jewellery made from jasper [stone],” said Wisaweisuan.

“Promoting collective engagement by members of the village and the inauguration of a local museum successfully promoted cultural tourism which subsequently led to job creation with secure incomes and, most importantly, preservation of local treasures [allowing them] to continue to future generations.”

Bhanubhatra Jittiang, a professor of development studies at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, said: “We are trying to refocus and redevelop our programme to become a hub for development studies in the region. But we need to develop expertise in multidisciplinary studies.”

Pointing to collaboration with the UK’s University of Warwick as part of the consortium, Jittiang said it “gives us a glimpse of how such a programme is running”.

“We want to partner and learn from them,” he said, adding that a professor from Warwick is expected to visit Bangkok soon to run a workshop on multidisciplinary studies.

Ageing as a common concern

Stellmacher also noted a number of collaborative projects looking at ageing.

“Thailand’s ageing problem is coming a bit quicker than the United Kingdom’s,” she said, pointing to UK advances in cancer research as being relevant for partnership in this area.

Chiang Mai University’s faculty of medicine and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, with additional input from University College London and the University of Oxford, have set up a project to improve an understanding of ageing and chronic conditions to improve the health and health equity of people in Thailand.

The project includes the epidemiology of chronic disease and research into how health systems, policies and science can best respond to these conditions in Thailand and elsewhere.

Dr Nattawan Utoomprurkporn, a doctor specialising in neurotology at the otolaryngology department, faculty of medicine, Chulalongkorn University and King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital, is a partner in the Thai-UK consortium through her teaching and research role at Chulalongkorn University faculty of medicine.

She hopes to develop a joint academic curriculum and joint research activities for the care of older adults – part of SDG 3 on healthy ageing, and SDG 10 on reducing inequalities and discrimination in later life, as well as SDG 1 on ending poverty in old age and SDG 17 on partnerships.

“We are preparing Thailand to be ready for an ageing society,” Utoomprurkporn told University World News, noting that the UK already has many older adults.

Utoomprurkporn, who worked for many years in the UK before returning to Thailand, pointed to cultural differences in the way that older people live in the two countries, noting that the consortium will provide an opportunity for partners to learn from each other as both countries age. “Through research we can develop new ways of helping people,” she said.

She added that the Thai-UK consortium could create a joint curriculum for training health workers in Thailand. A mobility programme for young doctors and staff “can enhance our skills and perspective in taking care of patients with diversity”, she noted.

Thai family support plays a tremendous role in this regard, which may be applicable to older adults in the UK who come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

In the UK she found that older people often “lived separately from their children and they have to learn to live independently”, including shopping and cooking for themselves. “In Thailand they live with family, so they expect their children to help … so there is room to learn from each culture,” she said.

Her latest research with the UK, supported by the British Council, gathers experts from University College London, the University of York and the University of Cambridge to study the attitudes of older adults in Thailand in adopting new hearing technology.

World-class research and rankings

Although one of the stated aims of the consortium is to help Thai universities to raise their research to world-class levels and achieve higher positions in global higher education rankings, Utoomprurkporn said this was not a priority for her.

“As a doctor and teaching consultant we are doing our best to train the younger generation of doctors … and doing cutting-edge research to make Thailand a [medical] hub for the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] region,” she said.

“It’s not about whether we become a top-ranking university. That’s a by-product. The ultimate aim is to take better care of older people in Thailand and do good research in this area.”

With the lack of English language skills among many of Thailand’s academic staff, Thailand’s universities have been slow in climbing the ladder of international rankings. Thailand’s highest-ranking university is Chulalongkorn University at 224th in the QS World University Rankings and Mahidol University comes next at 256th.

Stellmacher said the inclusion of some of Thailand’s top universities in the consortium was in part to assist them in improving their world ranking in the next five to 10 years, with higher quality research and international partnerships.