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Ranking and a Reconceptualisation of University “Reputation” in Thailand

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Since Asiaweek magazine published reports on “The Best Universities in Asia” in 1997, international rankings of universities from various sources have been used as points of reference to compare and contrast Thai universities with others. These ranking results are used for at least two main purposes.

 

On the one hand, politicians, policymakers, university administrators and the media use the results of international ranking to “scandalise” the low quality of Thai higher education. These rankings act as “external forces” in order to steer institutional change, as Gita Steiner-Khamsi notes in Globalization in Education. Thai policymakers use these negative reinforcement to incentivise universities to perform better, to become the “educational hub of Southeast Asia” or even more ambitiously to become “world-class” universities. On the other hand, as Suwimon Wongwanich and Nonglak Viratchai have shown, advocates of league tables believe that ranking results offer policy tools for better use of resource allocation and strategic planning. This paper analyses the implication of international ranking on the reconceptualisation of Thai universities.

 

LOOKING WEST, LOOKING EAST

Comparing Thai universities with those in the West is nothing new. In fact, it has been one of
the major characteristics of Thai higher education. Since the inception in 1916 of the nation’s first university, Chulalongkorn University, Thai elites accepted its inferiority with the West. Phrya Thammasak Montri, leading educator at the time, encapsulated this: “if we use Oxford or Cambridge as the standards, we are not yet ready to establish university… however, if we lowered our standards to be just like those newly established universities that have mushroomed in the West and in the East, we are capable of doing something”.

 

Rankings have accentuated Thailand’s educational inferiority in relation to other universities in the West. The results from ranking are used to indicate the “backwardness” of the Thai system. As one former Ministers of Education says, “Overall, the Thai system is really backward and badly ranked in the international league tables. Very few of our institutions are ranked well in the international competitions world-wide. In short, we have problems of quality students, curriculum, teaching and learning.”

 

To say that these league tables do not change Thailandis an understatement. I argue that these rankings do bring a change at the conceptual level — how Thai universities perceive themselves in relation to others. These rankings have shifted the “reference societies” for what Thailand perceives as “quality” and “good”. European and American universities have always been the exemplars of academic excellence. However, Asian universities have now begun to attract attention from Thai policymakers, academics and the media alike. It has been noted that as the University of Tokyo, the University of Hong Kong and the National University of Singapore have been ranked in the top 10 or top 20 of various world leagues; none of Thai universities are ranked at the top 50 of universities within Asia in the 2015 Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings. Hence, the different points of comparison induce Thai policymakers now to look eastwards for “best practices” and inspiration.

 

A reconceptualisation of university reputation has not only taken place at a regional level, but it has also occurred at a national level. Prior to ranking, university reputation was closely related to its institutional legacy, particularly the years they were established. Chulalongkorn and Thammasat University, the first two universities in Thailand, stood at the apex of the reputation hierarchy.

 

International league tables have challenged this mythical view. Over the year, universities such as Mahidol University, King Mongkut University of Technology and Chiang Mai University performed better than these two universities in various rankings.

 

In the 2015 THE World University Rankings, for example, only King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi and Mahidol University are among the top 100 of best universities in Asia, with the former ranked at the 55th and latter ranked at 91st place. Policymakers and academics believed these results indicate new ways to perceive university’s quality as “evidence-based”, rather than being “emotions-based”.

 

THE ROLE OF RESEARCH

Rankings have in fact intensified the role of research in Thai higher education. Thai universities have been known to be teaching-intensive, and research was not considered as important. Thai academics have seen themselves more as lecturers than as researchers. In order to boost international ranking, more attention has been given to research and international publications. At the institutional level, more financial resources are now available to incentivise academics to conduct research and publish internationally. Interviews with academics at Chulalongkorn, Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen and Thammasat Universities reiterate the increasing importance of research in their universities.

 

In the light of these trends, Thai universities face institutional and individual challenges to transform their attention to research and rankings to tangible results. Firstly, research, particularly that involving publication in overseas journals, is considered as a rather new phenomenon in Thai academia. Daniel Schiller and Ingo Liefner have pointed out that research activity, even in the sciences, only became a regular activity only 10 to 15 years ago in Thailand; meanwhile only 20% of full time academics engaged in some form of research.

 

Secondly, Thailand’s research strategy is based on a piecemeal, rather than comprehensive, approach. The incentives to write and to publish are just part and parcel of the whole picture. The status quo continues to favour teaching. Teaching loads are regularly three classes per semester, which are already demanding, time-consuming and labour-intensive. Meanwhile, many need to moonlight in different universities for extra income.

 

One academic puts it plainly: “I teach six classes a semester. I need the money. We all have to eat”. Given the lack of adequate compensation and a conducive intellectual environment, there is little incentive, interest and possibility to conduct high quality, thorough and sound research.

 

At the end of the day, rankings are a game of reputation. While Thailand struggles to catch up with universities in the East and the West, Thai universities should not lose sight of what universities are meant to be: a place for higher education. Beyond rankings, it is important to prioritise the quality of students’ learning experiences and foster an environment conducive to the pursuit of knowledge. When that actually happens, we would see something actually new.

RATTANA LAO

Rattana Lao is Lecturer at Pridi Banomyong International College, Thammasat University, Thailand.

JULY 2016 | ISSUE 1

What’s New in Higher Education? Southeast Asia and Beyond

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

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About

Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

Stay updated on our latest announcements on events and publications

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