Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.

Science, Technology
& Innovation

Thailand

hesb-10-17-thailand-featured image

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy of 66.5 million people as of 2019 and is the only ASEAN member that is not a former European colony. With a GDP of USD543.65 billion in 2019, it is the largest economy in mainland Southeast Asia, and the second largest after Indonesia.1 Thailand also has one of the region’s most booming tourism industries, with 32.6 million visitors in 2016, contributing to its recent economic success and over 10% of its GDP.2 

 

Thailand’s higher education system has transformed from a small enterprise in the 1970s, following the Private College Act in 1969, into a large complex system comprised of various types of institutions: limited admission and open admission public universities, both of which are fully supported by the government; autonomous universities, which are self-managed and are overseen by an independent university board; private universities; Rajabhat universities, which were originally created as education colleges; and specialised Buddhist and nursing universities. In addition, the Rajamangala University of Technology, a university group of nine campuses founded in 1975 as a college for vocational education, was upgraded to full university status in 2005 and now has over 21,000 students. Including all university types, there are over 170 higher education institutions in Thailand,3 slightly fewer than in 2012 when there were over 220. The contracting number of universities is due to mergers and closure of universities in the private sector in recent years. 

Unlike many countries in the region, Thailand has suffered from declining enrolment numbers, shrinking from 1.82 million undergraduate students in 2014 to 1.65 million in 2018.4 The majority of students are enrolled in public universities despite the number of private universities making up 48% of all universities in 2015. However, as funding for public universities is directly contingent on enrolment numbers, declining enrolment has significant implications for future funding prospects. Autonomous universities, on the other hand, receive government funding in the form of block grants, which are not dependent upon enrolment. Despite overall enrolment trending lower, government expenditures on higher education have increased nearly 62% from 2010 to 2019 to 101.8 billion baht.5 This is a surprising increase considering that Thailand’s overall higher education sector is in an overall state of contraction: in 2015 there were over 50,000 unfilled seats in Thai universities due to fewer applicants. This trend has put increased pressure on Thai universities, prompting the government to reform the national system of enrolment. In 2018, the government implemented the Thai University Central Admission System (TCAS), which shortens the lengthy admission process to approximately six months from ten months. It retains the legacy five-step admission procedure but prevents students from reserving places at multiple institutions, some of which they ultimately forfeit. This change is viewed by the government not only as a way of streamlining applications and minimising unfilled university seats, but also as a means of addressing disadvantages faced by low-income students who cannot afford to pay numerous application fees.6 

 

Demographic Challenges

Though still regarded as a developing country in Southeast Asia, Thailand suffers from notable demographic challenges common in more developed economies. Its rapidly ageing population — of which 11% is now over the age of 657 — and shrinking labour force have resulted in a supply-demand off balance in university places. The large number of universities in the country coupled with increased competition from abroad and a shrinking domestic pool of new students leaves many Thai universities in compromising positions; up to 75% of Thai universities are at risk of closing over the next decade if current trends persist.8 Reduced enrolment is particularly pronounced in the social sciences, where there is a surplus of graduates relative to jobs. 

Fees and Tuition

University fees in Thailand are still considered generally affordable compared to developed study destinations. Fees at public universities for Thais range from approximately USD1,000 per year at a Rajabhat or affordable public university,9 to USD4,500 per year at a medium-cost private university in Bangkok.10 The cost of living in Thailand is generally affordable, though costs in Bangkok — where one third of the nation’s universities are located — are higher than the national average. 

 

Internationalisation, Student Mobility and Future Developments

The Thai Office of the Higher Education Commission (OHEC), a special unit inside the Ministry of Education that is responsible for higher education, has long made internationalisation one of its cornerstone goals. In 2009, the OHEC provided extra funding to Thailand’s nine designated research universities11 under the National Research University Initiative and Research Promotion in Higher Education Project to boost the regional competitiveness of Thai higher education. The OHEC has also been front and centre of the Thai government’s multi-faceted national development plan Thailand 4.0, which aims to transform Thailand into an innovation-led economy and out of the “middle-income trap” by the 2030s. As universities are to play a crucial role in Thailand 4.0, the OHEC has developed a corresponding University 4.0 blueprint, which includes a wide range of goals including the strengthening of ties between universities and industry, and having at least five Thai universities ranked in the world’s top 100 higher education institutions.12 As ASEAN integration is built into the goals of Thailand 4.0, internationalisation is also part and parcel of the OHEC’s higher education agenda. 

 

While the tourism industry has proved to be a boon for the Thai economy and placed it on the global map, transitioning from an image of solely a tourist destination to a higher education hub is proving to be an ongoing challenge for Thai universities in branding themselves abroad. However, Thailand’s strong national image as a dominant regional powerhouse may function as an asset in its internationalisation process. Its medical tourism industry, which grew 358% from 2000 to 2017 and was worth USD11 billion in 2017,13 also built it a reputation as a medical hub, creating opportunities for its higher education sector. In October 2020, the Thai government approved a 62-billion-baht budget to build six medical excellence centres over the next 5-10 years, and is a cross-sector initiative between the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation, the Private Hospital Association and the Tourism Authority.14

 

Though Thailand is not often regarded as an international higher education hub, it now hosts 12,000 international students and is the third most popular study destination in Southeast Asia after Malaysia and Singapore.15 Thailand primarily attracts students from neighbouring countries, most notably China followed by Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Leveraging Thailand’s strong reputation and relative affordability to attract international students could prove to be a viable strategy to abate shrinking domestic enrolment. Many Thai universities offer programmes taught entirely in English, not only to attract international students but to prepare Thai students for the globalised economy. However, the development of foreign branch campuses of Western universities in nearby Malaysia offering foreign degrees has proved to be a formidable force of competition for Thai universities. The relative strength of the Thai baht — an unlikely problem for the hyperinflation-struck Thailand of the late 1990s — and waves of political uncertainty are also less supportive to attracting foreign students and tourists alike. With changing administrations and constitutional reforms has come a revolving door of education ministers,16 posing another challenge to fulfilling Thailand’s ambitious goals for the 2030s. 

ZANE KHEIR

Zane Kheir recently graduated with a PhD in Comparative Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

APRIL 2021 | ISSUE 10

State of the Region: The Commemorative 10th Issue

  1. Trading Economics, “Thailand GDP”, accessed January 29, 2021, https://tradingeconomics.com/thailand/gdp. 

  2. Reuters, “Thailand expects $39.5 billion in tourism revenue in 2020”, July 3, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-thailand-tourism-idUSL4N2EA2IT. 

  3. ICEF Monitor, “Thailand’s Growing Supply-Demand Gap in Higher Education”, October 18, 2017, https://monitor.icef.com/2017/10/thailands-growing-supply-demand-gap-higher-education/. 

  4. Office of Permanent Secretary for Ministry of Education, Ministry of Education, “Number of Higher Education Students at Undergraduate Degree Level in the Formal School System by Jurisdiction: Academic Year 2014–2018”, 2019. 

  5. National Statistical Office, “3 Education Statistics: Education Expenditure by Function: Fiscal Year 2010–2019”, accessed January 29, 2021, http://statbbi.nso.go.th/staticreport/page/sector/en/03.aspx.

  6. The Nation, “New University Admission Later This Year”, June 2, 2017, https://www.nationthailand.com/national/30317070.

  7. ICEF Monitor, “Thailand’s Growing Supply-Demand Gap in Higher Education”, October 18, 2017, https://monitor.icef.com/2017/10/thailands-growing-supply-demand-gap-higher-education/.

  8. 8 Terry Fredrickson, “75% of Thai Universities Could Close as Enrolment Falls and Foreign Competition Heats Up”, Bangkok Post, May 22, 2017, https://www.bangkokpost.com/learning/advanced/1254175/75-of-thai-universities-could-close-as-enrolment-falls-and-foreign-competition-heats-up. 

  9. Suan Sunandha Rajabhat, “Tuition and Fees”, accessed January 29, 2021, https://ssru.ac.th/en/tuitionfees.php.

  10. Assumption University of Thailand Admissions Center, “Tuition Fees”, accessed January 29, 2021, https://admissions.au.edu/?page_id=1375.

  11. The nine are Chiang Mai University, Chulalongkorn University, Kasetsart University, Khon Kaen University, King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, Mahidol University, Prince of Songkla University, Suranaree University of Technology, and Thammasat University.

  12. Buasuwan, Prompilai, “Rethinking Thai Higher Education”, Asian Education and Development Studies 7, no. 2: 157–173; Start Up in Thailand, “Thailand 4.0: A Step Towards Digital Future”, accessed January 29, 2021, https://startupinthailand.com/thailand-4-0-a-step-towards-digital-future/.

  13. Ezree Ebrahim, “The New Era of Medical Tourism”, Bangkok Post, September 24, 2020, https://www.bangkokpost.com/life/social-and-lifestyle/1990983/the-new-era-of-medical-tourism. 

  14. Public Relations Department of Thailand, “Strategies to Set Up Medical Excellence Centers in Various Parts of Thailand”, October 8, 2020, https://thailand.prd.go.th/mobile_detail.php?cid=4&nid=10195.

  15. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education , “QAA, Country Report: Thailand”, 2019.

  16. Rachel Michael, “Education in Thailand”, WENR, February 6, 2018, https://wenr.wes.org/2018/02/education-in-thailand-2.

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

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

Join our mailing list

Stay updated on all the latest news and events

Join our mailing list

Stay updated on all the latest news and events