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Thailand to open up to foreign higher education institutions

Foreign universities and colleges will soon be able to operate in Thailand, as part of the government’s plan to improve the country’s tertiary education system and fill skills gaps.

ThailandThailand's cabinet and the ruling junta have agreed to invoke constitutional powers allowing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to push through measures to allow “high-potential” foreign higher education institutions to open branches in Thailand. Photo: World Travel and Tourism Council

“People shouldn’t be worried that they will steal students from Thai universities, because the courses will be for different target groups”

The cabinet and the ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order, have agreed to invoke constitutional powers to push through measures to allow “high-potential” foreign higher education institutions to open branches in Thailand, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, Sansern Keawnkamnerd, said.

“If we wait, Thailand may not be able to produce necessary human resources for the new trends in time”

Article 44 of Thailand’s interim constitution bestows Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha with absolute power to pass legislation deemed necessary to “strengthen public unity and harmony” or prevent any act that undermines public peace.

“If we use normal rules of the Office of the Higher Education Commission, it will take too long for such universities to kick off. If we wait that long, Thailand may not be able to produce necessary human resources for the new trends in time,” explained Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin.

Under the new rules, foreign education institutions will only be able to operate within the country’s Special Economic Zones.

The move is part of a broader strategy to drive economic growth and innovation in Thailand. “We have set our sights on embracing Thailand 4.0,” he said, referring to a national strategy to move towards an innovation-driven economy.

As such, foreign institutions will only be allowed to offer courses that are not currently provided by Thai institutions and to teach Thai students.

“People shouldn’t be worried that they will steal students from Thai universities, because the courses will be for different target groups and wouldn’t be redundant with the available ones,” said the education minister, who will chair a committee charged with managing incoming foreign institutions.

They must comply with standard regulations and standards for higher education courses.

The cabinet is especially keen for foreign institutions to offer vocational courses.

Several domestic universities appear to have welcomed the move, acknowledging that it may increase competition but will likely have a positive impact on quality in the country as a result.

“It’s going to be more competition for the Thai universities, but I think we can do more in terms of the collaborations with foreign universities, so I think it’s a good thing,” commented Orapan Yolrabil, Thammasat University’s associate dean for international affairs.

Lower-ranked universities may struggle because of the increased competition, however, especially as Thailand’s declining population means there is less demand for places from students, she told The PIE News.

“A Thai campus may be an interesting option for the right institution”

Speaking with local news outlet The Nation, Suchatvee Suwansawat, head of the Council of University Presidents of Thailand and rector of King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, likewise said: “[Incoming foreign institutions] must be really outstanding or they wouldn’t survive, as parents would rather send their kids to Thai schools if they weren’t very good.”

“The foreign institutes’ presence would also help keep Thai researchers, teachers, administrators and university students on their toes,” he added.

The introduction of foreign universities may also enable Thai institutions to broaden their internationalisation efforts, noted Supreedee Ruttironk, assistant to the rector of foreign affairs at Thammasat University.

“Some universities have regular basis collaboration like exchange, but we haven’t done anything else,” he explained. “This will be an opportunity to do something else, besides the exchange of students: internships that bring more human value, investing in human capacity; and it will bring up the economy of both countries.”

Whether Thailand will emerge as a desirable place for overseas providers to put down roots remains to be seen, however.

Despite being South Asia’s fourth largest international student recruitment market, its outgoing student cohort is less than a fifth of that in the third largest market, Vietnam.

“For many institutions, Bangkok and Chiang Mai remain stops on the way to (or from) Vietnam, Indonesia or Malaysia,” noted Kim Morrison, CEO of education and market entry specialists Grok Global Education.

“It is doubtful that Thailand would ever rival Malaysia in the area of transnational education” because of the latter’s superior infrastructure, political stability and connections with Islamic countries, along with its proximity to Singapore, Morrison said.

“That said, the Malaysian TNE space is also very saturated and, assuming Thailand remains politically stable, a Thai campus may be an interesting option for the right institution,” she added.

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