Higher education in Thailand has entered a new, perilous era. Before 2007, the demand for college education was much greater than the available places.
This demand was sustained by high fertility rates and parents’ desire for children to join the ranks of the privileged. Since 2017, the situation has changed markedly, with demand plummeting to the point where only 230,000 out of 300,000 university seats were applied for this year.
Higher education in Thailand began under King Rama V, who had an earnest wish to modernise the country. In 1902, he set up the Royal Pages School, in the Grand Palace, to provide training on public administration for aspiring civil servants. In 1910, King Rama VI changed its name to King Chulalongkorn’s Civil Servants School, which the same year became Chulalongkorn University, the first in Thailand. It was followed by Thammasat in 1934, and Kasetsart, Mahidol and Silpakorn universities, in 1943.
But in 1990, a sea change occurred in Thailand as the birth rate dropped below replacement levels. As a result, 17 years later the number of university applications began falling.
However, demand remained high for the limited supply of seats, with only 12 per cent of high school graduates accepted into university,
Each year, approximately 2 million candidates, including those who were refused previously, were waiting to gain admission. The majority of them would never have been able to enrol in a university had it not been for the Student Loan Fund (SLF), launched in 1998.
The SLF removed the economic barrier to children of the underprivileged, who viewed it as a route out of poverty and a potential gold mine. In the decade after the SLF began, some 106 new universities and colleges were created. About 40 per cent were upgraded from the teacher or vocational colleges while the majority were private institutions, most set up just to profit from the SLF. Currently, there are 310 higher-education institutions. Of these only 29 are premier public universities.
If distributed equally, each institution would receive about 9,500 students per annum – which would easily generate enough revenue for the universities. In reality, the 29 premier public universities fill their capacity first, leaving a few hundred for each established private university. The situation is now worsening, with even public universities finding some of their classrooms are empty. Administrators of both public and private institutions are concerned about generating enough revenue to sustain their academic programmes. In fact, eight private institutions have recently been forced to close. In another case, a private university has been taken over by Chinese investors. This has triggered fears of “neo-colonialism” in Thailand’s education system.
Meanwhile Thai higher education is in danger of further collapse, as demographic trends and poor management threaten even public universities.
To avoid disaster, public universities, which are all tax-supported, need to transform themselves.
Where must the transformation begin? It begins within the administrative systems. First, public universities should change from their political model of management – in which a political clique seeks power to govern in order to protect its own interests – to a professional management model. At almost all Thai universities, the president selects the university council members, who then appoint the president, or vice versa. The professional model of searching for the most competent person to lead the university as practised within the world’s great universities has not yet arrived in Thailand.
Second, public universities need to manage their budgets more prudently. A recent study of nine public universities, seven of which are ranked in the top 10, revealed disturbing facts. Over the past six to 10 years, depending on the availability of data, all of them had benefited from an increase in government allocated budget, ranging from a low of 2 per cent to as high as 30.8 per cent. At the same time, all of them have enjoyed an average annual rise in revenue, mostly from tuition fees, ranging from 1.9 to 36.1 per cent. The bulk of the budgets fund two expenditures: salary and compensation, and procurements that sustain the administrative system. Yet, in exchange for that budget money, the public universities do not provide commensurate social, economic, political and scientific benefits to Thailand
As Thai universities have to compete in the world rankings – which depend mainly on research output – producing high numbers of quality scientific research should be the major focus, along with teaching. Research output, such as scientific publications and awards, should be adopted as the primary criterion in appointing and rewarding faculty members and assessing the worth of keeping the schools or departments.
In addition to teaching, the government should mandate all universities to work with their communities through outreach services. Universities need to play a pivotal role in national development, especially in the “soft” sciences – those that prepare students to solve socio-political problems. Each university also needs to adapt to suit its communities’ needs. The key to the success of the world’s great universities is autonomy of decision-making for the appropriate university unit – not trying to centralise education policymaking at the highest university level.