Beyond borders: International challenges and opportunities for the industry

The advent of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, has presented Thailand and the Ministry of Education (MoE) with a shift in the region’s status quo that has required wholesale reform of the education system (see overview). Yet the AEC also presents opportunities for Thailand to capitalise on international demands for education across all tiers and is feeding national aspirations of being an educational centre.

INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLING: Over 2.8m students are enrolled in international schools worldwide, according to ISC Research, a UK-based organisation dedicated to researching international schools. That figure is expected to grow over the next 10 years, and the international schools sector has consistently bucked trends during the economic downturn. The average increase in student enrolment exceeded 10% in 2011.

Thailand is home to 159 international schools, of which 103 are concentrated in Bangkok, while others are opening in smaller cities, according to ISC Research. Thailand leads the region, exceeding Malaysia’s 101 schools and Singapore’s 67. Globally, Thailand ranked eighth in Asia, between Saudi Arabia (with 152 schools) and Hong Kong (with 165 schools). Its worldwide ranking is indicative of the needs of Thailand’s large expatriate population, but growth has also been supported by surging local demand.

GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES: Institutions offering British and American curricula have taken the lead since market liberalisation in the 1990s that removed restrictions on Thai children attending international schools. Now, schools have started to accommodate wider curricula options, like the International Baccalaureate, driven by greater middle-class affluence, aspiration and international outlook, Martin Kneath, principal of the Regents School, Bangkok campus, told OBG. “There is a replication of what is happening in the in the UK, in that when you can afford it, you pay for an independent [private] education because it is perceived as better. I think that is the perception among Thais, along with the fact that they want their children to learn English,” he said.

International schools in Thailand have also profited from a perceived flight to quality, offering a range of key performance indicators absent in the public school system, as well as more curricula choices and extensive, modern campuses. With fees about a third of counterparts in the West, these schools have undeniably capitalised on the sense of prestige that accompanies enrolment. International schools have also helped to feed a thriving study abroad industry for Thailand’s higher education students. Popular destinations include the UK, Australia and the US. More than 8000 Thai students were reported to be studying in US institutions alone in the 2010/11 academic year.

REGULATION: While international schools in Thailand are subject to separate rules under the MoE and the Office of the Private Education Commission (OPEC), they have also aggressively pursued independent accreditation from global and regional bodies. This has validated their credentials and also mitigated against market exploitation. While most are independent institutions, many of Thailand’s most notable international schools remain privately funded franchises.

Typically this has ensured high standards, subject to comprehensive audits from parent institutions, but some schools have had franchise licences revoked. Parents and teachers have also complained about the economic prerogatives of institutions which establish primary schools as feeders into the more profitable secondary schools. A deliberate reduction of foreign teaching staff once a school’s reputation and revenue stream is also common. Currently, 95 institutes are registered with the International Schools Association of Thailand, which provides a qualitative baseline.

INTERNATIONAL AMBITIONS: As ASEAN borders open and visa restrictions ease, Thailand’s international schools are expected to develop a wider sphere of influence, particularly in South and East Asian markets. This is also the case for Thailand’s higher education providers. The advent of the AEC was featured prominently in the country’s second 15-year Long-Range Plan on Higher Education (2008-22). Public universities, operating under greater autonomy since 2002, have largely anticipated the opportunities and challenges for the AEC, embracing a broader international outlook and business model for their students and institutions.

PROMOTING PARTNERSHIPS: In discussing cooperation between Thai and regional academic institutions, Sasithara Pichaichannarong, MoE’s permanent secretary said, “If you can only study in universities in Thailand it will shorten Thailand’s vision and opportunity, so many universities and institutions are agreeing to credit and curriculum transfers with other universities in ASEAN. It is the aim of this ministry to increase credit transfers and by 2020 we hope Thai teachers can teach in other [ASEAN] universities and vice versa.”

Thailand has enjoyed a 136% increase in its international student population since 2006, according to the MoE. The AEC presents the opportunity to attract more foreign students to public institutions that have been overshadowed by their private counterparts. “The priority for Thai universities is to prepare for the AEC in 2015,” Chulalongkorn University’s president, Pirom Kamolratanakul, told OBG. “We aim to further internationalise our curricula and study-abroad programmes.”

Last year, 103 higher education institutes were hosting foreign students, and Thai universities expect to capitalise on the AEC via joint-degree programmes with overseas universities, generated through memoranda of understanding. For example, Chulalongkorn’s Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration has partnerships with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, both based in the US.

INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION: The education sector has caught the eyes of foreign organisations, as seen in the international partners the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) has attracted. This is particularly the case with Laureate Group, which has used AIT’s intergovernmental status and established name to set up joint ventures with AIT and various governments in order to establish AIT satellite campuses across Asia. In 2012 Laureate Group also bought Stamford International University, making Stamford and AIT part of the Laureate Group’s 43 institutions in 20 countries. This exemplifies the supply gap in Asia, as well as Thailand’s potential as an international centre for higher education.

However, immigration restrictions remain an issue, said AIT’s president, Said Irandoust, as many foreign students elect not to study in Thailand because they must leave after graduating. “Immigration reform in Thailand is needed to attract foreign students to higher education institutions,” he said. This remains a perennial concern, and private universities are expected to siphon off top talent given their access to larger pools of financing. Still, Thailand’s domestic potential, and as regional gateway, is expected to endure. “Singapore is saturated already, but Thailand is a good entry to ASEAN,” said the president of Stamford, Boonmark Sirinaovakul.

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The Report: Thailand 2012

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