Open door policy is needed for foreign universities

Natchapol Praditpetchara

Although Thailand is home to over 160 universities and colleges, the rankings of our universities consistently fail to impress and lag behind our neighbors like Singapore and even Malaysia.

The ShanghaiRanking Consultancy’s 2017 Academic Ranking of World Universities, which prioritises research, can only list one Thai university among its top 500 institutions, whereas Singapore has two in the top 200 and Malaysia has two in the top 500.

Meanwhile, the latest QS World University Rankings, which emphasises more on students’ educational experience, can only list two Thai universities in the top 400 while Singapore has two in the top 20 and Malaysia has five in the top 300.

While these rankings may contain flaws and biases, the results are still worrying on many levels. Thai universities on average clearly under-perform not only in instructional quality but also in the depth and breadth of research produced.

This unsurprisingly has led to our universities failing to produce enough skilled graduates to meet the current demands of the private sector. This is worryingly at odds with the government’s Thailand 4.0 roadmap and its emphasis on the targeted modern industries in the Thai government’s first and new S-Curves.

One reform that could make higher education here more responsive to the country’s needs is by making Thailand more welcoming to high-quality foreign universities. Attracting leading universities can bring in high-quality instruction, innovation, and personnel, as well as opportunities for cooperation with local universities and the private sector that can significantly improve human capital. There are plenty of examples of this in other countries.

For instance, New York University Shanghai has established five research centres on mathematical sciences, computational chemistry, cognitive science, social development, and physics with its local partner, the East Normal China University.

These centres bring together the faculties and resources from both universities to share knowledge and conduct research that is mutually beneficial for both institutions and their surrounding areas.

Another example is the American University of Phnom Penh establishing the Centre for Leadership and Professional Development just last year. The Centre brings internationally recognised training programmes to improve the knowledge and capabilities of Cambodians and Cambodian businesses. The programmes offered, some of which award diplomas, include leadership training, financial literacy training, team-building techniques, marketing strategies, and the foundations of operational management.

These examples are far from isolated. In recent years, leading universities are establishing campuses and cooperating with local institutions in a large number of countries. But all of this then leads to the question: what about Thailand?

Although there are some foreign universities operating in Thailand, they are few and far between and it is not hard to see why. Foreign universities face numerous obstacles if they wish to establish a campus in Thailand.

First, education is one of the sectors where foreign businesses may not participate in under the Foreign Business Act as it is considered to be a services industry. The official justification is that Thai service operators – higher education institutions in this case – are not yet ready for foreign competition.

Thus, if foreign universities wish to establish a campus in Thailand, they must find a Thai partner or ask for special permission from the director general of the Department of Business Development, which is far from a straightforward matter, just to obtain a licence to establish a campus.

Assuming they manage to obtain a licence, another obstacle they face is the composition of the university council. Under the Private Institution of Higher Education Act, all universities must be led by a university council, of which at least half of its members must be Thai.

Elsewhere, there are also several other restrictions such as those on land possession, the curriculum of professional degrees (eg engineering, architecture, medicine), the ratio of foreign faculty to Thai faculty, and foreign faculty work permits, which must be renewed every year, that foreign universities have to comply with. In short, Thai laws make it very hard for foreign universities to operate here unless they have a Thai partner which means they may have to sacrifice some autonomy and quality-control along the way.

The government has recently floated the idea of attracting high-calibre universities to establish campuses in the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) in order to produce skilled graduates to support the targeted industries there. Nevertheless, without significant regulatory reform, it is hard to envision such universities coming here.

First, the government should repeal education from its list of vocations forbidden to foreigners. Our need for skilled labour and advanced research is far too urgent to wait for Thai universities to be ready for foreign competition, a notion which itself is hard to objectively determine. Second, the nationality rule of university councils should also be relaxed. This will allow for greater management and instructional autonomy for foreign universities. Third, the requirement that companies must hire four Thais for every foreign work permit should be waived at least initially when foreign universities are likely to rely heavily on foreign personnel.

To their credit, the government has recently made moves to relax some of the burdensome regulations. The incentives that are planning to be offered in the EEC such as the 99-year lease for plots of land over 100-rai in size and the 5-year work permits for foreign nationals are all a good start. These incentives should also be offered to universities that wish to establish campuses there if they offer courses or do research in the targeted industries.

Despite the benefits of liberalisation, it can also backfire without some regulation. Not every foreign university is of a high standard and there are also many cases of universities establishing foreign campuses which are of a far lower standard than that of their domestic campuses.

Hence, there should be a list of criteria that universities must fulfil before coming here such as for instance, being ranked in the top 100 in the targeted disciplines and ensuring that the standard of instruction of their Thai campuses will be similar to that of their local campuses.

Furthermore, some requirements for cooperation with the private sector or Thai universities should also be mandated to ensure we reap the full benefits of liberalisation.

Another avenue that the government should also actively explore is to start accrediting well-recognised online courses. There is currently a plethora of online courses covering everything from music theory to machine learning. These courses are often offered by some of the world’s best universities such as Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), UC Berkeley, and Oxford University. Many of these courses are available at little to no cost and are taught by the faculty of these universities themselves. Accrediting the courses hardly costs the government anything and provides students with access to knowledge that is often beyond what their universities can offer.

Liberalisation can certainly be a politically sensitive issue and should be carefully considered. But given the pressing need for more skilled labour to support our 4.0 industries however, it is clear that the time has come to welcome leading foreign universities to the country.

Natchapol Praditpetchara is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.


First Published: Bangkok Post on Wednesday, October 25, 2017