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With conventional wisdom as our guide, education should be a seamless path from pre-school through primary and secondary school, followed by a university diploma and perhaps one or two post-graduate degrees. Somewhere along the line, however, reality usually intervenes and unexpected twists and turns appear.
For Kolrakade Kleawpiyah, reality came in the form of September 11th. As a graduate of the Seventh Day Adventist International School, she was headed for the United States when all of sudden that no longer seemed like such a good idea.
Stephen Salamone, a graduate of Bangkok Patana’s tough International Baccalaureate programme, got a bit further. He actually spent a semester in a British university before discovering that was not the path he wanted to follow.
For Nader Nazemi, an Iranian resident of Kuwait, the unexpected has been a routine part of life, beginning with the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Eventually following friends into a Thai university international programme, he quickly became disillusioned and left within a year.
Despite these setbacks, all three young people are still on course for a university degree. Interestingly, they have elected to take an option that, until very recently, was largely unavailable in Thailand.
Kolrakade, Stephen and Nader are students at the Bangkok School of Management. There, they are well on their way to obtaining certificates in various fields of business, taking courses which will earn them the equivalent of about 60 academic credits, roughly the same as the first two years of a US university.
At the moment, these courses are directly transferable to Southern New Hampshire University in the United States and the Bangkok School of Management has ties with universities in several other countries. School officials are actively working to expand this list.
Finding a niche
Appropriately enough, the Bangkok School of Management is located high in an office building on Ploenchit Road in the heart of the city’s business district. The atmosphere is very much like that of a small urban college located in an English-speaking country. The predominate language is English, spoken at the native or near-native level. Like many small colleges abroad, there is a significant international representation. Classes are small and surprisingly interactive and the programme is highly flexible.
All this is by design, say the school’s founders Suchitra Mahaguna and Dr Angela Charumilinda.
“At first we started with what we felt were ‘should have beens’ during our college days,” Ms Suchitra explains. “We were thinking wouldn’t it have been nice if things had been different – if the curriculum had been more flexible, the classes more friendly, if the teachers had been more approachable and the classes more practical.”
“We looked at different curricula – international curricula – and we sort of adapted and adopted looking at the needs of the local students. We found that there’s a niche. There are students who would like to be in a different kind of school. They are happier with a more flexible curriculum.”
That niche, the founders believed, lay in certificates in business including a core certificate in business administration with options to continue for certificates in marketing, international business, or small business management. To give added flexibility to the programme, they decided on a four-term-per-year format, allowing students to enter in January, April, July or September.
The approval process
Having a conception for a school is one thing. Implementing it is another. In Thailand all roads move through the Ministry of Education. “You can’t just go ahead and open a school,” observes Dr Angela. “Everything must go through the Ministry.”
Since the school would offer certificates rather than diplomas, it fell under the jurisdiction of the ministry’s vocational education section, an agency that at that time was more attuned to language programmes or hair dressing schools than to a institution teaching arcane courses like macroeconomics or strategic market planning.
“I suppose it was something quite new to them so there was nothing they could compare it with,” Ms Suchitra speculates. “Like us, they had to work from scratch. They had to eventually get a team of experts to look into it.”
But that took time, Dr Angela adds. “It took several years.”
The turning point, she believes, came in 1999. “I think it was because of educational reform and the new Education Act which basically made them open up to new ideas.”
One thing the school had going for it was that Ms Suchitra and Dr Angela had chosen to develop their own curriculum rather than simply importing one developed by a foreign institution. They were therefore able to tailor their courses to meet ministry guidelines while keeping standards high enough to ensure international acceptance.
“We looked first at the framework given by the Ministry of Education and then we looked at the needs and wants of the students,” Ms Suchitra explains. “We did research on what areas of business they were interested in. Then we looked at different curricula from the US and the UK. We looked at what was offered locally and what we felt was lacking.”
The actual course syllabi were developed by a team of experts and revised in consultation with ministry officials and their advisors. The process was a useful one, Ms Suchitra says, particularly in the final stage.
“In the last stage of the process, they called upon a group of experts from universities, colleges and the private sector,” she recalls. “It really was a fruitful experience.
“During the presentation session, we got to hear responses from academics who work in the universities and from people in the industry. For example, there was a representative from the SME department and we got to hear from him whether our SME curriculum really fit the needs of people in the SME sector.
“In the end, they approved our programme and we were quite pleased. They were all quite positive. It just took a bit too long to get to that stage,” Ms Suchitra relates.
Inside the classroom
Curriculum was only one aspect of the approval process, Dr Angela says. “They look at all aspects of the school. There are requirements in terms of how many classrooms we need, what kind of equipment to have, what materials we’re going to use.”
The school’s virtual library – which gives Bangkok School of Management students instant access to the library resources of the University of Southern Hampshire – took a bit of explaining, Dr Angela says. “They wanted to see concrete things like actual books, actual journals and things like that.”
The teaching staff was an easier matter since the school requires that all must have a minimum of a Master’s Degree and be fluent in English. Teachers in the business courses should also have relevant experience in industry.
Meet Chatchanit Musigchai – Ann to students and colleagues. With two degrees from the United States and long stints abroad, she can easily pass as a native speaker of English. After receiving her MBA, she was hired by the Charoen Pokphand corporation and sent to its Washington DC offices. It was there, she says, that she discovered her love of teaching.
“I was in Washington DC as an expat, a woman alone in an eastern US environment. I had to find something to do in my free time, so I contacted a volunteer organisation.”
She ended up teaching English to Chinese immigrants. “That’s how I started teaching. I didn’t realise how much I loved to teach. When I came back, I applied for a part-time teaching position at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.”
Currently, Ms Chatchanit teaches in the graduate programme of the College of Management at Mahidol University as well as holding the position of special lecturer at the Bangkok School of Management. There she teaches one course per term, alternating between the principles of management, marketing management and export management.
Ms Chatchanit’s teaching style is the antithesis of chalk and talk. Indeed, she spends much of her time moderating class discussions which can get quite lively at times. “I encourage them to participate fully,” she says.
Her export management course this term features very realistic projects in which students go through the various stages of setting up a small export firm.
“At the end of the semester, they will be going to officials at the Department of Export Promotion at the Ministry of Commerce to talk about how they might become a Thai exporter,” she explains.
Marc Schiffman, who has been with the Bangkok School of Management since its inception three years ago, uses a similar approach in his business composition class.
“I try to make it very realistic. I have a major project for the class where they create their own companies.
“So besides learning memos and business, they do research,” Schiffman explains. “They do interviews. They do cost analysis. They create information concerning their product, how to sell it and what it’s short and long-term profit is likely to be. They go out into the field and interview real people.”
Schiffman says he particularly enjoys the give and take of the classroom. “Just a little push and they start interacting. I think it has to do with the multi-nationality of the classes. We have many different nationalities and ages. As a teacher I like different ages because it creates different experiences in the classroom and you can develop that and use it in discussion, in exercises and writing.
“Having cross cultural communication allows the students to experience something beyond the academic. I wish I had had what they have when I was an undergraduate,” he says wistfully.
The students give Bangkok School of Management high marks. Kolrakade says she especially appreciates that the teaching staff have industry experience.
“It’s not just studying from lessons. They give us experience from work that we wouldn’t get elsewhere.”
Small classes are another plus, she adds. “I can get to participate and talk with the instructors a lot – not like in big universities. We exchange ideas. They open up and listen to what we are thinking and how we support our answers.”
Stephen agrees, finding the classroom interaction similar to what he experienced in Bangkok Patana and decidedly different from his British university where big classes were the rule.
The student body reminds him of Patana as well. “In Patana, there are a lot of international students, so you get to learn about different people’s cultures,” Stephen observes. “Here, we’ve got Norwegian students, Thai, English, Italian, Spanish. So it’s not that much different from an international school.”
For Paveena Sachaphimukh, another big advantage of Bangkok School of Management is that it brings her home.
“I needed a change,” she explains. “I hadn’t been spending time with my parents. I was out of the country (mainly in Australia) since I was eight and I just saw them twice a year. I was born here, so I thought it would be good to get to know a bit of my own culture.”
Nader, who feels he lost valuable time in his local university, likes the fact that he can study the year round to make some of that time up. “It’s pretty fast – four terms per year, so I can finish off early. My parents are getting worried,” he says.
Most of these students have firm plans to continue their studies abroad, if not at the undergraduate level, then at the postgraduate level. One who does not is Suwanna Vechamamontien . A mother of two with a secretarial degree and years of experience in the garment industry, she was looking for something different.
“My daughter has gone to study in England, so I decided to stop working to be able to spend time with her there,” she explains. “I still have a lot of free time (in Thailand), so I decided to continue my studies. I’ve been here for two years. I’m almost finished.”
It is a choice she highly recommends for other adults in similar situations. Being older than most other students is not a problem at all, she says.
“I fit in with them very well. I enjoy it. Even though the students are from different nationalities, I think in a way they know how to respect the adults just like in the Thai culture,” Ms Suwanna says.