Why Asian nations should invest in cross-border education: the Thailand opportunity

Why Asian nations should invest in cross-border education: the Thailand opportunity

International higher education has evolved over the last several decades, influenced by global economic changes. There is a plethora of academic research on student mobility, with a rich history that is centuries old.

Cross-border education has been defined by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2007 as the movement of people, programs, providers, curricula, projects, research and services in tertiary (or higher) education across national jurisdictional borders. Cross-border education is a subset of educational internationalisation, which generally refers to educational activities that take place across borders such as inter-institutional agreements, dual-degree programs collaborative research, cross-cultural exchanges, faculty mobility, and, in this context, student mobility.

The world has witnessed significant advocacy for global tertiary education. The number of international students pursuing their degrees abroad grew exponentially, from 2.1 million in 2001 to 5 million in 2018. The top-host countries are the USA (28%), UK (11%), Germany (9%), France (7%), Australia (4%), Japan (3%), Spain (2%), Belgium (2%), and others (34%).

The US remains the top country to host cross-border education students. However, over the past three years, it is observing a decline in enrolment, mostly due to cost and stringent visa processes. The pre and post-election political climate has also contributed to the fall. Enrolment numbers show that Canada, UK, and Australia have started to increase their share of the international market.

The decline in the international enrolments in the US could also be attributed to the emerging markets. Since the early 2000s, non-traditional host countries including Jordan, Singapore, Japan, and China announced their plans to host students from all over the world by 2020 to 2025. Some states, like China, created specific scholarships to attract international students (their goal is to increase the international student population by up to 500,000 by the year 2025). As of 2016, China was responsible for 8% of the entire international student population of the world. The US has been reporting the average annual impact from international students to be 30 billion USD. In 2018, China estimated the global student population to be between 300,000 – 500,000, naming students from Thailand in the top five largest countries of origin.

In the meantime, Thailand is facing great demographic challenges as it is facing the most substantial proportion of senior citizens among developing countries in East Asia. The percentage of the Thai population that is 65 years or older has more than doubled over the last 20 years, from 5% in 1995 to 11% in 2016. Demographers project that more than a quarter of the population will fall into this oldest age bracket by 2040. Subsequently, a similar decline will appear in the workforce of Thailand.

As a result of these demographic changes, there is a possibility that higher education in Thailand will suffer from low enrolments, and that private universities will notice it the most. However, cross-border education is still in existence, as the number of outbound students from Thailand is 28,000, and this number is slowly expanding annually. The US has historically been the preferred study destination for Thai degree-seeking students and presently continues to be the most popular destination country, accounting for 25 % of enrolments abroad in 2016 (7,052 students), according to the UIS. The US is followed by other English-speaking countries: the UK (6,246 students) and Australia (4,751 students), as well as Japan (2,256 students). Over the past decades, the market share of the US, however, has declined significantly in favor of countries like the UK, where the number of Thai degree students has almost tripled since 2002. The students are seeking more applied education and higher return on investment programs in preparation for the Thailand 4.0 vision.

There is an imperative need to prepare more diverse global citizens for the modern job market, and the higher education market lacks a rapid response to the demands of the region. While the Southeast Asia trading and mobility bloc continues to take shape, and with a declining workforce in Thailand and lack of age-eligible tertiary students, it becomes evident that the ASEAN member states will actively circulate their population in an effort to close gaps in the workforce. ASEAN consists of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and has a total population of more than 600 million people.

Thailand is also the third largest host of international students in the region after Singapore and Malaysia, with China being the leading exporter. Chinese students select the "land of smiles" for its efficiency in infrastructure and safety. The number of international degree students in Thailand increased by 979 percent between 1999 and 2012, from 1,882 to 20,309 students. In a recent study conducted by the Swedish based Educations Media Group, Thailand is ranked as the number one Study Abroad destination. This creates another avenue to increase diversification of the international student body in Thailand, and a possibility of another channel of economic impact. Fredrik Högemark, the CIO of educations.com, says "International students have special considerations when choosing an ideal university and program. We believe Thailand can offer not only international students a great source of adventure and culture, but also a high level of education that prepares them for successful careers in an array of different industries."

Inviting more international students from all over the world to Thailand to partake in education will create the much-needed opportunity for tertiary education institutions to adjust to the needs of the market, and significantly diversify student population within the country. Diversification of the community will trigger the demand for the development of English Language skills amongst prospective students. Improved language skills will also positively correlate with the demanding human resource market.

Since education abroad is still somewhat costly for the majority of students, the plea for world standard education can be met within Thailand. There are three non-Thailand universities present; Raffles College (Australia), St. Regis College (UK), and Webster University (USA). Two more significant universities have applied for permission to open their doors, offering instruction from three corners of the world: North America, UK, and Australia. These universities create an affordable opportunity for applied education and allow faster turn-around on the most critical investment in life – Education.

Thailand's economy has seen steady growth over the past several years, at a rate of approximately 4%. With low inflation rates, the country makes it more feasible for the local market to flourish and becomes attractive for foreign investment, therefore creating new job offerings. The new jobs and the demand for highly qualified human resources enable prospective students from Thailand, and neighbouring countries, to consider investing in their education while having an opportunity to apply their knowledge in newly opened jobs locally. This contributes to the economy firstly by paying tuition fees, therefore creating economic impact within the country, and secondly by paying their fair share of taxes, and thus providing to the socio-economic budget of the country, sustaining the rapidly aging population.


Author: Dr. Emin Hajiyev, Director of Enrolment Management at Webster University Thailand. Further information may be obtained from Timothy Malloy, Director, Marketing and Enrolment, Webster University Thailand, Bangkok Campus, tel: 662 106 6599 email: Malloyt@webster.ac.th.

Series Editor: Christopher F. Bruton, Executive Director, Dataconsult Ltd, chris@dataconsult.co.th. Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides seminars and extensive documentation to update business on future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.


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