Study abroad, at home
Webster University's Thailand rector on the obstacles in teaching students from Asia
Taking up the post of rector at Webster University's Thailand branch five years ago has enabled Ratish Thakur to use his wealth of experience as an educator to influence young minds.
Ratish Thakur, second left, with Webster University (Thailand) students.
His work doesn't end in equipping students with the knowledge to face future challenges in the job market — he also prepares them the 2015 Asean Economic Community (AEC).
"Webster University has been involved in the region for a decade. During this period, we have recruited students from Myanmar, Vietnam, Malaysia and our home base, Thailand. This interaction has enabled our students to become better-acquainted with each other's culture, traditions and languages.
"As a university, we were also able to build a strong network between schools and universities in this region.
"We have opted to focus on improving the English proficiency level of our students, a large portion of whom are Thai. We are also in the course of helping develop English-teaching methodology courses for local instructors in Thai schools."
When asked to comment on why Thais have yet to make headway in learning the English language, Thakur said: "I would prefer to not comment on where the Thai educational system went wrong and go straight to the attitudes of young Thais.
"For one, because they do not necessarily struggle to find jobs after graduation, there is no real worry that if they can't speak English they will be unemployed. So from the individual student's perspective, the pressure is not there and complacency sets in.
"If you look at it from a national prospective, however, the competitiveness of the country is really undermined when locals struggle to make themselves understood in English. I believe we have to change people's mindset toward learning the language. We have to focus on what they stand to gain from sharpening their skills in what is considered a universal language."
Are there any major differences between Webster University's Thai and US campuses?
We operate in many countries, so we often measure our standards by using a very large, diverse method in measurement. Last week we had our team from our main campus visit us for a site review. The group included senior staff and administrators. They observed a number of our classes being taught, and at the end of the day, when they were asked if the classes here were taught any differently than back home, three said there was no difference whatsoever. One elaborated that the method of teaching by our professors and student participation also did not vary from our main campus. Another added that if a person did not know where the class was being taught, they could easily presume it was in the US.
This made me very happy because we want to give every Webster student the same standard of education they would get while studying in the US. Being able to deliver this was a high moment for me and our faculty.
What were the challenges you faced in helping the Thailand campus reach this standard?
If you take a system that exists in one country and bring it to the other side of the world, in a culture and an environment that is completely different, there will surely be challenges.
Getting students from this part of the world to open up and share their ideas in class is not easy because they are rather reserved. Instructors encourage them to exchange their thoughts with the class, but a lot depends on the student to want to change. It takes them time to get into the mindset that if they want to develop their skills, they need to do something about it. Gentle prodding by the professor always helps them to come out of their shells. Getting them to express their opinions takes time.
How do you choose your faculty?
They have to be the best in their field of expertise. We put a lot of importance on academic credentials, however it is crucial for them to have worked and taught in that particular area. Some people might have the experience, but find it difficult to communicate that knowledge. That is where their teaching experience is helpful.
Our faculty at the Bangkok campus come from a diverse number of countries. We have over 20 nationalities, coming from the US, Europe, Thailand and a handful of countries within the region.
One among a handful of our talented professors is Claudio Cicuzza, an Italian with a doctorate in Buddhism. He teaches the Pali language and [a course on] the history of Buddhism and more. Besides being a scholar, he is well-liked by his students.
Tell us about your student free transfer system.
It is up to our students to decide when they would like to move to any one of our nine campuses around the world, which, apart from the US, includes campuses in the UK, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Thailand, Ghana and China (Chengdu, Shanghai, Beijing).
Thai students in particular like to use this system because they can get a feel of how it is to study ... abroad in a familiar environment whenever they please. They might study here at the Bangkok campus for a year and then decide to transfer to our main campus in St. Louis, Missouri.
Tell us about your scholarships.
The Asian bursary provides a 33.33% reduction in tuition, from 180,000 baht per semester to 120,000 baht. That does not mean only Asians are eligible for the bursary; it covers students from any continent who went to high school in Asia.
We also have scholarships for academic excellence for the right candidates. Need-based scholarships can also be utilised when students find themselves in a financial bind — this bursary is considered on a case-by-case basis.
How has higher education evolved through the decades?
It is very common for people to say it was great when I was young but its terrible now. The fact of the matter remains that technology and information continue to evolve.When a person is in school, he might be studying the latest things at that point, but when he starts working, everything has changed. The internet during my generation was unheard of; today it has made the biggest impact on mankind. So there is also something new to learn in each generation.
To get the best out of the education you receive, keep an open mind and be adaptable, there are not absolutes when it comes to knowledge. The speed of change is increasing and that, for a lot of people, is scary, because you acquire one set of skills and by the time you start a career, it has become obsolete. It can be unsettling, but this is life.