Thai universities in drastic decline

Thai universities in drastic decline

Mahidol University retained its overall rank as No.97 in Asia. Its staff had 2,107 articles on research in 2017, while No.1-ranked National University of Singapore had 6,150 academic articles or articles in the press. (File photo)
Mahidol University retained its overall rank as No.97 in Asia. Its staff had 2,107 articles on research in 2017, while No.1-ranked National University of Singapore had 6,150 academic articles or articles in the press. (File photo)

Thai universities are failing abysmally, according to this year's Asia University Rankings (AUR). Seven of the top 10 Thai universities scored lower than last year, while two obtained the same ranking and only one advanced.

Thai universities are vulnerable to demographic changes in the country's population, with greater competition for fewer good students, and they also face greater competition from Chinese institutions.

However, the hard truth is that Thai universities do not conduct enough social sciences research due to the "chilling effect" whereby many important topics cannot be discussed publicly.

Of Thailand's top universities, Mahidol University ranked highest and maintained its previous year's rank of 97th. King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) was 114th, Chulalongkorn University placed 164th, Suranaree University of Technology 168th, then Chiang Mai University and King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL) in the 201-250 range. Kasetsart, Khon Kaen and Prince of Songkla Universities were in the 251-300 range, with King Mongkut's University of Technology North Bangkok (KMUTNB) in the 301-350 range.

The Times Higher Education magazine, the AUR's publisher, uses basically the same system for the AUR as for its World University rankings. Rankings are grouped into five areas: the teaching and learning environment; research volume, income and reputation; research influence in the form of academic citations; international outlook, that is, staff, students, and research; and industry outcome, mainly knowledge transfer.

Research dominates how well universities do in the rankings, at 60%. Thirty percent is for research production and 30% for research impact.

For research production, 15% comes from a reputation survey, 7.5% from research income, and 7.5% from research output, that is, articles published in peer-reviewed quality academic journals, as listed in Elsevier's Scopus database.

For research impact, the index takes into account the number of other articles that cite the universities' own articles.

The top-ranked university in the Scopus database was the National University of Singapore (NUS). In 2017 there were 6,150 academic articles or articles in press that included an NUS affiliation. This is what it takes to be the best in Asia and 22nd in the world. Bearing in mind that articles can be classified in more than one category, the majority were in the hard sciences, 21.6% in engineering; 19.1% in medicine; and 16.4% in biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology and so on.

Mahidol University had a respectable 2,107 articles or articles in press in 2017. Again, it performed best in hard sciences, with 53.7% in medicine; 21.3% in biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology; and 11.5% in immunology and microbiology, but with only 4.7% in social sciences. There was less output in the social sciences compared to the NUS.

This weakness in the social sciences pervades Thai universities. The AUR excluded the KMUTT, KMITL and KMUTNB campuses, which if consolidated would probably be Thailand's leading university, and Suranaree University of Technology, which together with the three campuses are mainly technical universities. In 2017, Chulalongkorn University had 1,872 articles or articles in press in Scopus. Of these, 27.0% were in medicine, 15.1% in biochemistry, and 13.7% in chemistry, and so on. Only 82 articles were published in the social sciences -- 4.4%, slightly worse than Mahidol. And, only a handful addressed major Thai social issues, such as the urban-rural gap, cultural tourism, internationalisation in Thai movies, and the sustainability of Thai textiles.

The highest ranked regional university in Thailand is Chiang Mai University (CMU), the major university for the North. In 2017, CMU had 1,249 articles or articles in press. Of these, 32.6% were in medicine; 20.7% in biochemistry, genetics and molecular biology; and 16.7% in agricultural and biological sciences. Fifty-six articles, 4.5%, were in the social sciences. Of these, only a handful dealt with issues that should be core to the university's unique mission to the region, improving the lot of local people by researching issues like indigeneity, heritage, local history, and studies of ethnic communities like the Shan.

Moving to the Northeast, Khon Kaen University, in 2017, had 1,002 articles or articles in press. Again, the hard sciences were well represented, with 35.4% in medicine, 25.0% in biochemistry and 19.2% in agricultural and biological sciences. Here again, there were only 47 (4.7%) in the social sciences. And, of these articles, following the trend, only a handful of articles examine core social issues for the Northeast, like gold mining in the region, culture, ethnicity, rural life or central and local power relations.

Prince of Songkla University, in the south, had only 891 articles or articles in press last year. Of these, agricultural and biological sciences ranked highest, at 28.7%, followed by medicine, at 23.3%; then biochemistry at 17.3%, and so on. In the social sciences, the university produced only 27 articles -- 3.0%. Of these, again, only a handful examined core social issues for the region such as happiness in Muslim families, and shared culture in Asean, Islamic ethics.

Overall, the picture of social sciences research in Thai universities is catastrophic. Furthermore, comparing with the NUS is problematic as it is relatively less well known for its social sciences output, given the country's politics and social development are determined by the country's dominant political party. Singapore is ranked only "partly free" by Freedom House -- still, higher than Thailand's "not free".

A comparison instead with the Times Higher Education magazine's highest-ranked university, the University of Oxford, shows what proportion of overall academic output social sciences research can be: 1,102 of 8,790 articles or articles in press in 2017, or 12.5% of output.

The Thai military regime's clamping down on academic freedom of speech, such as its legal action against the group of eight outspoken "We Walk" activists and against the organiser and protesters of last year's International Conference on Thai Studies in Chiang Mai, may be having disastrous effects on Thai university social science research.

Crucially, Thailand's regional universities are not able to capitalise on their unique selling points -- the existing social problems and human diversity they operate within. As such, Thai universities are failing to produce open and robust university minds via free inquiry, stifling future socio-political development.

John Draper, director of Social Survey Centre, and consultant of Khon Kaen Smart City Initiative (Culture), Khon Kaen University's College of Local Administration. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is a founder and former dean of Khon Kaen University's College of Local Administration.

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