Can Thai unis attract foreign pupils?

Can Thai unis attract foreign pupils?

New Chulalongkorn graduates hold their degrees after a graduation ceremony. 
New Chulalongkorn graduates hold their degrees after a graduation ceremony. 

A much under-evaluated Covid-19 impact is its consequences on higher education. As teachers quickly moved their lectures to virtual platforms, and students switched to learning from home, the higher education sector promptly slipped off the public radar. While universities have managed to tide over the crisis in the immediate and short-term, many observers have missed the medium and long-term impact of Covid on higher education, particularly international higher education.

Let us review a few facts here. Universities Australia has estimated a decline in revenue of at least A$3 billion (65 billion baht) on account of Covid-19, though this could go up to A$4.6 billion this year. One Australian government expert has put the loss in the range of A$10-20 billion for 2020-2023 due to a decline in revenues from international students. A similar shock awaits United Kingdom universities, for which a consulting firm has projected a drop in international student enrolment and a shortfall of almost US$3 billion (93 billion baht). This is particularly significant as international students pay much higher tuition than domestic students, and these earnings subsidise the education of local students.

However, the impact goes beyond financial terms, and its net result may be more significant than the global financial crisis of 2008. One-third of doctoral students in Australia come from overseas, and this will have significant implications for the country's research activities. An expert panel appointed by the Australian government argues that even industry will experience a reduced capacity to innovate.

This story is repeated in other countries, and universities in North America and Western Europe are struggling to deal with the multifarious impacts of Covid-19.

There are many reasons why international students are now shying away from studying in North America and Europe. Firstly, many countries have emerged as hotbeds for Covid-19 cases. The inability of many developed countries to control the pandemic has created doubts among applicants and their parents about student safety and welfare. Secondly, there has been a suspension of visa processing, and uncertainty still looms large. Thirdly, there has been a considerable increase in negative perceptions regarding immigration policies coupled with the prevalent rhetoric in the United States -- both of which act as impediments to internationalisation.

In such a situation, what should be Thailand's strategy?

To capitalise on this opportunity, Thailand should position itself as a "trusted destination" for international education. Thailand's success in combatting Covid-19 can be a starting point for image building. Moreover, even before the outbreak, the Global Health Security Index (GHS) ranked Thailand as best in Asia and sixth in the world for pandemic preparedness. Thailand can, therefore, embark on a global campaign that will position it as a "complete destination" rather than focusing on the country being a tourism destination.

Second, Thailand should work towards creating a fully-fledged ecosystem for international students. Merely teaching academic programmes in English is not enough. An ecosystem that invites, nurtures, incubates and promotes international education is necessary. Inviting and encouraging international students to study in Thailand is the starting point.

Innovations should be encouraged and promoted so that the country may benefit from the research conducted by international students. For this to occur, we need to ensure that international students are fully engaged in Thailand so that their research contributes to the country's aim to overcome the middle-income trap.

Adequate linkages and bonding between local, regional and international students and institutions are a must. Thai students and international students will have to work together to create start-ups and new ventures. This will help Thailand emerge as a source of innovations and entrepreneurship that can then be exported. One such example is the pioneering step taken by Chulalongkorn University in this regard.

A new School of Integrated Innovation (ScII) has been launched along with a four-year international programme that caters to the education for the future by deploying a transdisciplinary approach blending liberal arts and science. This is the only programme of its kind in Asia and has been billed as the Global Academy of the Future. Other universities and institutes should strive to find their niche areas and launch a similar programme, and even launch joint collaborative ventures.

Third, there has to be a continuum across the entire spectrum of education. In the past decade, there has been a veritable explosion in the number of international schools in Thailand (over 175 to date). Instead of encouraging Thai students to travel abroad for higher education, Thailand needs to create a feeder pathway where students from international schools happily pursue undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral studies within the country. This will require sustained efforts to create an international atmosphere and a global environment that fosters internationalisation.

Initially, Thailand had only one international institution of higher education -- the Asian Institute of Technology. Today, almost all top universities have launched international programmes. Chulalongkorn University, for instance, offers 17 bachelor's, 50 master's, and 34 doctoral international programmes. Similarly, Mahidol University has 31 international bachelor's programmes, and so on. Already, 16 universities operating in Thailand feature in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

What is needed is a concentrated, nationwide holistic approach to international education that will allow Thai institutions of higher education to capitalise on their inherent strengths while learning from the experience of others. This will help Thailand leverage international education as part of its effort to attract the best global talent.

Bajinder Pal Singh, a senior journalist, serves as Media and Communications Adviser at the Chulalongkorn School of Integrated Innovation.

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