Three quarters of Thai universities are at risk of closing over the next decade due to low enrolment and increased competition from foreign rivals, an education expert has warned.
Arnond Sakworawich, a lecturer in actuarial sciences and risk management at the Graduate School of Applied Statistics of the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida), said he is worried the government's idea to allow institutes of higher education from overseas to create satellite campuses in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) along Thailand's borders would put many Thai universities in danger of shutting down.
Mr Arnond said Thailand's higher education market has been shrinking for many years due to a demographic transition from high to low levels of fertility.
"There are just 600,000-700,000 babies born in Thailand per year on average now, compared to 1,000,000 per year from 30 years ago. The National Economic and Social Development Board also expects the number of Thais in the school-age group (0-21 years) will fall to 20% of the population in 2040, a sharp drop from 62% in 1980," he said.
In 2016, the NESDB reported 704,058 babies were born in Thailand.
During last year's admission, the universities had vacancies for up to 150,000 prospective students to study various subjects, but only 80,000 applied for the entrance test, he added.
Mr Arnond said the numbers are a wake-up call for 170 universities nationwide that the higher education market in Thailand is getting smaller each year.
"When the market is shrinking and you try to add more players in it, the consequence is surely a higher competition. The worst case scenario for me is that three-quarters of Thai universities may be forced to shut down over the next decade because they will not be able to compete with well-known and foreign universities," he said.
Pong-In Rakariyatham, an academic whose expertise lies in university enrolment procedures, said he has noticed a significant fall in the number of students and changes in the labour market that will potentially have a big impact on many universities' non-scientific programmes.
"New social trends could make some majors outdated, so those which want to stay financially healthy may have to close certain programmes. Majors in the social science field are likely to go first," he said.
Somwang Phithiyanuwat, an education scholar of the Royal Society, said university administrators need to start thinking of changes in the number of students in each department to survive.
"Students now prefer to study in scientific areas over social science, so I think universities need to reduce social science majors and stop attempting to win more funding by attracting students to fill university seats," he said.
Thammasat University is also aware of the declining number of students and is finding ways to strike a balance as the university is now considered too big, said Thammasat University rector Somkit Lertpaithoon.
In terms of quality, world-renowned universities have 25,000 students on average, but Thammasat has gone beyond that with 40,000 students, Mr Somkit said. The current social trend is making the university consider downsizing, or even closing, some social science majors. Among them are the university's top degree programmes, law and journalism and mass communication, he said.