Webster's degrees of disappointment
One of the most expensive private universities in the country is facing criticism over the way tuition fees are being spent
Petcharat Saksirivetkul was relieved to be among the 70 seniors who graduated from Webster University Thailand (WUT) two weeks ago. It almost didn’t happen.
Just last year, one of Thailand’s most expensive private universities was faced with an odd situation: too few students were signing up for graduation.
The 8,000 baht graduation fee, after word got around that the majority of seniors were prepared to boycott it, was dropped this year.
“I wasn’t going to go,” said Ms Petcharat, 24. “But I’m glad that it happened.”
With a tuition fee reaching 198,000 baht per semester, WUT targets students from Asia and the US. But in recent years, it has come under fire from past and present students and faculty members for the high fees it charges for the education it offers.
An 18-page report released last month by WUT’s parent campus in the US, Webster St Louis (WUSL), has raised crucial issues of how the university is run.
A taste of disappointment: Webster University Thailand's canteen is just one of the buildings critics among the student body and staff say are in need of a makeover.
On March 27, 157 students — a third of the official student body — submitted a petition to the provost requesting the resignation of rector Ratish Thakur, director of marketing and enrolment management Samrat Ray Chaudhuri and academic director Nisha Ray Chaudhuri.
“The student body is sick and tired of the misleading and unethical practices, from the overcharging of ‘on-campus’ housing, to blatant greed and deception-based fees and fines charged to students, to the complete denial of funding to any student activity or student-proposed improvement project that does not benefit the marketing of the university,” said the petition, seen by Spectrum. “The student body only sees the blatant misuse of our tuition fees.”
Apart from the low priority the administration gave to student activities and substandard facilities at Webster’s Cha-am campus, one of the biggest complaints was about how the tuition fees were being spent.
WUT has one of the highest tuition fees for an international programme in Thailand, although it is still roughly a quarter of the undergraduate rates charged at the St Louis campus.
Mr Thakur attributed the high tuition fees to the university’s ability to “provide personalised attention”.
“Our costs are high because our class sizes are small,” he told Spectrum. “We don’t want the number of students to go above 25.”
In addition to the undergraduate tuition fees of 198,000 baht per semester, there is a 15,000 baht general fee, a media fee and a graduation fee of 1,700 baht.
“The WUT fee structure needs further review for reasonableness,” said the WUSL site review report. The report lists other concerns, including substandard facilities, inconsistencies in information provided in quality assurance reports and inconsistent faculty policies and procedures.
One section of the review singled out the Student Affairs division as being especially underdeveloped.
“Student distrust of senior administrative leadership, inadequate communication mechanisms and a lack of processes and accurate information place WUT at risk,” it said.
But this was not the first time the student body had expressed frustration over the university’s administration.
Last December, all elected executives of Webster Thailand's Student Council resigned in protest. New elections were not held until five months later, just after the site review was released.
In November 2010, two former American students — Andrea Eickelmann and Jennifer Powers — were at the forefront of putting together a report that was distributed to the administration, students, teachers and WUSL.
As a consequence, David Wilson, the dean of WUSL’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Grant Chapman, then an associate vice-president for academic affairs, paid a visit to WUT to evaluate the situation on campus.
WUSL, however, claimed Mr Chapman made a routine visit and was there to discuss campus safety as a result of the political protests in Bangkok.
“I think overall we expected better from an ‘American’ university in Thailand,” said Ms Eickelmann, who attended WUT as a second-year transfer student from Mills College in Oakland for the 2008-09 school year.
Unfit for use: Rusted gym equipment has been cited as a concern at Webster's Cha-am campus.
WUT says on its website that its general fee, which is separate from the tuition fee, includes student health insurance, library usage, internet access, sports facilities and extracurricular activities. But students argue that there has not been tangible investment into campus equipment; merely empty words and promises.
WUT’s main campus is situated in an isolated rural area about 185km south of Bangkok in Phetchaburi, between Cha-am and Hua Hin. WUT operates buses to and from the Hua Hin town centre, which takes around 40 minutes.
Students are recruited from around the world with the promise of a quality education in a top-notch facility. But facilities at the 100 rai campus in general are under par, some students say, with cracks evident and the need for a paint job clear. The library is the size of two basketball courts.
Basketball hoops were removed from the indoor badminton court, and rusty equipment and weights were seen in the gym when Spectrum visited the campus unofficially in February.
The uncared for football field has not been used for several years, and has turned into abandoned pastures, where students have reported seeing cows grazing. WUT also operates facilities in Bangkok, where they have graduate degrees, and their Sathon office at the Empire building is very small but modern.
Spectrum spoke to 13 students, who all agreed what WUT was charging did not match what the campus offers, despite their efforts to seek improvements.
They say that for the past four years, the only noticeable change on campus has been the installation of three stylish smoking huts made of teak. Students were told by the student affairs director that they cost 200,000 baht each.
Booking out: The Cha-am campus library has been criticised as being too small for a university of Webster's stature. Students say there are not enough books and many are outdated.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
In November 2010, a purchase order was issued to Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM) — a business school in France — for Mr Thakur and Nisha Chaudhury to pursue doctorate degrees, each with a four-year tuition fee of 1.26 million baht. Mr Thakur signed and approved the documents, seen by Spectrum.
The agreement was supposed to be part of WUT’s “faculty development programme”, which Mr Thakur announced in January 2011, according to Ricardo Lucio Ortiz, who for six years was a social sciences lecturer at WUT.
Towards the end of April 2011, an email was sent to all WUT faculty members notifying them of the programme's criteria. In late June, an announcement entitled “Doctoral study financial support” was entered into the “WUT Information Portal” on its website. It describes the key elements of the “expressions of interest”.
Full-time faculty members with at least two years of employment at WUT are eligible, with the maximum approved amount of not more than 300,000 baht per year for tuition.
Due to limited resources, said the announcement, there will be only a maximum of four people receiving support for this programme at any given time.
The deadline for submissions for the programme was May, 2011.
Other documents seen by Spectrum show that financial controller James Jain was the third recipient.
The “long-term continuing professional development agreement” seen by Spectrum shows that the doctorate in business administration included intensive workshops held alternately in the GEM premises in France and Webster University, Geneva.
Mr Ortiz, however, argued that although it was a campus-wide policy, no one else has been awarded these particular funds.
“The faculty development programme is ‘open’ to all eligible WUT faculty members, but that is only in theory,” he said. “In actual practice it was set up to accommodate only four people over a four-year period.”
When told by Spectrum about student concerns over the way Webster money was used to fund studies in France for himself and the others, Mr Thakur said the application process was difficult.
“Last year we had no applications,” he said. “I think that has been the case for the last three years. Either the people who applied were not eligible, or no one applied.”
Mr Thakur added that successful applicants to the programme were also required to absorb significant costs themselves.
“Faculty members, for instance, would have to make a significant contribution by having to pay at least 40% of the tuition fees,” he said.
“Many people said to us that it still was a lot of money,” said Mr Thakur, adding that he took seven trips to GEM in two years. “For every 300,000 baht [of the tuition fee paid for], my personal expense was more.”
The Education Ministry requires all universities in Thailand to provide funds for faculty and staff development. Mr Thakur argued that Webster had not utilised funds set aside for staff development in the past.
Webster said that seven faculty members and three staff members have taken advantage of this benefit since 2011, but did not disclose any further details.
Put out to pasture: The football pitch at Webster University Thailand's Cha-am campus has become a neglected paddock, in contrast to how it appears on the university's website.
WHERE THE MONEY GOES
WUT has different recruitment strategies for each country. They mostly recruit Western and American students through programmes for studying abroad, and Southeast Asians through school and college visits, as well as agents. The Chinese are recruited through exclusive partnerships.
“For Nepal and now India, they recruit through connections with rich families there,” said John (not his real name), a Vietnamese student.
John came from an international college in Vietnam, which signed a partnership contract with WUT for transfers. Everything had to go through an agency, from paperwork to communication. John said the agency always guaranteed an entrance scholarship of between 40-60%, and John himself received a 60% scholarship.
He showed Spectrum a Facebook conversation with one of the agency’s recruiters in February, in which she promised a 50% scholarship for his friend if he enrols in spring.
Deki Choden Dorji, a psychology student, came to Webster on a Bhutanese government scholarship after WUT advertised at her school. WUT went to many high schools in Bhutan, she said, and the university is quite popular there.
Ms Dorji said she always wanted to study English in college, but she couldn’t score well in some subjects. Psychology was her second or third preference.
“I didn’t really plan to come here, but I didn’t have a choice,” she said, adding that the psychology programme she studies has only two instructors.
“When I heard of WUT, I thought it would be like an American degree with a very big campus and infrastructure,” said the 20-year-old third-year student. “I thought there would be so many activities and so many students, like how a college should be. But it was different. A lot more different than I thought.”
TOO SMALL TO GROW
WUT says it has 480 students, up from 80 when Mr Thakur took charge as rector in 2009. Some 150 students attend the Bangkok academic centre at the Empire Tower.
Mr Thakur aims to relocate the campus closer to Bangkok in a bid to double its student body within five years, and he hinted the Cha-am campus would likely have to close as a result, as the old facilities cost a lot to maintain.
“Keeping three locations for a small university would be very expensive and difficult to manage,” he said. “I would say if you have 30,000 students, three locations is fine. But three is too much if you have a little over 1,000 students.”
The move will be the campus’ biggest investment since its establishment in 1999.
Mr Thakur said following years of “massive loss” since its inception, WUT has generated a surplus since 2012, making it the only Webster campus that is growing.
Webster has 70 campuses, most of which are in the US.
Thai law requires that a university must have 100 rai of land, and a relocation to Bangkok would cost billions of baht, raising scepticism over whether or not WUSL will fund the investment.
Selling the current plot of land in Cha-am is out of the question, since the land was donated by the Srikraivin-Bonython Foundation, which allows WUT to operate under its land title only for educational purposes. Mr Thakur did not provide a time frame for the relocation.
A NEW BEGINNING
While some former staff believe that the three review committees sent to WUT last year and earlier this year were the result of a former lecturer’s 21-page report to WUSL, provost Julian Schuster said the visits were routine and part of a “strategic endeavour to improve operations across the world”.
Mr Schuster denied claims by students and some faculty members that WUSL was turning a blind eye to the problems in Thailand.
“There are multiple complaints we receive on a daily basis. If we react to each and every one of those complaints we will have investigations every day,” Mr Schuster said in a telephone interview.
“On the other hand, we take each and every complaint seriously.”
Mr Thakur said the Thailand campus will set up a group that would look at each recommendation in the report. Among the main improvements that can be achieved quickly, he said, was communication flow.
On May 4, a month after the site review report was released, WUSL appointed Keith Welsh as the Thailand campus ombudsman.
According to a statement on the WUSL website, this position is the second recent staff change on the Thailand campus.
Earlier this year, a director of human resources was added to the staff to better align the faculty and staff policies and procedures with those at the St Louis campus.
According to a current faculty member, Mr Welsh has already interviewed many faculty members, students and staff.
“Most of us are thrilled. We think he is here to keep the administration on the straight and narrow to act on the recommendations in the St Louis report,” said the faculty member, who asked not to be named. n