Thailand’s growing supply-demand gap in higher education

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Thai population is ageing rapidly, and both the country’s labour force and pool of college-aged students have shrunk in the last ten years
  • Total tertiary enrolment has also declined since about 2011, and the country has a considerable excess of university seats relative to current demand
  • There are, however, some important, continuing drivers of demand for study abroad – most notably, the need for advanced skills that can help Thailand transition to a high-skills, technology-driven economy

Thailand has a big demographic challenge. The population is ageing quickly, and the number of college-aged students is projected to decline sharply through 2040. The country has more university seats than it needs as a result, and institutions are under increasing pressure to maintain enrolments.

Along with China, Thailand has largest proportion of elderly people among developing countries in East Asia. The percentage of the Thai population that is 65 years or older has more than doubled over the last 20 years, from 5% in 1995 to 11% in 2016. Demographers project that more than a quarter of the population will fall into this oldest age bracket by 2040.

Thailand’s labour force will shrink by about 11% over this same period, from roughly 50 million today to just over 40 million by 2040. As the World Bank notes, “This decline in working age population is higher in Thailand than in all other developing East Asia and Pacific countries, including China.”

These trends are primarily the result of a sharp decline in fertility rates, which fell from 6.2 births per woman in the early 1960s to 1.5 in 2015. Birth rates began trending downward in the late 1960s and have only begun to flatten out in the last ten years or so. Partly this is a function of a growing economy and rising incomes. But it also the product of a very effective National Family Planning Program that was introduced in 1970.

The changing mix of the Thai population now poses a number of challenges for the country, including the need to increase productivity within a labour force that is getting smaller every year, the need to care for a growing elderly population, and, in an education context, the need to match the capacity and capabilities of the education system to a shrinking pool of students.

The university challenge

Thai higher education expanded rapidly in the 1980s (and after) in order to keep pace with the then-growing demand within the country. There are 170 universities and colleges operating in Thailand today, including 71 private universities. Most of the expansion in the Thai system in recent decades has come through the establishment of such private institutions, and, to a lesser extent, a restructuring of some public universities leading to the opening of new, independent campuses.

As the demographic balance in the country continues to shift quickly, the number of students enrolled in Thai universities has also peaked and begun to decline. The high point was in 2010 when just under 2.5 million students were enrolled in tertiary education. Total enrolment has trended downward in the years since and was just over 2.2 million in 2015.

Institutions are reducing capacity and struggling to control costs as a result, but the number of prospective students continues to decline. University World News reported recently that about 80,000 Thai students applied to sit the national university admissions exam in 2016, down from 100,000 the year before. There are just under 110,000 spaces available via the country’s central university admission system (CUAS) this year, which is also down sharply from the more than 150,000 seats offered just two years ago (a number that is more reflective of the actual capacity of the Thai system).

Those significant downward trends have led some observers to predict that some, perhaps many, Thai universities will have to scale back or even close their doors, and it is the private institutions that are especially vulnerable in this respect. One Thai academic, Arnond Sakworawich of the National Institute of Development Administration, has suggested that the bulk of Thai institutions could be subject to downsizing or closures – a projection that is informed in part by the surprising news that the Thai government has opted to open the market to foreign competition as well.

In a bid to boost the quality and labour market relevance of higher education in the country (and quality remains a persistent issue within domestic institutions), foreign institutions are now being invited to pursue branch campuses that will operate in Special Economic Zones within Thailand. To date, two highly ranked universities have applied to establish operations within the country: Carnegie Mellon University has proposed to provide logistics engineering programmes, while National Taiwan University aims to offer courses in advanced engineering.

The establishment of such satellite campuses is part of a broader government strategy called “Thailand 4.0”. It aims to boost productivity for the country’s shrinking labour force and, in so doing, to move to a more highly skilled, value-added, and technology-oriented economy.

But the arrival of foreign universities is also certain to increase the competition in Thailand’s domestic education market, and to further pressure any institutions that are already struggling to balance their budgets in the face of significant downward pressure on domestic enrolments.

Implications for outbound

In some important respects – most notably the shrinking pool of prospective students and the excess of domestic higher education capacity – Thailand rates poorly as an outbound market, and especially so in terms of its prospects for growth in the medium to long-term.

Even so, outbound numbers have been fairly stable for the past decade, typically hovering around 25,000–26,000 students per year in terms of tertiary enrolment abroad, and mainly to the top destinations of the US, UK, and Australia. In fact, total outbound increased to more than 28,000 in 2015, reflecting in part the strengthening Thai economy, but also likely ongoing concerns regarding political stability and the quality of education at home.

Going forward, those quality concerns are likely to persist. Particularly as the government, industry, and education sectors work to respond to the significant demographic shifts in the country, the fields of study that are most in demand within Thailand will change further. Some of that demand will be addressed by new programmes brought forward within Thai institutions, and perhaps by any foreign branch campuses that take hold. It seems clear as well, however, that the level of outbound mobility will remain fairly steady or even continue to grow as students seek advanced programmes abroad that can play a part in the Thailand 4.0 transition at home.

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