Opportunities await foreign educational providers as Thailand prepares for ASEAN Community
Thailand is gearing up for the ASEAN Community which is due to take shape in 2015, and in the process, the Ministry of Education is making a number of changes to the way education is delivered in Thailand. These changes could provide opportunities for international education providers - particularly in the vocational and language sectors - to step in, help out and move forward.
The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) aims to bring together the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member nations into a single market that is able to compete in the global economy by 2015. ASEAN members include Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, plus two observers Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea. The AEC’s economic integration will provide for the free movement of trade, labour and capital within the region. The purpose of the AEC is to bring economic prosperity and stability to the region and to work toward eliminating the development gaps between ASEAN members. ASEAN has created this fantastic video to explain (in simple terms) what the AEC hopes to be. Thailand has responded by stepping up its education reform efforts in order to develop students who are ready to go out into the workforce of the ASEAN Community. The Ministry of Education has identified a number of tasks that need to be accomplished in order to prepare students to work and thrive in an international community, and develop Thailand into an international education hub in the ASEAN region:
- develop students’ skills in the English language and the languages of neighboring countries;
- enhance Thai student's knowledge of the ASEAN community;
- relax regulations, such as those concerning visa issuance, to facilitate the travel of foreign teachers and students to Thailand;
- develop the national qualifications framework in preparation for students’ credit transfer within ASEAN and educational liberalisation in the region;
- study the education policies of other ASEAN members, especially the progress of the free flow of skilled labour in seven fields: engineering, architectural, surveying, nursing, medical, dental, and accounting services;
- create a working group to exchange information and create networks linking ASEAN countries;
- enrich public relations to boost the profile and operations of the Ministry of Education;
- design special task forces to handle specific missions in order to avoid the duplication of work.
Reforms are also taking place in the K-12 sector, with high-speed Internet access and tablets rolling out to classrooms nationwide, and mergers and curriculum reforms at smaller schools. All of this could turn into potential opportunity for international education providers, as Thailand (and other ASEAN nations) may welcome the resources offered.
Vocational sector to benefit
Vocational education is seen as one area in need of development, and the Office of the Vocational Education Commission has implemented “an urgent policy to develop the quality of 197 small vocational colleges, with emphasis on producing more personnel in preparation for the ASEAN Community. A target has been set for English programmes to cover 150 vocational colleges in 2013.” A goal of the AEC is international recognition of professional qualifications, and to that end they are developing professional testing and standards certification centres across Thailand to test the skill level in a number of vocational professions.
“Emphasis will be placed on professional standards in the fields that Thailand wants to develop as its strengths in the ASEAN region. These fields are involved with information technology and communication, construction, beauty and spas, gems and jewellery, logistics, automobiles and automotive parts, fashion, Thai cuisine, and retail business.”
Students who pass the skill test in their profession will receive a certificate certifying their professional competency, which they can then use to find work in any of the ASEAN member nations.
Thai government reaching out
New Zealand’s government recognised they could help in this area and have recently agreed the Joint Framework for Cooperation on the Education Partnership with Thailand to develop new training and vocational courses, as well as assist in building capacity with English language programmes. NZ education providers will no doubt reap the rewards of this agreement. Further afield, Thailand has agreed to support research in vocational education in Mongolia, as well as student and academic exchanges between the two countries. Additionally, Thailand and France have penned five agreements covering cooperation in various areas, namely, vocational curriculum development and education, under which a number of French teaching volunteers will come to teach in various schools in Thailand between June and September 2013. Finally, the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand Mr Surapong Tovichakchaikul has called for more frequent and regular exchanges between Thai and Russian academic institutions, asking Russia to consider giving Thai students more flexibility to choose universities in Russia, as well as their fields of study.
English language sector holds the most promise
Building English language capacity might just hold the most promise of opportunity for foreign providers. A single language is needed for business and communication across the AEC, and English has been chosen as the working language of the Community. To meet this requirement, Thailand has embarked on an ambitious programme to boost the English levels of its students. In general, the English language levels of Thai students is quite low. “Recent university admission exams show that Thai students scored an average 28.43 out of 100 in English, according to the National Institute of Educational Testing Service.” One very good reason for this is that Thai students don’t need to speak English on a regular basis, and therefore don’t get the practice needed to maintain a working level of the language.
With the ASEAN Community looming and English being used more regularly, the Thai Ministry of Education is keen for English courses to be included in all vocational and higher education institutions for students and faculty/staff.
English language training is also spreading to the government sector, with the Office of the Civil Service Commission launching an e-learning project to prepare officials for the ASEAN Community in 2015. The push for English is not just happening in Thailand; similar opportunities are available across the ASEAN member nations. For example, the English Language Company (ELC) of Australia has already signed an MOU with the Ministry of Education in Vietnam to provide English language teacher training to teachers across the country with the aim of improving the English standards of students throughout Vietnam. English language providers could be looking to do the same in any of the other ASEAN nations.
Education hub aspirations
Like many of its ASEAN neighbours, Thailand aspires to be a regional education hub. "The Office of the Higher Education Commission is preparing various universities to be ready for the Government’s plan to turn Thailand into an international education hub. To date, 1,017 international courses have been opened in universities in Thailand. Out of these courses, 344 are for bachelor’s degrees, 394 for master’s degrees, 249 for doctoral degrees, and 30 for training programmes.” This could mean a good number of opportunities, for international education providers both in the Southeast Asia region and further afield. Foreign colleges and universities are already eyeing Thailand as a place to offer their courses or to open a branch campus – the University of Central Lancashire (UClan) is one. By opening a branch campus or offering university courses through a Thai partner, a foreign university would hope to attract not only local students, but also students from across the ASEAN Community.
Once the AEC is in place, the free flow of people across ASEAN borders should make it easier for students to choose to study outside their home country, but within their region.
Thailand’s potential as a sending market
The opportunities for traditional student recruitment are still there. Many Thai students will still look to universities overseas for their education, particularly if English is going to be the new working language in the region. Recent statistics from UK-based Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the UK remains an attractive destination, with 6,800 Thai students going to the UK to study higher education in 2011/12, up from 6,500 in 2010/11. China is also proving to be a popular study destination for Thais, with one institution alone having around 5,000 Thai students. But the numbers from the US paint a different picture. According to the most recent IIE Open Doors report, the number of Thai students in the US dropped by 7.4% from 2010/11 to 2011/12. At least one institution in Japan clearly sees Thailand as a lucrative recruitment market. Fukui University of Technology has opened an office in Bangkok: the “first such move in Southeast Asia, in an attempt to search for eligible Thai students and help them with Japanese-language improvement before they enter the university, said Mr Etsuo Matsuura, manager of the office.” The office will be responsible for recruiting students onto the University’s engineering and science programmes, and if it proves a success they will open offices in two other ASEAN nations, Vietnam and Malaysia. Other countries wishing to recruit Thai students will be interested to learn of the ‘One-District-One-Scholarship’ programme, which began in 2004 and is slated to run until 2020. The scheme allows high-performing Thai students to pursue higher education either at home or abroad. Over 30 countries are eligible, and approximately 14.49 billion Baht will be spent on the program in the next eight years.
A total of 1,856 scholarships are available, and it is thought a number of students will use their scholarship to study overseas.
The ASEAN Economic Community will certainly strengthen the Southeast Asian region in many ways – economically, socially, and politically. But it will also bring both partnership and recruitment opportunities to education providers within the region and beyond.