We continue our From the Field series today with a feature video interview with Linly Phunpruch and Keith Hardy, co-directors of the education agency IEO Study Abroad in Bangkok, Thailand.
Thailand has seen a significant expansion of its higher education system over the past decades and a majority of secondary school graduates – up to 70% by some estimates – now go on to further studies. Reflecting the growing base of university graduates among the Thai population, enrolment in graduate programmes has alone grown by 300% over the past ten years, and there are now 2.5 million students attending the country’s 170 universities.
Greater participation in higher education has also had important implications for the Thai labour market. “University qualifications have become so common that they are now necessary for even basic clerical positions,” reports Asian Correspondent. “The huge number of graduates enables local employers to take their pick from thousands of university educated applicants. And with so many graduates in the job market, competition for rewarding positions is fierce.”
Coupled with this is the fact that serious quality issues persist in Thai education, particularly in terms of the extent to which graduates are prepared for the job market. Within this context, graduates from foreign universities have a distinct advantage, and this continues to be an important factor in driving demand for study abroad in the country.
The latest estimates have it that about 27,000 Thai students study abroad each year. The US remains the top destination but its population of Thai students has consistently declined over the past 15 years, from a high of 15,090 in 1997/98 to 7,341 in 2013/14.
Other host countries, however, have attracted greater numbers and today other leading destinations for Thai students (after the US) include the UK, Australia, Japan, and Malaysia.
Political uncertainty at home
Along with its competitive domestic job market, Thailand’s political situation is another key factor in shaping demand for study abroad. While there has been considerable political upheaval for nearly a decade, the situation has been particularly acute since early 2014. Disruptions to planned elections at that time gave way to a state of emergency, the subsequent imposition of martial law, and, in spring 2014, a coup which installed a military junta to power.
This political instability has delayed much-anticipated education reforms, and has led to widespread concerns as to the quality and relevance of Thai education among both parents and students.
The military leadership had initially promised elections in 2015 but those have now been delayed more than once. The latest speculation has it that a national vote will not likely be held before the second half of 2016, and only after a referendum on a forthcoming draft constitution.
There have been some indications that this protracted period of political uncertainty has triggered an increase in demand for study abroad, and we continue to see those signs again this year. Most recently, new data from the Australian government points to a 9.5% increase in Thai enrolment in Australian institutions year-to-date July 2015 (compared to the same period for 2014).
“The benefits of studying abroad are huge,” adds Asian Correspondent. “There are the obvious benefits such as high academic standards, internationally recognised qualifications and the opportunity to become fluent in English. But the benefits are not just academic. Living and studying in a foreign country is an incredible experience which builds character and helps broaden horizons. Cultural capital gained from studying abroad is an advantage which cannot be acquired staying in one’s home country [and] this international experience is attractive to employers.”
An agent’s perspective
Some of these same points come through loud and clear in the following video excerpt from our interview with Linly Phunpruch and Keith Hardy. The co-directors of IEO Study Abroad note the strength of the Thai economy and the country’s burgeoning middle class as further key underlying factors that are driving demand for study abroad, and offer some important insights as to how foreign educators can approach the market.
As Ms Phunpruch and Mr Hardy point out, there is growing demand for graduate programmes among Thai students and interest in English language training remains high, whether as a prerequisite for advanced studies overseas or as a basis for improving job prospects at home. They note as well the growing appeal of hybrid or joint programmes – for example, engineering and management or computing science programmes coupled with business studies.
The parents’ voice
A recent article from marketing firm Intead makes a further important point as to the role of Thai parents in the recruitment process.
“In Thailand, it’s definitely a family affair when deciding where to study abroad. Though, keep in mind that most young people in this age range (undergraduate and graduate level) want to feel that these important decisions are entirely their own. That’s part of coming of age. We all went through it. And still, parental influence is a big factor in most cases, whether the prospective student wants to acknowledge that reality or not.”
With this consideration in mind, Intead recommends a range of communications targeted specifically to Thai parents, including parent-focused newsletters, websites, social media accounts, and specialised handbooks or other advisory resources.
“A successful marketing campaign in Thailand should be based on solid communication with parents,” adds Intead. “The difficult thing with these parent-focused activities is that, ideally, they all need to be delivered in the Thai language.”
While many institutions will struggle to do so, those that can effectively communicate with Thai parents in their first language may have a distinct advantage in the marketplace, and a foundation for ongoing engagement with parents can in turn be an important driver of student retention over time.