Could Thailand become Asean’s International Education hub?

WITH the arrival of 2015 and the opening of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), we will soon see if Thailand’s aspirations for this new era can be realised successfully. Of particular interest is Thailand’s ambitious plan to become the centre for international education in Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on developing its already well established network of international schools.

Considering the well documented troubles of Thailand’s national education system, it may seem somewhat ambitious for Thailand to strive towards dominating the international education sector in this region. But despite the failings of the national education system, Thailand’s international education sector has experienced huge growth and the Kingdom has developed some world class international institutions. Looking more closely at the situation it appears that Thailand’s ambitions are more realistic than they initially appear.

The idea to develop Thailand as an international education hub has been around for some time and has survived successive governments (an achievement in its own right). In 2007 Commerce Ministry Permanent Secretary Karun Kittisataporn addressed a gathering of international educators at the Thailand International Education Exhibition expressing his belief thatThailand had strong high potential to be become the international education hub of Asia. In 2013, the Office of the Higher Education Commission reconfirmed its commitment to this goal.

According to theInternational School Consultancy Group there are now 173 international schools which between them educate just over 60,000 students, compared to just five international schools in the early 1990s. The dramatic increase of the past two decades can be attributed directly to the 1991 Education Act which allowed Thai children to enroll in international schools, an option many better off Thai families were only too glad to take given the dismal state of the national education system.

The relatively low costs of international education in Thailand is another point that makes the country a popular destination for international students. International school fees vary from around US$6,000 per year in schools upcountry to around US$20,000 per year at some of the top schools in Bangkok. While these fees are clearly expensive for the average Thai family, they remain competitively priced when compared with the costs of schooling in the West or other parts of Asia. For example the average fees for international schools in Hong Kong and Singapore are between US$15,000 – 28,000, while in Beijing schools fees frequently exceed US$35,000 per year.

Compare this to sending children to a UK boarding school where fees are rarely below US$50,000 per year and Thailand’s international schools suddenly appear great value. And it’s important to note that this variation in price is not linked to educational standards but the cost of living. International school examination bodies and accreditation organisations have extremely high standards. Furthermore, the actual curriculum and qualifications from international schools remain the same. The factor that has the greatest influence on educational quality is the schools’ leaders and teachers. Thailand’s high livability attracts educators from across the world and it may be that this is the defining factors that will help Thailand succeed in becoming a hub for international education.

International schools in Thailand provide a wide range of international curricula but by far the most popular international education systems are the British system, the American system and International Baccalaureate (IB) system, with many graduates going on to university in the UK or the US.

Institutions of higher education within Thailand have also embraced these opportunities to provide international education. The first international university in Thailand was Assumption Business Administration College (ABAC) – now known as Assumption University – which was granted university status by the Ministry of University Affairs in 1990. The number of universities offering international programmes has grown rapidly since the 1990s and there are now 344 international bachelor degree courses available in Thailand.

Andrew Elliott, an education consultant with 16 years’ experience of working in international education and director of the Centre for International Studies and Continuing Education at Shinawatra University (SIU), explains, “The primary reason for the phenomenal growth in international education provision at school and university levels in Thailand over the past two decades has been an enhanced awareness of the academic and career benefits graduation from an institution offering a curriculum that adheres to global KPIs and is taught in English can deliver.”

A recent development in Thailand’s school sector is the development of hybrid schools which offer both the Thai MoE curriculum and a fully accredited international curriculum. These schools are proving popular with students that wish to gain an internationally recognised education while continuing their schooling in a Thai environment. Among the first schools to successfully implement this new model were Satit Prasarnmit in Bangkok and Varee School in Chiang Mai.

The phenomenal growth of international education in Thailand shows little sign of slowing down and most predict this sector to continue growing. “This trend seems likely to continue and expand with the 2015 inception of the ASEAN Economic Community,” says Elliott. It is this increasing popularity of international schools that has encouraged Thailand’s leaders to promote the country as a hub for international education in the ASEAN region.

Thailand’s location at the centre of the ASEAN region and its close proximity to both India and China is another factor that will help Thailand become a hub for international education. Thailand also remains a very livable country and a popular location for tourists and expats. This livability attracts both international students and experienced educators. A wealth of quality educators should enable international schools in Thailand to continue reaching high academic standards and, ultimately, it will be the quality of these international programmes that decides Thailand’s fate as an international education hub.

However, it is important to remember that becoming a hub for international education will bring both benefits and challenges for Thailand’s society. With more students gaining a world class education, the knowledge and skills these individuals acquire will ultimately support Thailand’s development. On the other hand, if a quality education is only available to those that can afford it, the gap between rich and poor will deepen further.

Furthermore, investment and promotion of Thailand as an international education hub will do nothing to improve Thailand’s national education system. This international hub status will benefit a very limited number of already privileged individuals. In terms of improving education, it is far more important that Thailand’s school system undergoes a genuine reform to ensure all students have access to an education that will equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge to success in the 21st century.

Thailand certainly has the potential to realise its ambitions of becoming the centre of international education in the AEC, but it won’t be easy. Some of Thailand’s neighbours, Singapore and Malaysia in particular, share long traditions of international education and also have some excellent schools. And like Thailand, these are also very livable countries . Singapore has the added advantage of having highly respected school system and neither of these countries have experienced the type of political turmoil that has tarnished Thailand’s international image over the past decade.

Thailand’s ambitions to become the AEC’s international education hub are not as unrealistic as they first appear and international schooling in Thailand has made phenomenal progress. But these ambitions will require Thailand to stave off stiff opposition from some its neighbouring countries if they are to become a reality.

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