Where is Thailand’s higher-education heading?

By | Fri 5 Aug 2022

            When people think of Thai education, Thais and foreigners alike would bemoan, shaking their heads. “Rote learning” they’d say.    

            But do they understand why it’s the way it is?

            Education was originally for the Thai traditional elites.

            In a broad historical view, public education was a recent invention in Thailand in the early 1900s – imported from the West. Indeed, Chulalongkorn university – the first and the oldest learning institution in Thailand – was founded to train royal pages and civil servants in 1899. Only in 1917 did it become a national university, opening itself to the non-civil class and the middle class.

            (When the Europeans were digging trenches and slaughtering one another, Thai commoners had just gotten their first taste of higher-learning education.)

            Fast forward to today, with a proliferation of state and private universities in Thailand, I would argue that university-level education, to a lesser degree, remains an elitist activity. Remember that up to ¼ of Thai workers are farmers with no education. Their sons and daughters would finish high school if they are lucky. Most just hit the job market, selling food and labor after finishing primary school.

For many Thai families then (and increasingly American working-class families) a 4-year university degree is a luxury.

             Viewed from this lens, higher education in Thailand is a “signaling device” of their social status rather than a place for real learning. An exercise in branding over real brain power training.

            Now, let’s delve into the rabbit hole inside Chulalongkorn University.

             I confess I was once enrolled in their 1-year Master’s program many years ago.

             I quit after about 2 months.

             I felt like the whole thing was a “diploma assembly-line” where curiosity was not the priority. But meeting deadlines and passing exams were. The lecturers there, most of whom had degrees from the West, were merely going through the motion of teaching. Crucially, it wasn’t the lecturers’ problem if the students found the material difficult. This was ‘outsourced’ to small study-groups after class where students get together.

             The student’s profile: While some of them wanted real education, my observation is that most of them just wanted a Master’s degree to display on their chest because they have money and time; or to get a promotion in their company. Or God-forbid – to find a wife or husband.

             Moreover, as part of the program I was in, lunch boxes were provided to us, the cost of which came from our tuition fees. It turns out that my lecturer owned a restaurant and took the liberty to order us lunch boxes there – which tasted bland, to put it mildly. I had to go to the canteen and pay out-of-my-pocket to get a proper meal.

              In other words, part of my money had wastefully gone to her restaurant, without my consent. Who knows how much money the department gave her for our lunch budget.

            In another university – a private one I shall not name. It touted itself as a first-class business education provider preparing graduates to take on the world. Yet it had squatting toilets, most of which did not have toilet paper or hand soap.

            Back to the great Chula.

            Did you realize that Chula university earns over 20 billion THB per year? Chula owns 1,153 rai of land in the heart of Bangkok from Rama 1 to Rama 4. 55% of its revenue comes from education-related sources; a whopping 34% comes from commercial rentals, and another 11% from rental to civil servants and government-related properties. It owns the land on Siam Square, MBK, and Samyam Mitrtown, and the likes.

             Let me tell you these properties aren’t cheap, folks. They form the heart of shopping precincts where urban youths shop and spend their leisure time, akin to Tokyo’s Shibuya district.

            Put it another way, almost half (45%) of Chula’s revenue comes from rentals.

            This begs a question from my curious brain.

Is Chula fundamentally an education provider or a mega-landlord?    

Could it be that its main business is real-estate development and education is secondary? It’s like McDonald’s where hamburgers provide cash-flow, but the real wealth lies in their prime real-estate locations.

            Can you smell the money? Because I can.

            It’s much harder to discover new technology patents and earn fees from them than just waiting for monthly rental incomes.

            While technically a state university, Chula has the autonomy to run its own internal affairs, especially on how it spends its income.

            From my experience overseas, the ideal ecosystem of a university campus town is that the shops and apartments around the campus should be affordable for students to live, work, get fed, and play. That’s where you get the community college creative vibe like in Melbourne. But in the heart of Bangkok, due to the high land price, it becomes economically too enticing for Chula to not take advantage of its assets.

            If I were running the show in Chula, however, I would build a public library landmark for all Bangkokians and foreigners to learn and enjoy, akin to the New York Public Library or Oxford library. What we have instead here are malls, more malls, and damn shopping malls plus overpriced condos.

Oxford library. A wine-and-cigar corner would be an ideal place for me to snuggle myself.

             Given that Chula is one of the top universities in Thailand, it is shocking (though not unexpected) that in Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2022, it lies between 800th -1000th.

            Similarly, QS World University Rankings 2022 lists Chula as between 201st – 250th.

            Why doesn’t some of this vast profit go to hiring top-notch professors? Or are they busying themselves on spreadsheets calculating passive incomes?

            I have yet to see Thai professors winning Nobel Prize in economics or medicine. I honestly don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime.

            Like I have written elsewhere, we will never be an ‘education superpower.’ This title belongs to the United States of America, followed by the United Kingdoms. (Although China’s Tsinghua and Peking universities are catching up.)

            Of concern to me in this writing is that with the education disruption worldwide, a 4-year degree is becoming increasingly irrelevant to getting a job. Why study Plato’s work when you can market yourself on TikTok and start making dough? (Though I choose Plato over Tiktok.)

            Why spend a great deal of money on higher education when you will start at 15,000 – 18,000 THB a month working for a company? The salary of which you won’t be able to survive in Bangkok without living at home with your parents.

             Nevertheless, I’m constantly humbled to see some Thais prospering despite the shackles that held them back in the form of the semi-medieval education here.  Engineering, pharmacy, medical, and architecture graduates go on to lead productive professional lives. Worth keeping an eye also are the robotics major students in King Mongkut’s Institution of Technology (Lad Krabang and Thonburi).

 Rescue robotics created by King Monkut’s University of Technology (North Bangkok) team where they came 2nd in the world competition.

So, where is Thailand’s higher-education heading?

Towards a cliff.

(1) In the next decades many Thai universities will close down or be sold to foreign investors, as many of the working-class Thais will find them irrelevant and unaffordable.

(2) It will be a place where only the privileged will network, while the rest fall farther behind. The rich will send their kids to acquire real education overseas as they’ve always done.