Last month, representatives from nine Thai universities visited London in a bid to strike up links with UK institutions and, in particular, to establish double, dual and joint degree programmes.
Transnational education – where a university offers courses outside the UK – has become huge business. There are now 340,000 students pursuing UK qualifications worldwide, more than the number of non-European Union students actually in the UK.
Thai university representatives mingled with British delegates and introduced their institutions in a bid to drum up interest. There was enthusiasm from both sides, but more than a few hurdles to overcome.
Links between Thailand and overseas universities have grown in recent years, according to an analysis by William Lawton, a higher education consultant.
In 2011, there were 92 collaborative degrees offered in the country. By 2013, after a “pretty rapid increase”, there were 159, he told the British Council-organised event, the UK-Thailand TNE Presidents’ Forum, on 18 January.
China was the biggest player, accounting for 60 of these links. After that came the US (29), the UK (16), Australia (12), Japan (12) and France (11). “From a British perspective, Thailand has more international activity than we thought,” Dr Lawton said.
One of the biggest obstacles to setting up courses in English was the relatively weak language skills of Thai students, he explained, an issue that was “said to be so serious that some students were unable to finish” their courses.
Other problems included an immigration and visa bureaucracy that some UK universities felt was “uniquely difficult” and even comparable to the home of red tape itself – India. One of those interviewed by Dr Lawton said that it took “years of work just to get to a memorandum of understanding stage” with a Thai university. But some institutions were “willing to play the longer game” despite the difficulties involved.
A more repressive political environment since a military coup in 2014 is also causing jitters for potential partners. More than half the UK representatives spoken to by Dr Lawton mentioned this instability as a deterring factor.
For Western universities seeking links in the region, there are attractive alternatives to Thailand.
The Vietnamese government is very keen to encourage transnational higher education, Dr Lawton said, and was seen as being easy to deal with, while Indonesia, with a population of 250 million, was viewed as a much bigger transnational education market.
Overall, he concluded, “the relationship [between Thailand and the UK] is underperforming”.
To judge from the presentations that they gave, many Thai universities are torn between the need to become more international while continuing to serve Thailand itself.
Chulalongkorn University, based in the capital Bangkok, is considering making many of its programmes bilingual so that it can attract international students who want to study in English, explained its vice-president, Kalaya Tingsabadh.
And yet one of the university’s objectives is “sustaining Thai-ness in a global world”, Dr Tingsabadh’s presentation stated. The university puts on numerous activities to promote Thai culture to its students.
As for research, “we can’t just publish in international journals” because academics’ scholarship must also be relevant to Thailand, she added.
Meanwhile, instead of seeking far-flung intercontinental links, Chiang Mai University’s international strategy focuses on a diamond-shaped area encompassing parts of Myanmar to the west, Yunnan province in China to the north and Laos to the east.
It is currently flying economics professors to Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, to teach master’s students. With Myanmar opening up after decades of isolation, “they are very badly in need of people who can work in a modern business system”, the university’s representative said.
In Thailand, an opportunity to speed efforts to halt cancer
A key attraction of collaborating with Thai universities is the opportunity to study unique public health problems that are simply unavailable for analysis elsewhere.
One tragic example is Thailand’s liver cancer scourge. The disease is about 300 times more common than it is in the UK, and is particularly prevalent in the north-east of the country.
The reason, explained Peter Norsworthy, a divisional manager at Imperial College London who has worked on efforts to study the phenomenon, is that huge numbers of people are infested with liver flukes – a type of worm that irritates the organ, leading to cancer.
These parasites, which are the size of small earthworms, enter the body when people eat a popular Thai dish of raw marinated freshwater fish. Because the fish is not cooked, the flukes are swallowed alive.
Dr Norsworthy said that it was a “very good question” why Thais continue to eat the dish despite widespread knowledge of the dangers. “There are a lot of cultural aspects that are hard to change,” he said. Getting Thais to alter this element of their diet was as difficult as it would be to get Britons to stop eating fish and chips, he added.
However, the sheer number of liver cancer patients in Thailand makes it far easier for Imperial to work with Thai researchers to study the disease. At Imperial’s Hammersmith Hospital in London, there are about 40 referrals a year for cholangiocarcinoma, the specific form of cancer caused by the flukes. In the Khon Kaen University hospital – Imperial’s partner in Thailand – there are 30,000 annually.
As a result, randomised controlled trials are much quicker to do in Thailand because there is a “critical mass of patients”, Dr Norsworthy said. The collaboration is developing ways to detect the cancer early, such as using MRI scanners and simple urine-activated dipsticks.