Interview: Worsak Kanok-Nukulchai

How would you rate the reputation of Thailand’s higher education sector regionally and globally?

WORSAK KANOK-NUKULCHAI: There is a global competition to attract international students, since this can generate up to $90bn in revenue for some host countries. Countries have formulated policies to attract international students and, in Thailand, the Office of the Higher Education Commission at the Ministry of Education has conducted a study on the influx of foreign students since 2002 in order to formulate a strategy to promote Thailand as a regional education hub. According to the most recent report published in 2013, there were 20,309 foreign students studying in 103 Thai higher education institutions in 2011. Internationally renowned universities are establishing branch campuses at an increasing speed, concentrating on the Asia region. Spurred on by projections from the likes of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which show that growth in demand for higher education among the 17- to 25-year-old age cohort for the next 20 years is in the lower double digits, Thailand is gearing up for the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) which will enter into force in 2015. In the process, the Ministry of Education is making a number of changes to the way education is delivered. According to reports, these changes should provide further opportunities for international education providers, particularly in the vocational and language sectors.

How responsive do you feel Thailand’s skills development system is towards labour market needs?

WORSAK: According to a recent report from McKinsey & Company, 75m youth worldwide are unemployed, while half of all youth are not sure that their postsec-ondary education has improved their chances of finding a job; and almost 40% of employers say that a lack of skills is the main reason for entry-level vacancies.

Like many countries in the region, Thailand is facing the challenges of ensuring that university graduates are more readily employable and is experiencing a growing need for skilled managers and professionals in a variety of fields. According to the most recent World Economic Forum “Global Competitiveness Report 2013-14”, Thailand needs to make its education more employment-responsive. The minister of education has called for a “revolution” in Thai education with the ambitious target of delivering demonstrable results by 2015. Universities will also need to innovate so that they produce graduates who are truly international in outlook and approach, possess the technical and soft skills required by the market, and who are able to transition easily into the workforce. One way to do so is for universities to work with professionals from each industry to develop more relevant professional programmes.

To what extent are research fields among research-driven universities in ASEAN focused on addressing regional development objectives?

WORSAK: There is great disparity among the 10 ASEAN member states in terms of development levels, especially if one considers higher education standards.

According to a study led by the ADB Institute, “ASEAN 2030: Towards a Borderless Economic Community”, ASEAN’s diversity and the need to accelerate convergence could be the greatest challenge in creating a meaningful AEC. ASEAN countries, while pursuing their own national objectives towards internationalisation of higher education in their respective countries, also need to jointly look at regional issues and ways in which the ASEAN as an entity can strengthen its position to resolve these challenges.

Using strategic alliances within the airline industry as an analogy, wherein networks, resources and facilities are shared among partner airlines, higher education institutes in the region should consider a similar scheme. As the AEC becomes more functional, and its members transition towards a knowledge-based economy, universities have a vital role to play by serving as a platform for stakeholders such as the government, academia, private sector, and intergovernmental and non-government organisations, to further cooperate.