Interview: Reverend Brother Bancha Saenghiran
What factors lie behind the emergence of private universities in the country?
REVEREND BROTHER BANCHA SAENGHIRAN: Private universities have a long history in Thailand, gradually emerging to fill a gap in the market which public schools tend not to cover adequately. Private universities are generally established by foundations, companies, religious orders or rich philanthropists. Moreover, these schools have a long tradition: Assumption University, for example, has produced scores of ministers and leaders in different industries. It is a non-profit university.
However, private universities tend to be viewed as for-profit, and so a certain scepticism abounds. Overall, private universities still represent a small niche of the market. Requirements to establish private universities are cumbersome. Nevertheless, the fact remains that private universities have been traditionally set up to answer an increasingly-growing need for well-trained professionals in the new sciences, such as business and technology, and in certain fields that public universities focus on less.
What is the outlook in terms of the structure of the private higher education market?
BANCHA: Nowadays, the overall trend in private higher education enrolment is downwards. We have seen a rapid fragmentation of the private university market in recent years. Big public universities maintain a strong draw for students. The public and private schools are competing for a stable pool of students. In the past, public universities did not have to market themselves, but now increasingly need to promote their brands. Large private institutions benefit from a flight to quality in demand for private enrolment. We are slowly seeing a trend of higher numbers of students applying to well-established larger private universities.
Some of the private universities have been well-established and produce quality on par with other institutions. The recent reform to national entrance exams has created confusion among students. It does not solve the problem it intended to. Students used to only take one exam, but this has now been revised. A number of public universities are now setting their own admission exams directly, which has complicated the process for many applicants and parents. Entrance exams are now being offered for students in both public and private universities.
How price sensitive is private education demand?
BANCHA: Tuition fees differ greatly between public and private institutions, and of course, private universities appear much more expensive on the face of it. But if one were to look at price per student in terms of total cost, government subsidies included, public education actually ends up being more expensive.
Private schools can only rely on tuition fees. Other potential revenue earners could be investments in research and development (R&D), but it is mostly public universities who take advantage of this. As a whole, Thai universities are teaching institutions, not research ones. Further cooperation between universities and private industries in R&D will depend on the level of government support and regulations.
Recently the government has begun aiding R&D initiatives in kind, but not in cash, as government regulations still prohibit the use of public funding for private entity interests. One area in which the government can be helpful towards private institutions is to limit land and housing taxes. This will help mitigate operational expense burdens.
The state provides loans, but former interest rates on these were typically higher than market rates. Additionally, the student loan fund from the government designed to improve access to education for poorer students is applied equally across public and private sectors. Institutions themselves offer their own scholarships to strong students, particularly those with very good English. Assumption University provides a number of scholarships to students in many categories to enable them to have access to higher education.
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