Economic needs driving change in Thailand’s higher education sector

A changing economic landscape is the driving force for reform in Thailand’s higher education system, with the Thailand 4.0 economic strategy prompting universities to adapt curricula to meet government policy and industrial demand.

In early February King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL) and Chulalongkorn University (CU), both public institutions based in Bangkok, announced they were joining forces to offer a double bachelor’s degree in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics engineering.

The four-year programme, the first of its kind in the country, will see students study at both campuses and graduate with a degree from both CU and KMITL upon completion. Admissions for the 40-person programme will start in August.

Universities adapt to meet tech demand

The announcement marks a strategic shift in the higher education sector, according to industry figures, as institutions adjust their strategies to meet the growing technological demands of the economy.

Local media reported that while Thailand produced 2000 AI and robotics engineering graduates last year, annual demand in the labour market stands at 10,000, with collaboration between universities to help increase the number of trained experts needed to support government plans to invest $6bn in the sector through to 2023 and reduce its reliance on technology imports.

Further highlighting the current mismatch between skills and industry demands, Chen Namchaisiri, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries, told local media in February that despite growing demand in the industrial sector for graduates with degrees in science, up to 70% of students leaving university had qualifications in social sciences.

Speaking in early March at a forum focusing on education as a driver for Thailand 4.0, the national strategy for creating an innovation-driven economy, Suchatvee Suwansawat, president of the Council of University Presidents of Thailand, said that to meet future demands of the labour market, universities need to strengthen ties with industry and each other, working together to share and develop expertise.

“Workers with basic skills will lose their jobs to robots and other smart systems, while demand for people with complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity skills will increase,” he told delegates.

Sector places emphasis on international expertise

In addition to collaborations at the local level, some tertiary institutions are partnering with international players to develop technology and innovation-focused programmes.

“Collaborating with top foreign universities is one of the strategies to push research and innovation, and will provide opportunities to private universities for international student recruitment to supplement local students,” Pornchai Mongkhonvanit, president of Siam University, told OBG.

In early 2017 KMITL formed an alliance with the US-based Carnegie Mellon University aimed at improving the level of education and training offered at the university.

The deal will see the universities develop a research institute utilising management principles from the US, offer dual-degree programmes in electrical and computer engineering and technology ventures, and collaborate on research efforts to improve human resources and technology capacity.

The government is also playing a part in establishing collaboration opportunities with international stakeholders, introducing a measure last June allowing foreign higher education providers to open branches in special economic zones, with initial emphasis on encouraging them to invest within the administration’s flagship Eastern Economic Corridor.

The move, designed specifically to fill skills gaps and draw on international expertise to advance Thailand 4.0 goals, will target courses not already provided by local institutions, with a particular focus to be placed on vocational industries.

In addition to the shift in course content, sector stakeholders say that education providers are increasingly looking to internationalise existing programmes, placing less emphasis on Thai-language courses and delivering more programmes taught in English, a skill seen as essential for operating in a global market.

Need for improvement in higher education standards

While the recent moves reflect a positive shift in the sector, future success in developing partnerships with industry and overseas research institutions could depend on whether the higher education sector can improve its international standing.

Only 10 local institutions made it into the Times Higher Education magazine’s 2018 ranking of the leading 350 universities in Asia, released in early February, with just one – Mahidol University – being ranked within the top 100.

Seven of the 10 Thai universities in the top 350 saw their rankings slip compared to the 2017 survey, with two others edging up the ladder and another holding its place.

In contrast, South-east Asian neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia both improved their standing, with the University of Malay entering the top 50 for the first time and Indonesia doubling its presence in the rankings from two universities to four.

The report, which judges universities on teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook, noted that an ageing population, coupled with oversupply in the sector, had contributed to Thailand’s performance downturn.

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