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Thailand’s Higher Education Internationalization in Practice Voice of a Stakeholder

Published Date : Feb 26, 2018

Porntip Kanjananiyot
Chotima Chaitiamwong
Thailand-United States Educational Foundation
(TUSEF/Fulbright Thailand)


Fulbright Thailand, administering the Fulbright Program in Thailand since 1950, has stated in its 10-year framework to focus on internationalization and cross culture in addition to its main mission of creating mutual understanding of the peoples of Thailand and the United States of America. This is because of the belief that to fulfill its mission successfully, the Foundation must be engaged in Thailand’s internationalization and at the same time, in examining in further depth the context of culture.

Therefore, this paper intends to discuss development of internationalization in Thailand, the involvement of Fulbright Thailand, how cultural traditions have played a key part especially after the most recent Education Reform, and what should be done to enhance smooth and successful internationalization process.


Development of Internationalization in Thailand

Started from the 15-year Long-range Plan on Higher Education (1990-2004), the Ministry of University Affairs (currently the Office of the Higher Education Commission under the Ministry of Education) saw itself as the pioneer in pushing internationalization forward under the Seventh National Development Plan (1992-1996), emphasizing on internationalization and regionalization. Since then, attempts have been made to understand the processes that will fit best for Thai higher education institutions. Experts from within and outside the Asian regions, Fulbright included were brought in to offer consultations or develop guidelines. OHEC has also initiated or expanded existing bilateral and multilateral programs. Several examples are: Thailand-Austria relations that led to the setup of the ASEA-UNINET (ASEAN-European Academic University Network) for multilateral cooperation between Asia and the European Union; University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific-UMAP, a multilateral form of exchanges since 1996 to identify and overcome impediments to university mobility, and to develop and maintain a system for granting and recognizing academic credit; and ASEM-DUO Secretariat and OHEC, a 2-way exchange starting in 2006 to enhance a balanced mobility of students between Thailand and ASEM member states for regular-basis exchange programs and for deeper understanding of the two regions.

Despite some gaps of implementation due to the change of administration with ‘new policies’, the internationalization efforts move on though much more slowly through existing projects. It is welcoming to see that during the past several years, the movement is significantly fueled by the ASEAN integration in 2015 with the national dream of becoming regional education hub. Several exchange programs and efforts were seen, for example, ASEAN International Mobility for Students (AIMS) Program (previously known as M-I-T– Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand Exchange Program), promoting student mobility with credit transfer in the ASEAN region as part of the harmonization of higher education in Southeast Asia; and Thailand-ASEAN Exchange Program, which is a one-way exchange since 2012 to enhance students’ competencies to meet the demand of ASEAN labor market, and to strengthen the relationship and the integration of ASEAN Community through education. Experts from the US and EU have also been invited to produce policy recommendations and related guidelines.

Along the development path, challenges remain as internationalization of higher education is interpreted in various ways and reflected through a number of endeavors. International programs, for example, have mushroomed in the recent decades. Almost all higher education institutions, if not all the faculties, established their international programs either separately or in parallel with the existing ones. Partnerships with foreign institutions are also sought for collaborative research and exchanges. From the surface, Thai higher education internationalization is extremely active and seemingly productive. Looking closer from stakeholders’ points of view, however, a number of challenges and unseen opportunities remain unsolved/untapped, needing serious attention.


Role of Fulbright Thailand

Education internationalization requires a concert effort from ALL sectors in order to make sure that the movement develops towards the same direction on the shared vision. Then, there is a need of a central body to monitor and facilitate the overall education internationalization process. None is in the better position than the Office of Higher Education Commission (OHEC) to assume this role. With its influence on national education policies, some control over budget, and network across ministries, agencies, and governments, OHEC has perfect tools and mechanisms for the task.

Since the start of the internationalization policy, Fulbright Thailand has cooperated closely with the Office of Higher Education Commission (OHEC), through experts from American universities and experience sharing of the Fulbright Thailand office itself.

For the past decade, the cooperation has resulted in a few discussion forums and publications, e.g. Guidelines for International Education at Thai Colleges and Universities by Dr. Jack Van de Water in 2005; translation of Standards of Good Practice for Education Abroad, developed by The Forum on Education Abroad, 2005; Creating an International Framework: A Manual for Thai Colleges and Universities by Karen McBride , etc.

Furthermore, Fulbright Thailand has seriously taken stock of its over 60 years of cross-cultural experiences to share with OHEC and universities. Its short cross-cultural stories, and cases built on real stories in the field have sent signals to the Thai society that some cultural traditions could become a hindrance cross-culturally. While understanding one own’s culture before learning to appreciate other cultures, it is necessary for the Thais to look ahead to the world, which will have ‘standard working and living culture’ (democracy, human rights, plagiarism, etc.) for all to understand and respect. Thus, analyzing our own thinking and behaviors well will better prepare us to become the real ‘global citizens’.

Since 2011, it has organized Fulbright Internationalization Forum (FIF) as an avenue to stimulate the university community to continue moving toward internationalization, emphasizing mainly on its experiences on grant administration to raise some key issues like effective management of exchange programs, and awareness of managing the Millennial’s generation.

Another worth mentioning joint effort of OHEC and Fulbright Thailand with the cooperation of the US Embassy since 2013 is a survey on internationalization of Thailand, based on earlier survey questions developed by American Council on Education. The results not only would shed lights on current and future directions of Thai higher education, they will be a good start for some training and benchmarking exercises to follow.


Challenges of Internationalization Efforts in Thailand

Cooperation and collaboration of Fulbright Thailand with OHEC and universities in various ways has enabled it to learn more about purposes and processes, frustration and fear, as well as sentiments and success of the university community.

A few huge challenges arose following the 1999 National Education Act.

Firstly, the internationalization efforts have slowed down due to the reorganization process, leaving individual universities to determine their own directions as seen necessary. Gaps among universities on this dimension have grown further.

Secondly, the new structure has seen many more newly upgraded universities to be under the auspices of OHEC. The numbers, grown from 78 in 2002 to 173 in 2014 , have made it harder to promote internationalization across the board, when considering that each has its own stage of development and specific context to handle.

Thirdly, the Act stipulates that all universities have to put in place their quality assurance systems to be ready for assessment. The so-called Internal Quality Assurance (IQA) and External Quality Assurance (EQA) have stolen concentration of many universities to shift their focuses on quality assessment imposed by the Office of the National Standard and Quality Assessment (ONESQA), and OHEC. The achievement of the internal and external assessment is proven by the completion of indicators prescribed by the two agencies.

Fourthly, internationalization and quality assessment are under two different bureaus. Consequently, there is a missing link of incorporating indicators concerning internationalization and it highly depends on each university to introduce additional quality indicators.


The Missing Links

Role of OHEC
Significantly, OHEC’s role has become even more crucial to enhance internationalization process, from policies to pilot projects and assistance to newcomers in the university circle.

OHEC may need to reposition itself as a partner/facilitator, a resource/research center, and a matchmaker for universities. Indeed, the pace of education internationalization differs from institution to institution depending on individual leadership, priorities, strengths, characteristics, etc. Naturally, each of them knows better than OHEC what they want and what works for them. So, as a partner/facilitator, OHEC can focus its staff and resources on more specific agenda to determine gaps, and bridge them. For instance, with overall statistics relevant to education/education internationalization locally and globally, OHEC can periodically analyze those data against the nation’s policy to see progress, opportunities, needs, and weakness of education internationalization in Thailand from its macro picture position. The statistical analysis is crucial for determining what kind of support (e.g. training, seminars, study visits) is needed, whether the policy should be adjusted, how to effectively and realistically allocate the budget, etc. OHEC is in an advantageous angle to put the jigsaw pieces of education internationalization process together and fill in the missing pieces with possible cooperation and networking opportunities from external agencies, regional and international organization based in Thailand included; as well as its bilateral and multilateral ties.

Role of IROs
On the smaller scale, within an education institution, similar phenomenon exists. There could be international relations offices (IROs) at department, faculty, and institution levels. Interestingly, IRO, which is the forefront office to push forward respective internationalization process, is normally underrated. Some institutions have established their central IRO for institution-wide purposes, yet with insufficient empowerment, and inadequate networking cooperation within the institutions. Quite a number of IRO staffs are expected to be proficient in English as the first priority and handle basically logistics like paper works and visa and accommodation for exchange scholars/students.

Our decades of experience in international exchanges suggest that a strong IRO is significant for the progress of education internationalization. Proactive IRO and capable staffs will help institutions become more strategic, as well as more capable to grasp potential opportunities and manage resource effectively. Along with the need to empower IROs, proper centralization and decentralization of IRO offices at the university and faculty levels must be balanced according to their specific contexts, to enhance consistency of policy implementation and effective endeavors with productive knowledge management in the longer term.


Quality Controversy

Quality Assurance (QA) is one of the controversial issues among education institutions. Some have faith in the quality standardized system while some are skeptical on its practicality. Our experiences suggest that QA is essential and yet, preferably with less imposition with the central control.

It has widely been criticized that the current education QA systems in Thailand are irrelevant and burdensome. Darren McDermott pointed out that Thai universities have been through ‘evaluation fatigue’ . In fact, assessment exercises are highly useful when they are conducted by considering more of the contexts, without prescribing indicators that may be irrelevant or meaningless to some universities.

It may be better for OHEC to identify only a handful of core values for all higher education institutions to take up, some shared values like the true mission of universities for national development, and production of graduates with international outlooks, etc. The rest could depend on each university to decide, considering their readiness and context. Only those barely meeting the minimum higher education standards should be imposed with strict measures to be fulfilled.

Quality assessment systems in Thailand have been one of the factors that hinder the internationalization process. This is due to the facts that the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions leading to the real quality are always overlooked. Though there is room for universities to add their own indicators concerning their internationalization efforts, the prescription of indicators is legally bound and requires compliance. The weakness also lies in the links among indicators as each quality element tends to stand alone.

It is a challenge for policy makers to integrate fragmental QA efforts into the more practical and effective scheme flexible enough for different education institutions with different development stages. This will ensure the diversity of institutions and allow them to move at their own pace with less pressure. Those who are more ready and have more international dimensions in their missions and vision can move faster with less assessment burdens they may not find highly helpful.


Thai – American Education Benchmarking

In facilitating education cooperation between Thailand and the U.S., we have seen opportunities for both to share and learn from each other despite differences in systems, cultures, and contexts. Some kinds of benchmarking system might have already been adopted but we urge education institutions to revisit them. Benchmarking is an effective mechanism to help education institutions see, through others’ experience, how they can possibly adjust and what they can do more…for the better. However, it must base on clear vision, systematic knowledge management, thorough understanding on oneself, and the right match. We would like to emphasis here on the last two factors.

Along the benchmarking process, education institutions need to be aware of their own contexts including strengths and limitations. Genuine and thorough and self-reflective exercises will help prevent them from being unrealistic, too ambitious, and lost. A number of American education institutions are considered ‘international’ not because they use English as a medium of instruction but because of their teaching and learning approaches, up-to-date course design, student services, orientation, cross-cultural management, faculty support, research facilities, networking, etc. Simply changing the medium of instruction into English will not make an institution ‘international’.

Significantly, the benchmarking will not be useful if it is not the right match. With self- assessment and clear vision/goals, education institutions must find the suitable counterparts. In this case, they must not overrate nor underestimate themselves – be realistic. At the same time, get rid of the bias. There are not only a few institutions in the league. Benchmarking choices could also be other institutions, community colleges, technical schools, etc. Focus on their strengths and the institutions’ learning targets will be best to ensure productivity in learning and sharing, and reciprocity like coopering with smaller and less known institutions for their excellent community engagement.


M Engagement and Cross-Cultural Bridge

Surprisingly, students, who are the core of education internationalization, are not much engaged in the process. One major obstacle is the generation gaps between students and ‘the adults’. Being born after 1979, students are grouped as the Millennials (M) with alienated characters and culture in the eyes of the Boomers (those born around 1945-1946) an even the Xers (around 1965-1978). The M might have some unfavorable natures but, at the same time, they are highly potential. They are digital natives with great creativity, strong social network, teamwork skill, volunteering spirit, and many more. These qualifications, if strategically utilized, will contribute to the constructive development in education internationalization . Education institutions just need to find the right approaches to engage them. Different institutions might tailor different approaches depending on their specific context but we believe all successful approaches are based on one factor – cross-cultural understanding.

Although cross-cultural understanding is the underlined principle of education internationalization, the focus still leans too much on diverse cultures among different countries, not among different generations…within the institution. Generation gaps should be seriously taken into consideration and cross-cultural understanding should be promoted campus-wide. Cross-generation face-to-face interactions and communication could be encouraged through outreach/extracurricular activities to promote understanding and respect for the differences.

Indeed, engaging the M in education internationalization process is a win-win strategy. For administrators, understanding the M is to understand their customers and market needs/trend. For lecturers, involving the M in their teaching and learning is to enrich their resources/lessons and constantly update themselves with changing trends and knowledge. For the M, being an active part of their own education helps unlock their potential, increase their sense of responsibility, and enhance their leaning skills. All have something to learn and share from each other.


Proposed Keyword – Lintegration

Education internationalization is the complicated process involving numbers of ideas, vast variety of stakeholders, layers of policies, and series of implementations. At the national level, OHEC could be the focal point of the overall education internationalization by facilitating the process from the big picture. The Office has an advantage of seeing the missing links and encouraging possible cooperation. It could partner with education institutions by providing needed support and practical guidelines for quality achievement. This role requires OHEC to empower its staffs for more strategic directions.

At the institutional level, individual institutions should review their own positions and benchmarking strategies for better serve their uniqueness in a more realistic way. They also need to seriously engage their students in education internationalization and to promote cross-cultural understanding in all aspects of their functions. At the same time, the roles of IROs must be strengthened to foster the institutions’ long-term international relations and their education internationalization efforts.

Both at national and institutional levels, education internationalization must be lintegrated. Individuals must develop an ability to draw linkages from the big picture and integrate this linking ability to any aspect of their work. In other words, we encourage lintegration of education internationalization and individual assignments. Lintegration can start with prioritization of individual assignments and identification of institution-wide link possibilities within the institution’s macro picture. Quality indicators on internationalization processes have to be developed and included as an essential part of the core mission. Then, individual can lintegrate their prioritized assignments into the picture, beginning from smaller steps.

Regardless of challenges, we do believe that, with serious commitment and some adjustments for the better of OHEC and individual institutions based on lintegration concept, Thailand’s education internationalization will greatly be pushed forward in a healthy and harmonious manner.