Transnational education in Thailand: What does Thailand’s new TNE policy mean for UK universities?

by Kevin Prest
East Asia

Despite the large number of Thai students studying abroad, the country is well behind some of its neighbours in terms of the number of students on transnational education (TNE) programmes. According to statistics from HESA, over 6,000 Thai HE students studied in the UK in the 2016-17 academic year but only a little over 300 were following UK higher education courses within Thailand in the same year once distance learning students are excluded. But in May 2017 the Ministry of Education announced a policy intended to change this, with plans to encourage high-potential” overseas universities to set up branch campuses in Thailand.

Since that announcement, the new policy has started to bear fruit. Two overseas universities – Carnegie Mellon University from the US and National Taiwan University – have announced that they would set up branch campuses in the country, the first two branch campuses to be officially recognised in Thailand. (A previous branch campus, Webster University Thailand, is formally classed as a private Thai HEI). Over the last few months, the British Council has taken a closer look at Thailand’s transnational education market to try to understand how this might be attractive to UK universities.

Branch campus opportunities exist, but restrictions still apply

Prior to the new announcement, it was technically possible to set up a branch campus in Thailand but the complicated procedure meant that no foreign universities took advantage of this opportunity. The new policy takes advantage of Article 44 in Thailand’s constitution that allows the government to issue laws for reasons including "the sake of the reforms in any field” without going through the normal legislative process. Approvals are judged by a committee headed by the Minister of Education in a much faster and more streamlined procedure than the previous arrangements.

The new policy also includes incentives for foreign universities to set up campuses in Thailand. According to interviews with Thai officials, the details will be decided on a case-by-case basis, but they are likely to include:

  • Exemptions from several taxes, including stamp duty on land transfers and import taxes on equipment needed for teaching or research
  • Limited-time exemptions to corporate income taxes
  • Exemptions to restrictions on foreign ownership of land and certain laws restricting currency exchange
  • Relaxed visa regulations for overseas staff
  • Additional incentives for campuses in the Eastern Economic Corridor – including discounts on corporate income taxes after the exemption expires, lower rates of personal income tax for employees, and facilitation measures including fast-track environmental impact assessments

On the other hand, Thai officials interviewed by the British Council were clear that there would be no direct cash subsidies or free land provided to foreign branch campuses in Thailand.

There are also several restrictions on who can operate branch campuses under the new policy and what they are able to do. The most important of these restrictions is on the subjects that branch campuses can teach – universities can only offer programmes that help to promote the development of Thailand by supporting priority industries under the “Thailand 4.0” development strategy. Government interviewees were clear that other subjects such as business (the most popular subject area among Thai students in the UK) could not be taught at branch campuses, even if the campus also had courses in priority fields, as this would create unwanted competition with domestic Thai universities.

Another important restriction is that the overseas partner should be a “renowned foreign HEI”. This has not been precisely defined but according to interviewees will be judged mainly on the university’s position in major international rankings along with its strength in the subject areas it planned to offer in Thailand.

Given the current lack of branch campuses in Thailand, Thai students currently have very low awareness of this form of education. Interviewed universities also seemed lukewarm on the prospects for cooperation – many universities see branch campuses as competition for local students, and this could become a greater issue in the coming years as Thailand’s student-age population is forecast to drop significantly over the next decade.

One major risk factor for universities considering setting up a branch campus in Thailand is that the drive for branch campuses is largely driven by the enthusiasm of the education minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin. But according to local media reports, the Thai government plans to separate responsibility for higher education from the MoE and move it to a new Ministry of Research and Higher Education. Promised elections in 2019 may also bring in a new government with different priorities. This will probably not affect already-approved branch campuses – decisions made under Article 44 have the force of law and are not easily repealed – but it is possible that political changes could make approval more difficult for a university part-way through the process.

Thailand’s branch campus environment is substantially more attractive than before the new policy was introduced, and there could be strong prospects for an institute focused on science and engineering courses that match Thailand’s development priorities. But subject restrictions mean that branch campuses are unable to offer some of the subjects that are most attractive to Thai overseas students in the UK.

Beyond branch campuses – joint and dual degrees are also attractive options

For universities that are not willing to commit to a full branch campus in Thailand, this is not the only TNE opportunity in the country. Interviews with Thai universities showed that there is strong demand to form new partnerships with overseas universities, especially in the form of joint and dual degree partnerships. Statistics from Thailands Office for the Higher Education Commission (OHEC) show that these partnerships have expanded rapidly over the last few years – the number of registered joint and dual degree programmes more than doubled from 2011/12 to 2015/16.

Growth in joint, dual and triple degree partnerships over time

Source: OHEC

Most of these collaborations at the undergraduate level include two years’ study in Thailand followed by a further two years overseas, with more variety at the postgraduate level. While many dual degree programmes involve teaching delivered by overseas academics in Thailand or where the overseas institution provides guidance and training to Thai staff, there are also some dual degree partnerships that are closer to credit recognition agreements with Thai universities’ English-medium “international programmes”; further on the same spectrum there are also many other single-degree credit transfer agreements between universities who have decided not to apply for MoE recognition as a joint or dual degree and which are not included on the above chart.

According to interviewed universities and agents, Thai student interest in joint and dual degree partnerships is rising over time, although the overall level of awareness remains low. Students generally see the partnerships as a lower-cost and more flexible alternative to a full overseas degree programme, finding them attractive for the same reasons as overseas study in general – including higher-quality education, prestige of the overseas degree leading to better employability, and opportunities to develop international experience.

All interviewees from Thai HEIs also expressed strong interest in working with UK universities on this form of partnership. They see these partnerships as helping to develop their universities’ reputation and international connections, and consider them as a way to keep students in Thailand who would otherwise go overseas for the whole course.

The British Council has compiled a 47-page research report on transnational education opportunities in Thailand, based on a combination of desk research and interviews with Thai officials, universities and education agents. The full report goes into more detail about both branch campuses and joint / dual degree partnerships, including approval processes, QA requirements and typical tuition fees, as well as discussing other forms of transnational education in Thailand such as distance learning. UK educational institutions can download the report free of charge from the British Council’s International Education Services website.

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