The Thai monarchy actively supports Thai higher education. Thailand's first and premier university was established on royal lands in 1916 by King Vajiravudh (King Rama VI) and named in honor of his father, King Chulalongkorn. All students receive their university degrees personally from the Royal Family. His Majesty the King himself is an active scholar and researcher and his daughter, H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn took a Ph.D. in Thailand and is an extremely active scholar who speaks numerous languages (both Asian and Western).
The Thai system of higher education is both large and complex with a myriad of potential opportunities for those graduating from the secondary school level or having met secondary equivalency requirements through non formal education. Amazingly there are a total of 780 institutions offering some type of higher education. Most secondary school graduates aspire for admission to one of the highly selective prestigious public universities. Admission to these universities (except NIDA) is based primarily on success in a standardized national university entrance examination administered by the Ministry of University Affairs. This examination has been used since 1962. This has resulted in a meritocratic system that clearly favors those of higher socioeconomic background from the best secondary schools, often in Bangkok or other urban areas of the country. A thorough analysis of the examination results for students from all regions of the country indicates rather dramatic disparities. Students attending school in more remote economically disadvantaged areas such as many parts of the north, northeast, and some parts of the south have much less chance of taking and/or passing the university entrance examination. To combat such inequalities, regional universities have developed special quota systems to ensure a specific number of slots for university students from their own regions.
In applying for admission to selective universities and taking the national university entrance examination, students indicate specific faculties and institutions in terms of priorities. Thus, some students may choose fields in which they do not have a genuine interest (where competition may be less keen) to enhance their chances of gaining admission to the most prestigious university possible.
Chulalongkorn University, established in 1916, has 26,381 students enrolled. Thammasat University was established in 1934 and has 20,667 students. Mahidol University has 26,859 students, and Kasetsart University has 27,366 students. Silapakorn University has 7,339 students. The latter three all opened in 1943. King Mongkut Institute of Technology with three campuses opened in 1959, 1960, and 1971. Total enrollment at the institute is 34,912. Chiang Mai University in the north opened in 1964 and enrolls 21,550 students. Khon Kaen University in the northeast also opened in 1964 with 17,938. The National Institute of Development Administration was established in 1966 and has 6,225 students. Prince of Songkla University in the south opened in 1967 and has 15,033 students. Srinakharinwirot University (formerly the major teacher training college) began in 1974 and has 13,452. All offer bachelor, masters, and doctorates with the exception of the National Institute of Development Administration which only offers master and doctorate degrees. Prince of Songkla University offers only bachelor and master degrees. All except Silapakorn, Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Prince of Songkla, and Srinakharinwirot are located in Bangkok.
These elite selective universities are quite diverse in nature and tend to specialize, though Chulalongkorn and the three major regional universities are comprehensive in their offerings. The diversity of higher education in Thailand is a reflection of the nation's special status of never having been colonized. Thus, in establishing various universities it has been rather eclectic. Chulalongkorn University has somewhat of a British flavor, while Thammasat University is noted for politics and is more French oriented. The literal meaning of Thammasat is moral sciences. Mahidol University is noted for medicine and science and it is named after a Prince who studied at the Harvard Medical School. Kasetsart, which has an agricultural orientation, was somewhat modeled after a U.S. land grant institution and is noted for its extensive and effective outreach programs.
For students who can not gain access to these selective elite public institutions of higher education there are multiple options. In recent years, a number of new public universities have been established in local areas. Each provides special quota admissions for students for their respective regions. In some cases branch campuses of Bangkok universities became separate universities. Local politicians have actively worked to support this development as a mechanism to provide more higher education opportunities for those in the regions and those of rural backgrounds.
Some of the more recently established public universities and their enrollments include Burapa University in the southeast (1990) with 6,613 students; Mahasarakham University (1994) in the northeast with 12,400 students; Naresuan University (1990) in the north with 14,104 students, Suranaree University of Technology (1990) in the northeast with 5,473 students. In the south Thaksin University (1996) has an enrollment of 3,609 students. Ubon Ratchatani University in the northeast was established in 1990, and Walailak University in the south was established in 1992 and has 2,153 students. Mae Fah Luang, which began in 1997, in the north has a projected enrollment of 350 students for the year 2001.
Suranaree University of Technology in the northeast and Walailak University in the south were established as fully autonomous public universities. Thus, they can establish salary levels and personnel policies, independent of the University Civil Service system and the normal regulations of the Ministry of University Affairs. They provide possible models for the education reform proposal to make all public universities more autonomous.
Another educational opportunity for students is attendance at one of Thailand's two large open universities. In an earlier period Thammasat University had been an open university. In 1971 Ramkhamhaeng University was established as Thailand's first formal open university to meet the growing social demand for higher education which could not be met by the existing selective universities. Ramkhamhaeng now offers both bachelor's and master's degree and has a large student body of 355,352. This institution is an open admissions university, which is basically a conventional university with direct classroom learning and instruction complemented by media. It also serves working adults who may be interested in a second degree and/or enhancing job-related skills in a specific area. In 1978, Thailand established a second open university, Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University (STOU), which is an open distance university, basically an innovative university without walls. It has students in all 76 provinces of Thailand learning by television, radio, correspondence, and the Internet. Its total enrollment is 209,680. STOU has targeted working adults as a major clientele for its programs and has plans to develop several doctoral programs.
Another option for higher education is a group of institutions known as Rajabhat Institutes, which were formerly teacher training colleges. There is one of these colleges located in every other province, providing convenient access to those residing in remote areas of the country. When they were transformed from Teacher Training Colleges into Rajabhat Institutes in the early 1990s, their curricula were diversified to provide training and learning in many practical fields, such as tourism management and business administration.
For students interested in technology and technical fields, there are 50 Rajamangala Institutes of Technology around the country, which like the Rajabhats offer the bachelor degree.
In recent years the growing demand for higher education has stimulated the private sector to offer more opportunities for students to finish secondary school. These institutions tend to be more expensive than the public ones. There are 49 private universities in Thailand, enrolling 199,464 students (1999), serving almost as many students as the original selective public universities. Fifty-five percent of these private universities are located outside of Bangkok, thus, help to serve higher education needs in the regions. The first to be granted university status was Payap University in Chiang Mai in 1974. It has a liberal arts orientation with strong strengths in areas such as music and sports. It receives special funding through its missionary affiliation and in the past received major U.S. aid funding for renovation of its campus. The largest private university is Bangkok University with 22,135 students.
Given its central location in both Asia and Southeast Asia, Thailand has been considered a potentially attractive location for international universities and colleges. The most well-known institution of this type is the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), sometimes referred to as the "MIT of Asia." It serves students throughout the Asia-Pacific region and has an international faculty. AIT grew out of the SEATO School of Engineering and was established as AIT in 1967. The Thai government provides roughly 20 percent of its funding. Assumption University, a private university, uses an exclusive English language curriculum and has many international faculty. Also a number of Thai universities collaborate with overseas institutions to offer special international programs. An example is the Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration, an internationally oriented English language MBA program housed at Chulalongkorn University and established in 1982, conducted in collaboration with the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. This was Thailand's first English language graduate management program. Mahidol University has an International College embedded within it which uses an exclusively English language curriculum and serves both Thai and international students who need higher education offered in English.
During the economic boom of the 1985-1995 period, there were many plans to establish new international colleges and universities. With the economic crisis of 1997, many of these plans collapsed since they were highly dependent upon private sector funding. Prior to the economic crisis, Thailand was also developing international academic programs to serve the needs of students from transitional economies such as Cambodia, the Lao PDR, and Vietnam. As Thailand recovers from its economic crisis, such programs are likely to be revitalized and expanded.
Starting with the reforms introduced by King Chulalongkorn in the late 1800s, Thailand has also had a strong tradition of sending students abroad for higher education. In fact, there is a Thai word, chup dua, which means to acquire prestige by going abroad for further study or training. Many of those in leadership positions both in the public and private sectors have studied overseas. His Majesty King Bhumibol was educated in Switzerland, and His Majesty's father, Prince Mahidol studied medicine at Harvard. The prime minister of Thailand has a doctorate from the United States. Prior to the Pacific War, Europe, especially England, was the most popular site for overseas study. In the post-war period, overseas opportunities have greatly diversified. In the 1960s and 1970s, during the Cold War period, there was considerable U.S. funding available for talented Thai students to pursue advanced studies in the U.S. A high percentage of top-ranking Thai civil servants have studied abroad. The Thai government itself has also provided considerable funding in support of overseas study. In 1999, there were 3,223 Thai students abroad being supported by Thai government fellowships. Even if Thai civil servants do not receive a fellowship for overseas study, they automatically receive their full government salary while on approved study leave, either internationally or locally. This has been a major source of support for overseas education and training.
With respect to enrollment at the higher education level, in 1999, approximately 25.7 percent of the 18 to 21 age group were enrolled, leaving roughly 3,300,000 of this age group not participating in any institution of higher education. Despite Thailand's major economic crisis, higher education enrollments actually increased 19.8 percent between 1998 and 1999. There were two major reasons for this. First, the Thai government introduced a major loan program to assist students to help meet the costs of both upper secondary and college level education. Second, with the economic crisis and related higher unemployment levels, the opportunity cost of pursuing higher education certainly declined.
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