Not your typical day at the beach
Choosing and then studying for a degree in Thailand
Some people come here for amazing holidays spent exploring beautiful tropical islands, adventurously trekking in the northern jungles or developing oneself at Insight meditation retreats; others come, and stay, out of love and marriage to a Thai; still others to spend their retirement lounging in ease in the balmy weather.
Most people, especially Westerners, do not come here to study in a graduate program.
Yet as unlikely as it seems, I did just that. I came to study in a graduate program at an international university in Bangkok. Given the literally daily news headlines blaring warnings of Thailand’s sickly educational system, it would seem at the least to be a foolish risk and at worst, reckless. Thai culture and society are complex, and after being here for some time it is evident that each foreigner has their own unique experience of Thailand: what one foreigner holds to be a self-evident, universal truth about Thailand another completely disagrees with.
Hence it could likely be that what I have found to be true of my graduate degree experience is not true for other foreign students. It is difficult to generalize my personal experience. In spite of this wide variation in subjective individual experience, and perhaps because of, I hope that by sharing some thoughts of, and reflections upon, my scholastic experience in Thailand, those people who are considering a similar move may gain some beneficial insight, helping them to make more informed decisions.
The law of variability
In my opinion, to begin to understand the Thai educational system there are two fundamental assumptions to be made. The first is what I term the Law of Variability. Speaking broadly and reductively, except for the cuisine, in Thai culture the quality standards of things can vary dramatically. While this is true to an extent everywhere in the world, it is pronounced in Thailand: management and service often differ drastically from one business to the next. Adherence to prescribed quality standards, rules and regulations seems to be a rather whimsical personal choice.
In Thai higher education the Law of Variability is strong. While there is a quality assurance system (administered by OHEC, the Office of Higher Education), it has yet to create a common level of quality for Thai universities (QA is one of many factors in this complex situation). There are huge quality gaps between Thai institutes of higher education.
Considering this, it is not the level of prestige a university’s name bears (in Thailand) that is important. One should not think: I am going to study at the most famous university in Thailand! It is best to examine the particular department in which one is interested. Again, while this proposition is true of higher education globally (in the West universities often have a few renowned departments that receive the bulk of funding and attention, leaving the others to struggle along) it is even more so in Thailand.
Each department is run by a dean and each dean possesses their own amount of managerial competency, interpersonal skills, quality standards and educational vision. Everything is affected by the leadership; most obviously, which persons are hired on (and who are not) and why, the extent of adherence to quality assurance standards, and development of the curriculum. Therefore, within a given university the quality of departments frequently differs greatly depending on the style of leadership. It is not uncommon for a director or a dean to be a best friend or relative of someone senior in the university’s administration.
An iteration of the Law of Variability is that some international programs have a solid majority of Thai lecturers, who teach in English, because only the minimum number of foreign faculty required for the program to be legally termed international are hired.
In reality this type of international program is aimed at domestic Thai students and is ‘international’ only in name. Without unduly disparaging these programs, it is not unheard for them to consist of upwards of 90% Thai students, with whom the teacher frequently speaks Thai in class. The few foreign students in these classes can feel isolated. On the other hand, there are international programs that have a significant number of international faculty, whose Thai teachers are more globally aware and which do sincerely try to reach an international target group.
The second assumption is called the dual track system. This is a tacit, underlying system that pervades Thai education, from elementary school through doctoral programs. In the dual track system, students either choose, or are placed by teachers, on the minimal track or the regular track.
On the minimal track, students are allowed, or expected by teachers, to do only the minimum amount necessary to pass the class. All that is asked of them is that they at least meet the course’s basic requirements. Students on this track may be either personally unmotivated for whatever reasons (one common instance are the complacent kids of rich parents, who have been taught that they don’t need to exert themselves because their parents will buy their education for them) or may have been designated as incapable by their teachers.
The regular track is for everyone else. This dual track system is intuitively understood and partaken in by all stakeholders. The existence of two separate pathways each with its own standards creates a unique classroom culture and sense of academic inclusion/exclusion in Thailand. It is a source of disharmony.
Given the above, a litany of complaints or a vituperative tirade against Thai education might reasonably be expected to follow. So it should be surprising when I say that, speaking for myself only, while not naively nor blindly denying that there have been negative aspects, I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive time. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I liked the master’s degree program so much in fact that I went on to do a second round at the doctoral level.
The master’s degree was an international program in language, literature and culture. As literature is my passion it was astounding to be able to find a program in Thailand in that exact subject. It never ceased to surprise me, and my family and friends back home, that I was studying English literature in the Southeast Asian nation of Thailand.
This program had an international ensemble of foreign lecturers who were each experts in their fields (viz., they had long lists of journal publications and extensive teaching experience at well-recognized universities). The content of the courses was interesting, challenging and intellectually stimulating. I read catholically and extensively, truly expanding my mind.
A terrific advisor
While the dual track system was inevitably present, the students were pushed to do their best, to stretch themselves and surpass the minimum. At the time, the master’s thesis was the most difficult challenge I had ever faced. At least ninety to a hundred pages! It was terrifying. I was unsure if I could accomplish that task. Luckily my advisor was generous with her time and always willing to answer my questions.
It was with her assistance that I was able to produce a written work that I remain proud of to this day. I wonder if I had studied in America if my advisor would have been equally as giving of his or her time and attention; knowing what I know about my own culture and the state of American higher education today (drastic budget cuts in most every state, overburdened teachers), I doubt it.
The master’s program was a blessing. It had excellent international teachers, thought provoking course content, challenging assignments and clear quality standards. What made the entire experience special though was the setting; that it took place within the context of Thai culture and society.
I was imbued me with an array of different perspectives and interpersonal experiences that I never would have gotten back home. If I had studied in a program in America that was of a similarly international flavor, it would have still taken place within the American cultural context: the internal class culture would have been dominated by the external, omnipresent American culture, even if unintentionally, thereby detracting from the international experience.
Studying literature in Thailand surrounded by teachers and classmates who came from all over the globe forced me to not only consider English literature from new viewpoints but as well my cultural background and perceived identity. The experience helped shape me into a more multi-cultural person.
The doctoral program has been a different experience. The program is at the same university, but it is in a different department with different leadership. It consists of 1.5 years of course work followed by 1.5 years of dissertation work.
In this particular department all of the teachers are Thai. Let me be clear: this is not a complaint, but the stating of a fact. All of the teachers are skilled in English (as should be expected at the doctoral level) and have solid educational and professional backgrounds. They are highly qualified.
However, certain cultural things arose. The dual track system was more prevalent. A few teachers were too tolerant of poor quality work, while other teachers disagreed with them and in turn became overly strict on their own expectations of students. To put it bluntly, some teachers were too lax while others were too strict. There was thusly much more variance between classes and teachers in course expectations than there was in my master’s degree program. Secondly, while all the teachers were adept in English, still, somehow there was often confusion about practical matters such as assignment requirements and due dates.
A larger concern at first was the teachers’ method of instruction. They had been drilled by OHEC on the critical importance of making the classroom student centered; however, perhaps they had only been trained in theory and not in praxis because every teacher taught in the same way: for every class a student was pre-selected to present a 2-3 hour lecture. That is, on day one of class every teacher went over the syllabus with the group, and each student selected topics and dates for their presentations according to the timeline.
In reality that meant two things: one, the instructors never taught. They instead provided approximately 10-15 minutes of feedback at the end of each lesson (sometimes none at all). Two, we, the students, taught each other. In essence we were paying a rather large sum of money to teach each other, thereby losing out on the knowledge that would have been gained from actual instruction by the experts, our teachers. A three hour student presentation is a fine activity at the graduate level -- but not every single class.
This was a major problem for me. I seriously questioned if I was wasting my money and would be better off changing to another department, or even another university. Luckily, the students voiced their concerns and the leadership was responsive to the feedback, so that from the second semester on student presentations were limited to no more than 45 minutes, and teachers were required to teach the remaining portion of the class. But they did improve the instruction, and as noted earlier, the teachers were highly qualified, so it turned out well.
All in all, despite the program consisting of only Thai instructors and there being occasional communicational gaps, I have had a great experience so far (I’m halfway through). Two of the teachers are among the very best I have ever studied with, and have motivated me to excel and been extremely supportive.
Validity of degree
Both expatriates here and people back home have asked me if a graduate degree from a Thai university is valid; they wonder if it is recognized outside the country. It’s a fair question and one I’ve wrestled with a while. In my humble opinion, it depends.
In today’s knowledge based society employers increasingly care less about a university’s name, geographic location or even ranking and more about graduates’ competency. Putting aside bias, if an employer is presented a choice between a candidate who went to a prestigious university but opted for the minimal track and therefore has little skills to show, or a candidate who attended a lesser known university but who is demonstrably competent, they will take the latter. In the 21st century it is the quality of your work and the ability to demonstrate the soft skills such as leadership, teamwork, creativity and critical thinking that matters most.
Thailand is a hierarchical society in which status is fundamental, hence university prestige has traditionally been a key determinant of graduates’ desirability; however, this is slowly changing as the Thai economy has been hobbled for decades by a severe shortage of skilled labor so that now employers are forced to hire whomever is competent, no matter their educational background.
Along this line of thought, if during their coursework the student pursues career related development opportunities such as submitting papers to and presenting at conferences, networking and participating in professional development workshops, they can be justifiably confident in their post-graduate career. My own strategy is to focus on the international quality standard rather than the Thai standard. In the process of doing my degree, I want to feel that I am preparing myself to be able to work anywhere in the world, be it back home, Japan, Singapore or elsewhere.
I think this is a reasonable mindset because I assume that if I were studying in a doctoral program in America it would be extremely demanding.
To me, studying in Thailand doesn’t mean that I am permitted to try less hard. Keeping an international outlook on what I’m doing helps me to feel confident that I am receiving a quality education. As I’ve begun writing my dissertation, what I’ve done is to find as many published American dissertations in my subject area as possible and to use these as exemplars for my own work. This assures me that I am striving toward an international standard.
Those who are on the minimal track may not find their graduate certificate that useful, internationally. As these students have only met the bare requirements of their coursework they haven’t acquired the real world skills necessary for a successful career. I believe that for these graduates their degree is likely valid only within Thailand.
Speaking specifically to the topic of foreign lecturers at graduate programs in Thailand, few quality foreign instructors want to come here due to comparatively low remuneration, the weak quality of Thai education, the frequent and ongoing shifts in governmental educational policy that disrupt higher education, and the lack of upward mobility for foreign faculty (e.g., lack of access to academic titles, directorships and dean-ships).
Nowadays, Thai higher education is desperate for any foreign instructors willing to work here, no matter how qualified. Foreign students in international programs who choose the minimal track will not be so desirable internationally and may find themselves stuck in Thailand, in teaching positions which they do not like.
In a nutshell, I contend that the international validity of a graduate degree from a Thai university is highly dependent upon the quality of the students’ work and their ability to demonstrate the soft skills demanded by modern business.
Research is key
Now, for those who are interested in studying in Thailand, make sure to research as much as possible the particular department that you are interested in. Check out the faculty and their publications and professional experience. See if the department has a journal and if so, what its ranking is.
Correspond with faculty or department advisors, asking them any questions you may have, then observe both the content and the manner of their replies. Do they provide glib or thoughtful answers? Are they courteous or is there a subtle feeling of their being threatened by your enquiries? Secondly, understand that if you do decide to give it a go, in every classroom there exists to some degree two sets of standards for the students. It is inherent to the Thai education system and one must adapt to it.
Reflecting back on my experience, there were times in the course of my studies when I felt like I was hiking off-trail in the jungle without a map or compass. Being exposed to so many different viewpoints from all sides while living within the context of a foreign culture was disorienting. But isn’t that the essence of a genuine multi-cultural experience? Getting lost, then finding yourself again and seeing things in a new light?
In the final analysis, studying in an international program in Thailand is usually cheaper than in a Western country (at least it’s cheaper than in America), and if you do your research, find a decent program and push yourself to gain demonstrable skills, then pursuing a graduate degree here can be a wonderful, multi-cultural experience that will indelibly change your life.
Conversely, if you pick a university without doing diligent research then caveat emptor: you might be in for a surprisingly dreadful time. The keys to success are to be flexible in choosing your course of study (if there is a major that isn’t exactly what you planned on but the department looks better managed than your major of choice, it is advisable to opt for the better managed one), be able to adapt to the educational curriculum and vision that your particular department’s leadership has instilled, and if you come to find that it isn’t your cup of tea be prepared to get out quickly.
Only one thing is definite: It isn’t going to be like it is back home.
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This is informative and insightful. I hope the system gets better and we don't have to tolerate the poor quality any longer.
By Arnon Chaisuriya, korat (7th July 2020)
Very well written.
For a high school teacher I've had some good opportunities to understand how Thai universities and students function. There's not much meat on the bone.
I'm always amazed at the lack of materials university students carry about. I was told lecturers and professors make photocopy packets and sell these to students. But even here I'd expect students to at least have some backpack.
Your degree is valid for teaching English in Thailand. You might get some 3-4 tier university in States to allow you to do a PhD in the arts. Which also won't be much good outside of Thailand.
Chulalongkorn is ranked 800+ QS. I think the other top 3-4 over 1000. After that who's counting.
By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (12th December 2019)
Thank you, FS Thompson.
By Jesse, BKK (31st July 2018)
Enjoyed it, too, Jesse. Thanks for sharing!
By FS Thompson, Nong Chok (29th July 2018)
Thank you Jack; I appreciate it.
By Jesse S., BKK (11th June 2018)
I really enjoyed your article, it was well written, balanced and thoughtful. Your experiences and perceptions of studying in Thailand closely mirrored my own. Best of luck as you move forward in your chosen career path.
By Jack, In the office (11th June 2018)