Living and working in a foreign country can be a tremendous opportunity for personal and professional growth. Living abroad can allow one to learn about a foreign culture, and by reflection one is likely to understand one's own culture better as well. Also, being an expatriate provides a fantastic opportunity for acquiring and practicing a foreign language. Additionally, in many cases increased responsibility and authority comes with an expatriate assignment allowing for accelerated professional growth. However having access to formal higher educational opportunities has not normally been associated with being part of the international workforce; but due to globalization and technological advances, times are changing.
In the past, higher education was mostly seen as being reserved for people coming out of high school or those with intent on pursuing an academic career. However, recent trends show a huge increase in attendance at institutions of higher learning by adults. Chances are people many of us will be competing with for jobs and promotions in the future are currently furthering their education. These days, one can often earn additional educational qualifications without quitting one's job, resulting in a higher percent of the population acquiring advanced degrees. Expatriates do not have to be left behind as they also have access to higher education. In Thailand, expatriates have the option of either studying locally or through distance education.
Higher Education in Thailand
If one can speak, read and write Thai at the level needed to study at a university, there are an abundance of educational opportunities available locally. But even if one is not fluent in Thai, there are a number of programs taught in English one can attend. Universities with undergraduate and graduate degree programs taught in English include Assumption, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chulalongkorn, Kasetsart, Mahidol, Khon Kaen, Stamford International, and Thammasat Universities. While the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) and Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) offer only graduate programs. This is by no means an exhaustive list, there are numerous other higher educational programs taught in English within the country. An Internet search should provide more detailed and up to date information on international educational programs at the various universities in Thailand.
In years past, the vast major of the international programs at Thai universities were in the field of business, but that has changed. Today there are numerous international programs in fields as diverse as agricultural science and development studies and can be found at the bachelor, masters and doctoral levels. There are a variety of international programs offered by universities in Thailand, some which focus on full-time students and are taught during the day while other target working adults and are taught in the evenings and on weekends.
There are a number of advantages in attending higher education in a traditional classroom setting. First off, the mode of instruction is quite familiar to most individuals. The majority of international higher education programs in Thailand are patterned after programs in the USA and UK and most programs have linkages with a number of universities outside of Thailand. In general, degrees from Thai universities are recognized worldwide; one can easily get into a masters degree program anywhere in the world with a bachelor's degree from a Thai university, assuming all the other conditions are met.
Arguably the best reason to study in a Thai university is for the cross-cultural experience. Students from Thailand and other parts of Asia often study in foreign countries and having this foreign exposure is considered a very valuable experience and not surprisingly a high percentage of Asian leaders in business, politics and academia have had some education at foreign universities. As Asia is becoming an increasing important region in the global economy, having foreign educational experience in Asia may give individuals from outside the region an edge in acquiring high-paid internationally focused positions in the future.
And one should not forget studying with colleagues from different cultures can be both fun and an opportunity for personal growth. It would not be surprising if students found themselves doing a group project with fellow students from 3 or 4 different countries while studying at an international program at a Thai university. As opposed to distance education, attending a ‘real" classroom requires face to face communication, with both instructors and fellow students, which is known as a far richer communication channel which for many individuals helps facilitate the learning process.
As well as looking at the upside, one should also consider the downside of attending a Thai university. Despite the lack of open racism and all the rhetoric about globalization found in the world today, there remains in much of the populations of Western countries the belief that "West is best." Education from Asia, especially a developing nation of Asia such as Thailand, will be viewed by some individuals as automatically inferior to the education one would gain in a Western context. I referred to this belief as the "Colonial Paradigm" in a book that I wrote which came out in 2008. This practice of placing education and business practices on a hierarchy based on nation of origin that arose during the colonial era continues today and this worldview is often reinforced by movies, classical literature, the news media and even educational systems. In an ideal world, the nationality of the university should not matter, in fact the top Thai universities have achieved international rankings and reputations, which is quite amazing considered the overall level of economic development of the country, however we do not live in an ideal world and attending a Thai university could be looked down upon by some potential employers, limiting the financial value of a degree from a Thai institute.
There are some other factors to consider as well. In comparison the US system, Thai universities do not generally encourage the transferring of students from one institution to another and therefore if one has already completed a considerable portion of a higher education degree elsewhere; it may be quite difficult to transfer credits. Also, it should be remembered that the majority of students in these international programs at Thai universities will be using English as a second language. This often results in the courses preceding at a slightly slower pace that would be the norm at a comparable program in a university located in a country where English in the native language. Having worked at a number of international universities, I am constantly amazed at the ability of so many students to study at the university level in a foreign language; although I have spent many years studying Thai, my skills are far below that which would be needed to study at the university level in that language. Nevertheless, this slower pace may at times be frustrating to a native speaker of English.
Many Thai universities have opened up international programs in recent years. This has resulted in there generally being more seats available in international programs in the country than there are students with the language skills needed to study successfully in English at the university level. This is not meant as a criticism of Thai universities; in fact Thailand has a very high percentage of programs taught in a foreign language which would seem to be helpful in preparing a workforce to compete in the increasingly internationally connected environment expected in the future. How many universities in the USA, UK, Canada or Australia have programs taught entirely in a foreign language aimed at preparing students to work internationally? Because of the abundance of international programs taught in English in the country, some schools, especially the less glamorous ones, have had to loosely implement admission requirement about language ability in order to get their international programs up and running; it is expected this "problem" will lessen over time as English education in the primary and secondary schools in the country continues to advance. Being a university instructor myself, this abundance of international programs creates many employment opportunities, however from the perspective of a student who is a native speaker of English; this could be an issue as it creates some difficulties for some of the schools in maintaining quality.
Distance and Online Education
Another option for expatriates is to take advantage of the multiple distant educational options available. There are many options in getting an accredited degree "online." In the USA, there are many options, some of which are from institutions that primarily focus on online education (e.g., Capella University, University of Phoenix and Walden University), while there are also a number of "bricks and mortar" schools that have online programs. It appears there are a growing number of universities in the UK that are adding online course to their curriculum, including the University of Liverpool,but it does not appear one can study at the Open University while living in Thailand at the present time, although this option is available for individuals living in some other countries. However, apparently one can study with Australia's Open University "anywhere in the world." There are also online programs available from universities in Malaysia, South Africa and a growing number of other countries.
There are a number of advantages to choosing the distance education option. First off, one can earn a degree that is accredited and recognized by the government or other accrediting body in one's home country. Also, it is much easier to transfer existing credits earned in one's home country to another university in the same country as opposed to a university in Thailand or other foreign country. Also, it can be a nice way to keep connected with the professional trends happening "back home," this can be especially important for expatriates who are in Thailand for a temporary stay and intend to continue their career upon repatriation. Also, studying in a university from one's own country reduces the "culture shock" that will accompany enrolling in a foreign university.
There are also a number of downsides to studying online. First off, there is no face to face communication with either instructors or other students, which can result in creating an impersonal feel to the education. Also, there can be a lack of outside motivators for the student. Studies show drop out rates in online courses are very high, and this is often attributed to the student's lack of ability to be self-motivated. After a hard day at work, it requires a high level of discipline and motivation to resist the temptation to relax in front of the TV and instead read a textbook and engage in online discussions on a variety of topics. Also, students will have to learn to study using different methods. Lectures are uncommon in online education, instead the focus is on reading, using online discussions boards, and generally having to complete far more assignments than is the norm in a more traditional classroom setting.
There is often an impression by those who have never been involved in distance education that it is inferior to more traditional forms of education. Often an "online degree" is mistakenly associated with a fake degree bought online through a diploma mill. While it is very important to ensure an online program one enrols in is fully accredited, many employers in the general population may not understand the accreditation process and could discriminate against applicants with online degrees. While much of the looking down one's nose on online education can be attributed to snobbery, as online education is mostly targeted to working class people in much the same way "night school" was in the past, a case can also be made that the behaviour and practices of some of the online universities have contributed to the poor image online education has in some circles. While it does appear as online education becomes more common it will become more accepted, there will most likely continue to be some opposition to acceptance of this form of education, particular in academia by many scholars who earned their degrees in a more traditional manner.
I have personally been involved in non-traditional education as both an instructor and as a student. I earned my Bachelor Degree from a branch of an American university in Japan, My MBA was earned at a Thai University and I earned my Ph.D. while living in Thailand by distance education with a fully accredited American University. Has my non-traditional education been as "good" as the education most more-traditional scholars received? I have no answer for that, however I do know having access to non-traditional education has transformed my life in a positive manner and since a more traditional educational route was no possibly due to living abroad, I do not for one minute regret pursuing further education by non-traditional means. I have been involved in non-traditional education from the standpoint of an instructor as well. I have taught at a number of branches of Western universities in Asia as well as in a number of international programs at Thai Universities. Furthermore, I have taught online for US and UK universities. From my perspective, online education is different from more traditional education, not better or worse, just different in the same way ice cream is different from pizza, but not necessarily better or worse.
Is non-traditional education, "good education?" The answer may depend on how "good education" is defined. Should education be judged solely by the hard skills one gains, such as being capable of memorizing facts, using a specific computer programming language or to correctly come up with the bottom line using the latest accounting techniques? Or do the soft skills, such as learning to work with people from different cultural environments which can come from studying at a foreign university or acquiring time management and self-motivation skills that come from acquiring an online degree, count for something as well? "Good" is a relative term and the right educational choices for different individuals will likely vary greatly.
I suppose most would agree, that being able to get a post-graduate degree from one of the world's elite university such as Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, University of Melbourne or Stanford would be ideal for career advancement, but not every individual has the same opportunities. The statement I wish I never went to university or earned a graduate degree is rarely heard; implying most people think having more education is preferable to having less. In reality, a degree is nothing but a piece of paper, and while the name of the university on that piece of paper can open some doors, what really matters for success in the long term is what you have learned, not where you learned it.
Living abroad may not allow one to follow a more traditional educational route, but with the abundance of non-traditional options, one does not have to abandon one's educational dreams in order to live the expatriate life.
Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,
as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics.