Liberalisation and e-learning provide opportunities for foreign investment in Thailand's education system

Building on decades of stability and rising prosperity, Thailand has made substantial gains in the development of its human capital. Guided by the sufficiency economy philosophy, devised by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country has established an effective welfare state focused on expanding and improving access to education and health care. As such, the nation performs relatively well across a range of metrics, with an adult literacy rate of 96.7% in 2016 and the expected length of schooling standing at 13.6 years. Thailand also possesses a large education workforce by regional standards, with a student-teacher ratio in secondary education of 28:1 in 2015, according to the most recent figures from the World Bank. Furthermore, Thailand ranks 87th out of 188 countries in the UN Human Development Index, placing it in the index’s high human development category and putting it ahead of neighbouring states, such as Indonesia (113th), Vietnam (115th) and the Philippines (116th).

At the same time, the sector faces a number of serious issues, with below-average performance indicators for students in subjects vital to the sustainability of its long-term growth, such as English, science, mathematics and engineering. The IMD World Competitiveness Rankings 2017 classified the quality of schooling 47th out of 61 countries, while the country’s overall position was 28th, suggesting that the education system is impeding the overall competitiveness of the economy. Nevertheless, the government is determined to overcome these challenges, with education at the forefront of the state’s development plans, notably Thailand 4.0 and its National Economic and Social Development Plan (NESDP) 2017-21.

Rising Numbers

Modern schooling began in Thailand in the latter part of the 19th century, though it initially catered only to the ruling elite. The country’s first university, Chulalongkorn University, was established in 1917 and in 1921 three years of education became mandatory within a primary school system of seven years, with the number of compulsory years being extended to four in 1951. The decades between 1960 and the end of the millennium saw significant expansion of the sector, as education became increasingly recognised as a support mechanism for economic development, with enrolment rising by a multiple of 3.5 while the population doubled, resulting in an uptick from 4m to 14m students. The National Education Act of 1999 changed the structure of the sector by integrating lower secondary education into the compulsory system, raising obligatory education to nine years. Nevertheless, while the sector has experienced significant quantitative achievements its qualitative development has been more muted, with pedagogical techniques falling short of international standards and an oversupply of social-science graduates.


Thailand’s education policy falls under the responsibility of the Ministry of Education (MoE), which oversees basic, vocational and higher education. The MoE contains a number of departments which administer different segments of the education sector, the most important of which are the Office of the Basic Education Commission, which is responsible for primary and secondary schools, the Office of the Vocational Education Commission and the Office of Higher Education Commission (OHEC). The latter of these is tasked with the promotion of public and private tertiary institutions, along with the implementation of the quality assurance system and the assessment of education provision.

In February 2017 the education minister recommended that the OHEC be split from the MoE, effectively making it a stand-alone ministry, in an effort to better manage the segment. The new ministry would be granted more power to intervene in the affairs of public universities, which remain largely beyond the remit of the government. While private institutions are all subject to the Private Higher Education Institution Act of 2003, each public university has its own institutions act and reports to its own council. At the time of writing, discussions on the separation of the MoE and OHEC were ongoing.


The education system includes nine years of compulsory schooling, with more than 90% of school-age children enjoying 15 years of free basic education. Primary education starts at age six, although children generally attend three years of preschool prior to this. Primary and lower secondary are thus mandatory for all children, after which students may decide to follow upper-secondary studies in either general or vocational establishments.

While the majority of children begin their education in government establishments, overcapacity and quality issues are driving demand for private schools. According to the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), out of 12,230 public basic education institutions, only 69.9% passed the quality assessment test – although assessment standards vary between different administrative areas.

Since 1992 the state has allowed Thai students to attend international schools. This change has brought about significant growth in this segment, with the number of English-language international schools rising from 10 in 1992 to 181 in 2017, the second-highest number in South-east Asia. In addition, the number of international schools providing an education in languages other than English and Thai has also expanded, with a growing number of French, German and Japanese establishments. This is set to rise further as the demand for private schooling increases. “On average we see five to 10 new private schools opening a year, meaning that there is still a strong demand from the market,” Jared Kuruzovich, communications director at NIST International School, told OBG. “In practice, a number of public sector establishments charge additional fees – such as for teaching materials, lockers and so on – resulting in some parents preferring to pay a little extra to send their students to private schools, which are considered to be superior.”

While English proficiency remains desirable, expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects has become increasingly important. As a result, many private schools are seeking to provide specialised high-level education in this field. A notable example of this is a new BASIS International School Bangkok, which is scheduled to open in September 2019. The school forms part of the US-based BASIS Charter School network, which provides a liberal arts education with an emphasis on STEM subjects and which consistently achieve the highest results in US school rankings.

“English and creative thinking skills are highly valued by Thai parents and students, and as a result many are attracted to what is not typically available in the Thai system,” Andrew Davies, head of International School Bangkok, told OBG. “Additionally, there are significant efforts from private institutions to help the MoE better understand the importance of creative thinking. Thailand 4.0 is a long-term strategy, which necessitates drastic changes starting from the basic education. Unfortunately, the efforts towards change are coming largely from the private sector, not the public sector at this time.”

Improving Quality

Thailand allocates substantial resources to education, with 19.3% of government expenditure earmarked for the sector in FY 2018, according to the Ministry of Finance. This figure corresponds with similar spending levels in neighbouring states, with Malaysia allocating 16.3% of its budget to education for the same period and Indonesia 20.2%.

Nevertheless, the country is lagging behind its regional peers in terms of the quality of the education provided and the performance of its students. In the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – the most recent international survey conducted – the country ranked 54th out of 70 participating countries and regions, behind Singapore and Vietnam, though ahead of Indonesia. It was positioned 64th in terms of reading, 54th for sciences and 55th in mathematics, with its results having worsened since the previous PISA survey in 2012. Furthermore, only 1.4% of students showed advanced problem solving and analytical reasoning skills compared with a 15% average in the OECD.

“Thai values still promote rote learning, as students are focused on passing tests to enter a specific institution of their choosing,” Manit Boonprasert, director of the Association of Private Higher Education Institutions of Thailand, told OBG. “Once they enter, we see that some students still lack the basics needed to grow in a number of subjects.”

According to the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), a think tank focused on social and economic issues, the reasons behind this relatively poor performance may lie in the design of the local curriculum, which remains wedded to a content-based model typical of the 20th century, as well as the use of archaic teaching methods. Attracting and retaining quality teaching staff has also proven a persistent challenge. Addressing these issues will support the country’s objective to move up the value chain, while fostering a development path driven by innovation and technology. As students prepare to enter a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive global labour market, they will require not only basic language, literacy and numeracy skills, but also ICT literacy, critical thinking and complex problem solving capabilities.

“Achieving scientific literacy in pre-college schooling remains a must if the government is to push students towards technological fields,” Kuruzovich told OBG. “In addition to improvements in English fluency, the importance attributed to STEM subjects at the primary and secondary level is increasing, with students seeking to develop their capacities.”

Regional Inequality

A further challenge faced by the sector is the unequal distribution of educational resources between rural and urban areas. This includes not only a disparity in the average number of teachers per student but also a qualitative difference in the level of training held by these teachers, with 20% of teaching staff in possession of a graduate degree in Bangkok compared to only 9% in the less developed province of Mae Hong Son.

Furthermore, this challenge is underpinned and exacerbated by uneven infrastructure and supply chains across the country, which limits access to ICT and basic learning materials in more remote regions. According to research undertaken by the TDRI, students in remote schools, and schools with fewer than 20 students per grade, perform less well in tests compared to those in urban areas. Given that the World Bank estimates that around 1m students were attending small rural schools as of 2017 and that the provision of one additional teacher per class could see a 15% increase in the country’s PISA test scores, addressing this issue is of critical importance to the long-term enhancement of Thailand’s human capital.

Indeed, the government is taking steps to overcome issues of regional education inequality. A restructuring programme is under way to consolidate and reform smaller schools and achieve a better allocation of resources. Under the scheme smaller schools will be merged to create 9000 magnet schools and more rigorous quality controls will be implemented. “Under the proposed optimisation programme, the current number of teachers is sufficient,” Dilaka Lathapipat, human development economist at the Education Unit of the World Bank, told OBG. “We could potentially increase student achievement goals without allocating additional resources to the hiring of teachers.”

Higher Levels

There were over 170 universities and colleges operating in Thailand as of 2017, of which 71 were private higher education institutions. The local tertiary education segment has traditionally performed well by regional standards, with 10 universities included in the Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings in 2018. However, seven of these institutions received a lower score than in 2017, with just one making gains and two maintaining the same position. While these results can in part be attributed to rising competition from universities in China, Malaysia and other neighbouring states, a lack of research capacity in public institutions, exacerbated by funding shortfalls, has also proven to be an important factor in Thailand’s declining performance.

As part of its Thailand 4.0 strategy, and in line with the country’s national development plans, a number of measures are being undertaken to bolster capacity across the higher education segment. In May 2017 the government announced that foreign universities would be allowed to open campuses in the country in order to help develop the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC). These foreign universities will fall under the Private Higher Education Institution Act of 2003. As of May 2018 two universities had applied to open campuses in the EEC: US-based Carnegie Mellon University and National Taiwan University.

Furthermore, in January 2018 the government announced that it had selected two education providers to offer vocational training programmes in key economic areas, including rail transport systems, aircraft mechanics, industrial robotics, energy technology, tourism and mechatronics (see analysis).

Demographic Shift

Since the mid-1990s the proportion of the population aged 65 years and over has more than doubled, from 5% in 1995 to 11% in 2016, with this share expected to rise to 25% of the populace by 2040. As the demographic composition of the country has shifted the number of students enrolled in tertiary education has also passed its peak, falling from 2.5m students in 2010 to 2.2m in 2015. These changes have led to an oversupply in the university segment, with tertiary education institutions finding it more difficult to attract new students. Out of a cohort of 65 private higher education institutions, 19 have fewer than 1000 students, 27 have a student body of between 1001 and 5000 and 19 enrol over 5000 students, according to the Association of Private Higher Education Institutions of Thailand.

While this shift can be expected to see a number of private universities close or merge in the coming years, it also appears set to benefit the segment, driving competition and raising quality standards. “The change in demographics is not only affecting private universities but also public ones,” Manit told OBG. “Higher education establishments will need to position themselves according to their strengths and target fields for which there is a demand.”

Going Global

Making Thailand more welcoming to foreign students is one option to fill the gap being created by the demographic shift. The country has witnessed a steady increase in the number of inbound international students, rising from 1882 in 1999 to 20,309 in 2012, according to data from UNESCO. The country then experienced a sharp decline in 2014, to 12,274, primarily as a result of political turbulence. This figure has since rebounded, however, with a total of 16,910 foreign students in 2017, according to the MoE. China remains the largest source of international students with 37.9%, followed by Myanmar (6.7%), Cambodia (5.3%), Vietnam (4.9%) and Laos (4.4%).

Competition is set to increase as a number of countries seek to become international destinations for higher education. “Other ASEAN countries are more focused on student mobility and have embraced languages such as English,” Bancha Saenghiran, president of Assumption University, told OBG. “We desperately need to put foreign-language learning on the national agenda to remain competitive in the medium to long term.” Elsewhere, China aims to increase the number of foreign students to 500,000 by 2020. Nevertheless, there are several factors that make Thailand an attractive destination, including a high level of affordability and the availability of scholarships for international students. Since 2014 the government has moved forward with policies that seek to internationalise the Thai education system, relaxing visa-entry rules, harmonising the credit system with other ASEAN countries, increasing English-language programmes and incentivising the creation of partnerships with foreign institutions. These efforts have brought dividends, with the country now offering 769 international programmes, including 138 collaborative degrees in partnership with foreign universities.

Skills Mismatch

Efforts to enhance the quality of tertiary education and focus provision on key economic sectors will benefit domestic graduates as they prepare to enter an increasingly competitive labour market. The size of the workforce is shrinking, falling from 38.5m in 2015 to 38.2m in the third quarter of 2017, according to the NESDB. This shift cannot be fully accounted for by the country’s ageing population, given that the unemployment rate has also increased, up over the same period from 0.9% to 1.2%. As a result, the Ministry of Labour has highlighted a strong mismatch between the knowledge and skills required by the labour market and those possessed by the labour force. Despite increased awareness among policymakers and the media over the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on employment, students remain more inclined to pursue studies in social sciences, with these subjects accounting for 66.5% of all bachelor’s degrees in 2017, whereas only 17.9% pursued sciences, mathematics and ICT, and 12.4% engineering, according to data from the OHEC.

Nevertheless, the government is putting in place policies aimed at addressing this challenge. The NESDP outlines the improvement and expansion of labour training centres across the country along with a virtual library and online resources, providing workers with a means to continually upgrade their skill sets. While these policies are welcome, the goals set out in Thailand 4.0 will likely require further action over the medium and long term. “There are lots of changes, but there is no quick fix to education reform,” Bancha told OBG. “Moreover, we cannot separate education from Thailand’s broader economic needs.”


The rising demand for skilled labour and the growing need for workers to pursue lifelong learning does, however, provide opportunities for the private sector beyond the traditional university segment. E-learning is expanding rapidly in Thailand, with a growth rate of 43.7% between 2013 and 2018, the second highest in Asia. Online courses are increasingly seen as an attractive alternative option for both those unable to pursue higher education due to financial constraints and those seeking to increase their skill set during their career. The government has made efforts to support the adoption of e-learning tools, establishing intranet services for schools and launching the Thailand Cyber University e-learning portal. Furthermore, the accreditation of online courses provided by foreign institutions is being discussed.

Moving Ahead

With 21 different education ministers since 2000, policy has historically lacked consistency, with reforms being adopted then overhauled shortly afterwards. However, the National Education Plan 2017-36 provides a clear framework under which all policies pursued by the MoE must fall. The plan sets the short-term goal of raising the average test scores of students and enhancing the country’s international ranking, and the long-term aim of reducing disparities between rural and urban areas and increasing research and development at the university level. As part of this new framework, in February 2018 the government passed legislation to establish an Equitable Education Fund, which is expected to provide 4.3m children from low-income families with financial support to pursue education.


While Thailand has been successful in expanding access to education, the sector faces some challenges. The country is falling behind in the quality of provision, and policy has been slow to adapt to global labour market trends. Nevertheless, there are signs that this is changing; the government has set about pursuing an education strategy with clear goals, and efforts are under way to streamline administration and assessment of the sector. Furthermore, opening up universities to foreign investment and providing state support for the expansion of e-learning may provide the stimulus needed to push the sector forward. Effective monitoring of administrative bodies and publicly funded institutions, along with further efforts toward liberalisation, will help ensure that investment in the sector produces tangible results.

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The Report: Thailand 2018

Education & Health chapter from The Report: Thailand 2018

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