Thai universities struggle to keep up

Higher education institutions must adapt to a rapidly ageing population and the online era in order to survive

A shift in demographic structures and digital disruption are forcing universities to try to adapt as the number of young attendees declines and many choose to learn online instead of in the classroom.

The year 2019 will be a challenging year for over 300 Thai universities as they struggle with two major challenges.

The first comes from changes to the demographic structure of the country itself.

Thailand is facing an unprecedented demographic challenge. Its population is ageing quickly, while the birthrate continues to fall.

As a result, the number of college-aged students is expected to decrease.

According to the United Nations, Thailand is the world's third most rapidly ageing country. The percentage of the Thai population that is 65 or older has more than doubled over the last two decades, from 5% in 1995 to 11% in 2017.

Having less young people will deplete the country's workforce, which is anticipated to decline from the current figure of 50 million to 40 million by 2040.

These trends are primarily the result of a sharp decline in birth rates, which fell from 6.2 births per woman in the early 1960s to 1.5 in 2017. Fewer children means fewer students and less demand for higher education.

Statistics from the Council of University Presidents of Thailand (CUPT) showed that of the 300,000 available seats in its central admissions system last year, only around 230,000 have applied for placements.

CUPT chairman Suchatvee Suwansawat admitted the main reason behind this phenomenon was the declining birthrate, adding that this year's situation could be even worse.

The number of students at open universities fell by 50%, while the number at some private universities plunged by 70%, he added. "This data indicates that universities must make significant changes to remain efficient and relevant or else they will not survive," Mr Suchatvee said.

Mr Suchatvee, who is also rector of King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, suggested that instead of competing to attract secondary school graduates, Thai universities should focus on retraining and reskilling people who are already in the job market, including elderly people, to help them survive tech disruption.

"Universities need to expand their customer bases, be more flexible and focus on more than attracting secondary-school graduates. As Thailand's elderly population is growing, it might be the time that we need to think about offering courses to university graduates and elderly people," he said.

The second challenge comes from technological disruption.

Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are transforming all industries. While providing industries with opportunities to leapfrog, both technologies pose threats to those who fail to adapt, or not change quickly enough. Industries including banks, airlines and manufacturers are challenged by robotics and AI, and universities are no exception. The problem for universities in Thailand is that they've been slow to acknowledge the problem.

At present, universities are primarily worried about competition from schools or training courses making use of online learning technology.

For example, IT companies like Google and Microsoft now offer online courses on their own. Their courses are cheaper and easier to access. Students do not have to sit in classes for four years to study many unrelated programmes to get a degree. Instead, they attend short-term courses to acquire certain skills required by employers.

Deputy Education Minister Udom Kachintorn, who oversees the policy of higher education in Thailand, recently warned Thai universities that if they do not adapt to the changes quickly, they will be left behind.

Mr Udom even predicted that several Thai universities would close or be merged with others in the near future.

Online learning has put half the colleges and universities in the US at risk of shutting down over the next few decades, because students can get comparable and affordable educations over the internet -- without living on campus or taking classes in person, he said.

"Technologies have evolved to a point that people can learn at any time, anywhere. If universities do not move quickly to transform themselves into educational institutions for a technology-assisted future, they risk becoming obsolete," Mr Udom said.

He added that higher education institutions should rethink the philosophy and purpose of education.

Instead of only focusing on providing students with the requisite skills to turn them into skilled workers, the universities should prepare students to become lifelong learners.

"Universities must teach students to learn to think and to have the critical mind to analyse and appraise. Universities must transform themselves into learning spaces for students," he said.

Science and Technology Minister Suvit Maesincee also recently called on Thai universities to keep pace with technological trends and consider curbing the number of social science students.

"Social science students account for 70% of total student numbers today and many graduates in the field remain unemployed. To drive the country forward in the digital era, we should increase the ratio of pure science to social science students from 30:70 to 50:50," he said.

Mr Suvit said foreign investors were interested in investing in Thailand's Eastern Economic Corridor, which now offers tempting privileges, but they're concerned by the inadequacy of a sufficiently highly-skilled workforce.

He also urged universities to overhaul their curriculum in each major to keep subject knowledge up to date, close down outdated majors and open new ones that are in line with the government's 10 targeted industries under the "Thailand 4.0" vision.

"We need to produce more workforce in these fields to match the market demand," Mr Suvit said.

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