What new initiatives is Assumption University currently involved in?
SAENGHIRAN: Assumption University is a Catholic university and belongs to the foundation of Montfort Brothers of St Gabriel in Thailand. The foundation originated in France and has been operating in over 26 countries in the world. Assumption University has a holistic approach to its education. We aim at developing all four dimensions of the students, that is the physical, the intellectual, the emotional, and the spiritual, and not the intellectual capacity alone. There are several initiatives in which we are involved. First, all the courses provided by the university are taught in English. Next, in terms of our curricula, all disciplines are management-based, whether you study English, Arts, or Engineering, etc. We want our students to graduate with a spirit of entrepreneurship. That is, they may prefer to become entrepreneurs in the future so that their view will not be enclosed in thinking “I need to get a job”, but rather “I can create my own job or my own business”. At Assumption University, we have about 20,000 students coming from 80 different nationalities. This is an international community of scholars and people from different countries choose to come here to study together. We use English as a common language. We also teach Chinese, French, and Japanese as business languages. In the past, these were the business languages used in commerce. This year we are launching a new program, called aeronautic engineering. If a student enrolls in this program, he will obtain a bachelor’s degree in engineering. At the same time, during the course, he will get flight training, resulting in a final license enabling the student to fly commercial airplanes. Thus, students will obtain both the degree and the license. We set up this kind of program to increase the capabilities of the country. We had to purchase the simulator from Lockheed Martin so that our students can get this particular type of simulation training on the ground, before getting up and flying an aircraft in a real life career.
What role do private institutions play in Thailand’s education sector vis-à-vis public institutions?
SAENGHIRAN: We have to understand the private education institutions in Thailand first. Formerly, we only had the public universities. Only in the mid ‘60s has the private sector been permitted to enter into the education market to meet the needs and the demand of the country. However, private universities will be able to survive on three conditions only. Number one, if the public institutions do not have enough seats, then an offer of the same thing from the private sector could be made. Number two, if the private institution is able to provide a better quality of education than the public sector. Lastly, if the private sector could offer something different from what the public institutions already offered. Thus, the private sector comes as a kind of support to the public sector. The government had no other option but to accept the entrance of the private sector as a player in the market since the government did not have sufficient funds to put up its own universities in response to an increased demand of higher education. It is important to mention that traditionally, people aspire to send their children to public universities first, either due to lower cost of education with government subsidy or the fact that there are more areas of studies than what is available in the private sector.
How competitive is higher education in Thailand among private universities?
SAENGHIRAN: Any private university was founded with a particular purpose and it has its own edge. As a result of globalization and the ASEAN Community coming into place in 2015, our market share will be split and we will have to compete among private, public, and international universities. Among the private sector, there are only a few universities offering international programs and only Assumption University has every program in English so far. But in the future, I envision we will see more universities coming up with international programs. With the rise of Asia Pacific, competition will be tough among local Thai universities, public or private alike, and the new comers; international, western universities who want to open their campus in Thailand and other ASEAN countries.
How would you gauge progress on the National Education Plan 2008-2015 (NEP)?
SAENGHIRAN: In response to this question, may I trace back to Thailand’s Education Act 1999 which is supposed to bring about major education reform in Thailand. The past decade witnessed discreet struggling and inefficient effort towards the stated reform targets. The implementation has been more concentrated on structural reform and much less on the content. The latter could have been caused by the lack of clarity and direction. As a result, we have achieved a good expansion of educational opportunities at all levels to more varying groups, including those with special needs and the less privileged. At this particular time, what I find very successful in Thailand is the accessibility of the people to tertiary level education. We have an open system and open universities. We also have distance learning education so that everybody can have access to education. In addition, universities provide student loans to fund students' academic career programs. So even if they do not have the necessary funds, a loan can be provided and they can finally gain access to tertiary education.
On the other hand, the quality of education has been stagnant. The newly established Internal Quality Assurance (IQA) and External Quality Assurance (EQA) systems have completed their third round and are coming up with their next cycle. This QA system is but one mechanism to alert schools and colleges to quality issues. But the real success is the inside out. Schools and universities have to be strong from the inside, that means their programs and their teaching quality. It is this aspect that I believe we need to put a lot more effort into in the next decade. There must be some good practices going on somewhere at all levels and they need recognition and sharing. We need to make education a top national agenda with clear, focused directions. With ASEAN coming up in two years, we need to seriously tackle quality issues, which include English proficiency, professional training for teachers, and the quality of graduates, as competition will be tough.
What kind of growth do you expect from the MBA Program?
SAENGHIRAN: When we talk about an MBA, we think about the middle manager. If you look at any country in the world, there is a constant need for management and, thus, managers. We have a BBA, MBA, and DBA or PHD in business. However, we concentrate on the Masters courses because, at this level, the country needs a large number of personnel and this type of market is more widely open and managers are needed everywhere in the world. They are the people who put ideas and plans into action. Thus, we are trying to empower them with management skills so they can cope with the current issues of our time. If you observe carefully, the world is facing a lot of issues, such as climate change, and a new generation of managers will need to be prepared and well equipped to face these types of problems.
We need to make education a top national agenda with clear, focused directions. With ASEAN coming up in two years, we need to seriously tackle quality issues, which include English proficiency, professional training for teachers, and the quality of graduates, as competition will be tough.
How has educational cooperation expanded among ASEAN nations? What are your projections for the future?
SAENGHIRAN: The ASEAN community will become operational in 2015. However, we have always been collaborating with our neighbouring countries. Of course, now there are a number of things to consider. Once the borders will no longer be there, people will be able to cross from one country to the other freely and when this happens the long-practiced collaboration among universities can be easier in the forms of faculty and student exchange, research undertaking, and other services. Prior to this collaboration, the universities involved have to fine tune their standards and qualities that must be acceptable to the member institutions. Moreover, we must think of job opportunities that this change entails. In order to be able to work, no matter where, you need to compete with other people and show your capabilities. Thus, we need to think about our education system. We are in a globalized age and the world is more interconnected and interdependent. We need to cooperate more and build a cooperative competition in the region. You cannot stand alone at this particular time. If Thailand is good at one particular thing, other countries are good in other things. So we, ASEAN nations, must be cooperative and stick together, we can then stand a higher level of international competition.
What is your outlook for Thailand’s higher education sector? Which indicators are showing the most positive trends and which remain challenges?
SAENGHIRAN: If you look at Thailand’s higher education sector at this time, we have more seats than the number of students eligible. This is in part due to the fact that education is open but there are those who cannot afford an expensive education. Thus, we have to concentrate on the quality and at the same time we have to produce more research, new knowledge, and creativity so that you can better resolve the current problems that the country is facing, as well as improving Thailand’s production. We used to have a limited number of disciplines in Thailand. Now, you will see that the largest universities have more disciplines and can further expand that. In the past we used to go out of the country to study, but now the major disciplines are also provided here in Thailand. That is one of the positive indicators. Also, other people from different countries can come and study here. Thailand is also the best provider for certain disciplines, such as medicine. We have great hospitals and medical doctors, who are doing very well. A big challenge is how to maintain and further develop our programs so that we stay competitive on the disciplines and programs we offer.