By Nick Clark, Editor, World Education News & Reviews
In this article, we offer an introduction to the education system of Thailand with insight on how best to evaluate benchmark academic credentials from both the secondary and tertiary levels. As a follow-up to this profile, we will be offering a free interactive webinar on March 28 presented by WES Credential Evaluator Aditi Kadakia. After Aditi’s presentation, there will be opportunities to submit Thailand-related questions.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, with a bicameral parliament. King Rama IX has been head of state since 1946 and is responsible for appointing half of the members of the Senate (the other half are elected) on recommendation from the Senate Selection Commission, made up of both elected and appointed officials, and the Prime Minister who acts as the head of government. The lower house is democratically elected and is the primary legislative branch of the Thai government.
The country has been embroiled in anti-government protests since November of last year, and has faced political unrest for close to a decade, following a military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. Opponents of Mr. Shinawatra have consistently charged him of corruption and operating the government for his own financial gain. Protesters, who are largely middle class Bangkok residents, fear that the 2011 election of Mr. Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is allowing the former primer minister to hold onto power while in exile outside the country.
The political turmoil has meant that legislative policy has taken something of a backseat over the last eight years, which has stalled the passage of meaningful and needed reform within the education system. This is despite a national education budget that has doubled over the last decade.
The country is divided into 76 administrative changwats, or provinces. Current education policy is guided by the National Education Act of 1999 and the 15-year National Education Plan (2002-2016). Among other things, the most recent plan expresses the need to expand access to higher education and improve quality standards.
Under the National Education Act, 12 years of free public schooling is guaranteed to all Thai citizens, with a 2002 amendment also guaranteeing two years of free preschool. Currently, the first nine years of primary and secondary education are compulsory, consisting of six years of primary education and three years of lower secondary (age six to 15). Students continuing beyond compulsory education complete a further three years of upper secondary education before entering the labor market or undertaking higher studies.
In 2010, 76 percent of the relevant age group graduated from lower secondary (gross graduation ratio). The gross enrollment ratio for upper secondary in 2010 was 79 percent, which is low compared to middle-income regional neighbors. At the tertiary level, the gross enrollment ratio in 2010 was a relatively high 48 percent; however, the gross graduation ratio of 29 percent is suggestive of high drop-out rates.
According to Ministry of Education figures for 2009, 16 percent of the 7,930,761 children undertaking compulsory education did so in the private sector. At the upper secondary level, 20 percent of students studied at private schools, particularly those following the vocational stream (35 percent), while 14 percent of tertiary students attended a private institution, again mainly in the vocational sector. Schools in the private sector are either for-profit, often internationally oriented, or fee-paying non-profit schools typically run by charitable or religious organizations.
In 2010, 22.3 percent of the national budget was spent on education, a high percentage relative to the global average and regional neighbors. As such, the main source of revenue for education comes from the national budget. Other sources of funding include academic tuition fees, donations and loans.
The language of instruction is Thai, although universities now offer an increasing number of international programs taught in English, and recent reforms have made English mandatory one day a week in schools. Bangkok University, Mahidol University and Chiang Mai University offer some of their programs in English, while Assumption University and the Asian Institute of Technology offer all programs in English.
The academic year has traditionally run from May to March in the school sector and June to March in the tertiary sector, with two semesters per year. There are 200 required school days each year. However, there are reforms currently being enacted pushing back the start of the academic year at the tertiary level to August-September in order to align with other regional ASEAN education systems. A reported 12 universities have so far shifted to the new calendar. The school calendar is also being adjusted in 2014 from a May start to a June start.
Education is administered at three levels, national, regional and local. The Ministry of Education oversees most aspects of education in Thailand at the national level, supported by the Office of the Higher Education Commission (or Commission on Higher Education) in the tertiary sector, which recently took over the duties of the Ministry of University Affairs. Other ministries oversee relevant professional specializations in the tertiary sector. The Office of the Private Education Commission, under the Ministry of Education, oversees and subsidizes private institutions of education. The Office of the Vocational Education Commission is responsible for technical and vocational education and training.
At the regional level, the 76 provinces are grouped into 12 education regions (not including Bangkok), each with a regional office. In addition, the provincial offices oversee education in the individual provinces. At the local level, each municipality is responsible for primary education within its own jurisdiction.
Extensive regulation limits the capacity for international institutions to establish operations in Thailand. Regulations require foreign providers to partner with a registered Thai institution of education with at least 51 percent Thai ownership and with majority Thai representation in the governance arrangements.
Currently there are very few foreign providers operating in Thailand. However, the UK’s University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) has signed a deal with a Thai-based entrepreneur to open a university campus in Bangkok this year. Degrees will reportedly be taught in English and validated by UCLAN.
The University of Central Lancashire’s vice-chancellor, Malcolm McVicar, told the BBC in early 2012 that UCLAN’s market research showed “strong demand” for undergraduate and graduate programs in Thailand, especially if aspirations to attract regional international students and establish Thailand as an education hub for Southeast Asia are met.
Webster University has been operating a campus in Thailand since 1999, and the U.S. university is accredited as a private institution by the Thai Ministry of Education. The Netherland’s Stenden University of Applied Sciences also operates a campus in Thailand. It works in collaboration with – and on the campus of – Rangsit University, a large private institution based in Bangkok. The only other international institution with a physical presence in Thailand is the Beijing Language and Cultural University, which has been offering a joint bachelor’s degree in business Chinese in collaboration with Assumption University since 2003.
According to a recent report from the British Council there were 128 ‘collaborative degree programs’ with international partners in 2011, relatively low compared to other countries in the region, and far fewer than large transnational education (TNE) hosts such as Malaysia and Singapore. The top five TNE partner countries in 2011 were China, USA, Germany, Australia and Canada, according to the British Council.
Education Hub Aspirations
In 2015, the counties of Southeast Asia will deepen their regional integration efforts through the formalization of the ASEAN Economic Community, an initiative that includes ambitions to promote greater regional academic mobility through the expansion of the ASEAN International Mobility for Students (AIMS) program, a student mobility initiative similar in ambition to the Erasmus mobility program in Europe, with its routes in mobility initiatives between Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Seven Thai universities along with 52 other institutions from the region are currently implementing the AIMS program.
Other initiatives taking place under the umbrella of the ASEAN Common Higher Education Area include the development of a regional credit transfer system, increased collaboration between national quality assurance agencies and the alignment of national qualifications frameworks.
Thailand sits at the administrative center of these efforts, playing host to the headquarters of both the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Regional Center for Higher Education and Development (SEAMEO-RIHED), and the ASEAN University Network – a network of 30 universities across 10 ASEAN member countries. Drawing inspiration from its position at the heart of the ASEAN community, the Thai government has made known its aspirations to develop the country as a hub for international education, much like a number of its regional neighbors.
According to a May 2013 news release from the government, “the Office of the Higher Education Commission is preparing various universities to be ready for the Government’s plan to turn Thailand into an international education hub. To date, 1,017 international courses have been opened in universities in Thailand. Out of these courses, 344 are for bachelor’s degrees, 394 for master’s degrees, 249 for doctoral degrees, and 30 for training programs.”
Thailand hosted 19,052 international students in 2010, up from 16,361 in 2009, according to government data submitted to UNESCO’s Global Education Digest in 2012. Data from the former Ministry of University Affairs puts the 2011 total at 20,309 international students, with the top source countries as follows: China (8,444), Myanmar (1,481) and Laos (1,344). Regionally, 17,287 were from Asia. The top host institution was Assumption University (4,179), followed by Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (1,276) and Mahidol University (1,233).
In terms of funding, 15,818 foreign students were self-funded and 2,692 and 1,082 students received scholarships from Thai and international organizations respectively. The most popular field of study for international students is business (3,136).
With regards to Thai students heading overseas, there has been a gradual increase from 24,272 in 2008 to 26,233 in 2010. The top three destination countries in 2010 were the United States (8,455), the UK (5,348) and Australia (4,229).
While the United States continues to be the most popular destination for internationally mobile Thai students, the country’s popularity has waned from a high of 11,606 students in 2001/02 to 7,314 last year, with numbers dropping quite consistently year on year since 2002.
School education in Thailand is 12 years in length and free to all students in the public sector. The first nine years of schooling are compulsory. The education system has a 6-3-3 structure: six years of primary education, three years of lower secondary and three years of upper secondary. Grades one through six are known as Prathom 1 – 6, while grades 7 -12 are known as Matthayom 1 – 6. Prior to 1977, the structure of school education was 4-3-3-2.
Students take national examinations at the end of years 3, 6 and 9. Prathom III students are tested in mathematics and Thai, while at the end of the primary cycle they are tested in mathematics, Thai, science and English. Secondary Grade 3 students are tested in mathematics, Thai, science, English and social sciences.
Schools attached to universities tend to be the most sought after, and students are required to sit for competitive entrance examinations, as is also the case with prestigious private schools. Admission to most public schools is open.
Primary (Pratom Suksa)
Primary education in Thailand begins at the age of six (after up to three years of non-compulsory preschool), and constitutes the first six years of basic education. Learning time at the primary level cannot exceed five hours a day.
The curriculum is focused in eight core learning areas: Basic skills (Thai and math), life experience (science and social studies), character development (ethics, arts, music and PE), work education (technology & basic vocational skills), special education (English or other subjects tailored to local community needs.) English is taught nationwide from the first year of primary school.
There is a final examination at the end of Prathon VI, which leads to the Certificate of Primary Education.
Secondary (Matayom Suksa)
The six-year secondary cycle is split into lower (Matayom 1–3) and upper secondary education (Matayom 4–6). The lower secondary cycle constitutes the final three years of compulsory basic education. Students wishing to continue on to upper secondary school must pass an entrance examination.
At the lower secondary level, school learning time cannot exceed six hours each day and at the upper secondary level it should not be less than six hours each day.
At the lower secondary level all schools offer a general educational program leading to the Certificate of Lower Secondary Education, also known as Matayom 3 or MS 3.
The basic admission requirement to public secondary school is the completion of primary education or its equivalent. Admission to private schools and top public schools is by means of an entrance examination. Competition for places at top public schools is high, as attendance at the best schools maximizes the chances of gaining entry to the nation’s best universities.
The general curriculum, which private schools must also follow, covers five main subject areas: Thai and foreign languages, science and mathematics, social studies, arts, vocational education.
Students must complete 90 units of study, with passing grades in at least 80 units including Thai and social studies. Assessment is conducted in school and students accumulate grade points.
Students who have successfully completed the lower secondary level and passed the entrance examination for upper secondary schooling can choose to follow general (academic) upper secondary education or vocational upper secondary education. In 2009, a total of 1,250,233 students followed the general curriculum and 750,750 followed the vocational track. One-third of students in the vocational track attended a private institution, while just one in 10 did so in the general stream.
Government upper secondary schools are either general (academic), vocational or comprehensive institutions. General education is intended for students hoping to further their education at university, while vocational schools offer programs primarily designed to prepare students for employment; comprehensive schools offer both general and vocational programs. Typically, higher achieving students follow the general stream.
General (Academic) Upper
The general education curriculum includes five subject areas: Thai and foreign languages, science (chemistry, biology, physics), mathematics, social studies, character development (health and physical education, arts and crafts), work and occupational education.
Students must take a mix of compulsory and elective subjects, specializing in one of three areas: sciences, arts and languages, and mathematics and languages. Specializations are typically chosen according to desired program of university study.
Students earn credits for each subject successfully completed, with passes in a minimum of 75 credits required for graduation including in all compulsory subjects. Fifteen credits must be obtained in compulsory subjects (Thai language, social studies, physical education, and science), 15 credits from compulsory elective subjects, with the remainder (45) earned from optional subjects.
Students must also take final examinations at the end of upper secondary in all subjects taken. The certificate awarded on completion of upper secondary is the Certificate of Secondary Education, also known as Matayom 6 (MS 6).
After their final school examinations, students wishing to continue on to higher studies take a mix of university admissions examinations.
Having completed lower secondary education, students may choose to follow a vocational upper secondary specialization. In 2009, approximately 38 percent of all upper secondary students were in the vocational stream. However, the government is moving to try and increase the attractiveness of vocational secondary education, setting a target of 49 percent participation in the coming years. The move has been spurred by a perceived shortage of qualified vocational graduates in the labor market.
Students take the same compulsory subjects as those in the academic stream (Thai, social studies, physical education and science), with specializations in one of five major fields: agriculture, home economics, business studies, arts and crafts, engineering.
There are four types of certificates that may be awarded. The two most common are the Certificate in Vocational Education (Bor Wor Saw) and the Certificate in Dual Vocational Education (DVT), both requiring three years of study. DVT programs require a significant amount of practical on-the-job training in partnership with industry.
Students can also follow a credit accumulating system that can be taken over a period of three to eight years and which results in the award of the Certificate of Vocational Education, Credit Accumulating System. There is also a Certificate in Vocational Education, Evening Class, generally taken by mature students.
A grade point average of not less than 2.00 is required for successful completion.
The system of Non-Formal Education is generally more flexible than regular programs in terms of objectives, methods of instruction and study duration. The content and the curriculum can be adapted to suit the needs of individual students and is intended for those who do not do well in the school system or who have failed – for whatever reason – to complete formal primary education.
The Department of Non-formal and Informal Education offers both general and vocational programs for adults. General programs are offered at the lower and upper secondary level by means of day and evening classes, distance learning (by correspondence and radio), and self-study for external examinations.
Admission to Higher Education
Admission to higher studies has traditionally been based on the completion of upper secondary education (general or vocational) and results obtained on the Joint Higher Education Examination.
Since 2006, the newly created Central University Admission System (CUAS) has reduced the emphasis of examinations in admissions by increasing the weighting of students’ performance in upper secondary as measured by their GPA.
Two new entrance tests were introduced in 2006. The Ordinary National Education Test (O-NET) is required by almost all universities and tests basic knowledge across all mandatory upper secondary subject areas. The second examination, the Advanced National Education Test (A-NET) is a more in-depth subject-specific test and students take only the subjects relevant to their desired program of university study. The initial weighting for the two tests was set at 70 percent, with a student’s GPA accounting for the remaining 30 percent.
In 2010, the system underwent further changes and students are now required to take three main university entry examinations. The O-NET is now weighted at 30 percent of the total score, while two new tests, the General Aptitude Test (GAT) – testing reasoning ability and English proficiency – and the Professional Aptitude Test (PAT) – similar to the subject-specific A-NET tests, account for 50 percent of the final admissions score. The remaining 20 percent is based on student GPA scores.
Students take the O-NET one time, after they graduate upper secondary, but can take the GAT and PAT as many times as they like, beginning in the first year of upper secondary and with the highest score counting for admissions. The examinations are offered three times a year.
Students are responsible for reporting their test scores to CUAS, through which they make their five faculty choices. After scores have been weighted, students receive offers of university admission if they meet the threshold required. Universities can also select a certain number of students through direct admissions and institutional admissions examinations.
The emphasis on testing in college admissions, as is the case in many countries with centralized university admissions examinations – particularly in Asia – has led to an explosion in the private tutoring market. The number of tutoring schools in Thailand has reportedly quadrupled in the last 20 years.
Tertiary education in Thailand is offered at universities, institutes of technology (known collectively as the Rajamangala Institute), vocational and technical colleges, teachers colleges (known collectively as the Rajabhat Institute), and other professional colleges such as nursing colleges, and police and military academies.
The Ministry of Education, through the Office of the Higher Education Commission, regulates and oversees all state universities and private institutions of higher education, vocational and technical colleges, and teacher training colleges. Specialized training institutions fall under the purview of the relevant ministries, such as: tourism and sport, culture, defense, transport, and public health.
In recent years, there has been significant growth in the number of tertiary institutions operating in Thailand. This has come about in response to demand, and primarily through growth in the private sector, but also through a reorganization of the public sector. This reorganization has led to newly independent campuses being created from existing universities, the upgrade of teaching colleges to universities (and an expansion of the programs they can offer), and the reorganization of 35 institutes of technology into nine regional universities.
Thailand’s two open universities account for a huge share of Thailand’s almost two million (2009) higher education students. Ramkhamhaeng University, which has an open enrollment policy and a reported 525,000 enrollees attending one of 34 campuses or studying via distance learning, is by far the nation’s biggest educational institution. Sukhothai Thammathirat has an enrollment of 172,000 students all learning remotely. Dropout rates at the two institutions are very high.
In 2011, the Higher Education Commission identified nine institutions to be upgraded to national research universities in a bid to improve research standards and output, and also to promote international collaboration through the provision of additional research funding. Those universities are: Chulalongkorn University, Kasetsart University, Chiang Mai University, Khon Kaen University, Thammasat University, Mahidol University, Prince of Songkla University, Suranaree University of Technology and the King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi.
Many state universities have been granted autonomy from government control in recent years, a move that has been met with a degree of skepticism from students and lecturers concerned about increasing fees and a lack of accountability. Autonomous universities receive block grants rather than per-student funding, which has reportedly led to increased tuition fees, increasing enrollments and the introduction of new commercial programs with higher tuition costs.
Among Thailand’s 170 institutions of higher education, there are 15 universities that are already autonomous and 65 public universities. The rest are private institutions, community colleges or institutes.
A system based on credits is used in higher education, with one credit awarded for one hour of class time during the semester.
Associate Degrees & Other Vocational Qualifications
Associate degree programs are offered primarily by community colleges and technical institutes, but also at some universities. Programs are generally two years in length, and a Certificate of Secondary Education or a Certificate in Vocational Education is required for admission in addition to a specified score on national admissions tests through the Central University Admission System. The majority of programs are practically oriented, professional, technical or teacher training programs.
An Associate Degree or Higher Certificate of Education is awarded on completion of a teacher-training program.
A Diploma in Vocational Education or Diploma in Technical Education (Bor Wor Chor) is awarded on completion of a professional or technical training program and a period of internship relevant to the course of study. These are also known as Higher Certificate in Vocational/Technical Education.
The Diploma in Vocational Education or Diploma in Technical Education offers access to both undergraduate studies and the two-year Higher Diploma in Technical Education. Associate Degrees and Higher Certificates also offer access to undergraduate programs.
The standard duration of study for most bachelor’s degree programs is four years (120-150 credits, with 30 credits considered the standard yearly full-time load), although architecture, art, graphic art and pharmacy all require five years of study (150-188 credits). Basic training in medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine requires six years of study (210-263 credits), and lead to the award of ‘Doctor of…’ degrees. However, these are not doctoral programs.
All programs require the completion of 30 credits in general education (humanities, social sciences, science and mathematics), six elective credits and the remainder in the area of specialization.
Students can transfer into the second or third year of undergraduate study after completing an associate degree, diploma in vocational or technical education, or a two-year teacher-training program. These diplomas must be gained with a grade point average of at least 2.0.
The graduate diploma is typically one year in length (24-36 credits) and requires a bachelor’s degree for admission. The graduate diploma is offered in various professional areas and is designed to increase specialization.
The master’s degree typically requires two years of additional study beyond the bachelor, although some programs can be completed in one year (with a minimum of 36 credits). Students must have an undergraduate GPA of at least 3,0 for admission. Programs are generally either entirely coursework based or coursework plus a dissertation, although some programs are entirely research/dissertation based. A minimum grade point average of 3.0 is required for graduation.
Higher Graduate Diploma
The Higher Graduate Diploma is a one-year (24 credit minimum) higher professional diploma, building on the master’s degree and most commonly offered in a medical science specialization.
Doctoral degrees require between two and five years of study (48 credits after master, 72 after bachelor), with a coursework and research component. A master’s degree with a GPA of at least 3.5 is required for admission, although exceptional undergraduate degree holders can enter directly into longer doctoral programs.
Quality Assurance and the Thai Qualifications Framework
The Office for National Education Standards and Quality Assessment (ONESQA) was established in 2000 as an independent body, and is responsible for external quality control, auditing institutions at both the basic and higher education level.
Assessment is on the basis of an ‘amicable assessment model’ and conducted by external assessors certified by ONESQA. At the higher education level, external quality assessment is conducted through analysis of annual reports and other quality assurance documentation, including reports on key performance indicators, as well as institutional visits.
In addition to internal and external quality audits, education authorities are developing the Thai Qualifications Framework for Higher Education, designed to support quality assurance initiatives by defining expected learning outcomes, credits and levels corresponding to academic awards. As of 2012, TQF assessments have been completed in 10 fields of study, with an additional 23 in progress.
Thai higher education uses a letter grading system in both undergraduate and graduate programs. However, other grading methods are sometimes employed. Grades are converted to grade points for the accumulation of grade point averages over the course of a program.
Required Documents for Credential Evaluation
This file of Sample Documents (pdf) shows the following set of annotated credentials from the Thai education system:
- Vocational Upper Secondary
- General Upper Secondary
- Bachelor of Arts
- Bachelor of Science
- Bachelor of Medicine
- Master of Science
For a more in-depth discussion of the documents seen here, WES is offering a free interactive webinar on March 28.