While it might sound counterintuitive, having fewer international programs (programs taught in English) at Thai universities may result in a better-quality workforce. International programs are expecting outcomes that students are seemingly unable to deliver in Thai much less English.
International programs at Thai universities are intended to expose students to a different way of thinking, improve their English abilities and develop a workforce for the global market. To date, few studies (if any) have been undertaken to show the programs’ effectiveness. From my observations, these programs may hinder the students’ development resulting in graduates unfit for Thai workplaces.
International Programs operate in an environment where traditional mores continue to prevail at universities and workplaces,contributing to inefficiencies that are seen as normal, because it is so pervasive. Coupled with a society that encourages the avoidance of conflict, few want to do anything to change the status quo; lest they are seen as troublemakers. Don’t shoot the messenger!
To encourage a different way of thinking requires firstly accepting students into programs who possess a good command of the English language (think TOEFL-80 plus), are curious to learn, show open mindedness and maturity. Most important is a willingness to discuss their readings, opinions and class notes. To achieve this, class delivery and management need to include student-led participation (>50% time students talk substance) and realistic acceptance of failings. A different class culture is needed
The Thai language structure is different from English; there is no passive voice in Thai. As a result, the Thai student is being expected to learn not only a new language, but a new way of talking, thinking and understanding. Students not adequately grounded in English have to learn a language, understand its structure, and absorb the course content. I have personally observed students’ English abilities drop after attending International Programs.
Speaking in Thai requires understanding social norms and contexts (P, Nong, Khun, Tan, etc.) that do not exist to that extent in English. Hence the greetings of, ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ usually suffice. In a formal business setting for the Thai, understanding the context is deemed even more crucial to address someone politely. Unfortunately, this understanding of appropriate salutations is rarely taught in English Communication classes, so International Program graduates suffer problems when communicating with Thai officials. A Thai business letter is organized and written differently. In Thai there are required pleasantries simply to start the message, in English the correspondence moves quickly to the point.
Students from the International programs go through:
Thai Education System →English Hybrid System →Thai Work System →Occasional Foreign Interface.
These jumps in systems quickly reveal weaknesses in the students’ ability to adapt. Students who are not flexible or understand these changes face challenges that are not easily surmounted.
Thai students are better grounded going through:
Thai Education System →Thai University System →Thai Work System →Occasional Foreign Interface.
The differences in speaking also extend to substantial, or serious, conversations. Speaking in depth about a topic like personal development plans for the next five years, requires a formality and details that Thais generally try to avoid. Using English it is easier to have these meaningful conversations.
Companies need graduates that can grow and promote their businesses. However, International program students generally absorb little content at university and have difficulty applying what they learn to a Thai Work System. For example, few companies in Thailand use English as their work language; but Emirati businesses, who are slightly more patriotic than Thais, use English. Very few Thai employees are foreign facing; thus, the benefits of International program graduates may be limited.
Thai university administrators, students and companies need high quality relevant programs. Fewer International programs of a higher quality would provide a better starting point. One example of quality offerings is KMITL’s International Engineering Programs. There are strict entry requirements, including English abilities and remedial English courses for those who struggle. Class discussion in English is both expected and strongly encouraged. It is one of two places I heard Thai students talking in English outside the classroom. Mahidol is the other. The demand for the programs means that the quality of students admitted can absorb advanced material and enter the workforce to make a positive impact.
Better Thai programs supplemented with English courses are also needed. I have experienced and seen Thai courses translated to English and delivered the same old way to students. Thus, the “international” learning that is supposed to be delivered is not. Unesco 2007 report showed using local language improves learning. Taiwan is internationally competitive with universities teaching in Mandarin and English as a supporting role. Reports from Vietnam and China show that international graduates are not necessarily more valuable employees.
Companies that require English-speaking workers can have specific employees trained. This way, firms can better utilize resources, training systems and company rewards. Employees that perform and want to move on, get the training and are rewarded. The employers thus cover the cost for the employees. International programs in Thailand are typically twice the cost of the Thai language program. Therefore, if companies actively promote specific employees to use English, the cost of tertiary education for many would be halved.
Further research is in progress. However, educators, students (and their parents) and companies need to rethink what is expected from graduates in Thailand. The current push for International Programs is not working efficiently and producing the desired results; it may even be hindering progress.. A simpler and cheaper approach is available and should be used. Fewer better quality International Programs and Thai programs with greater English course requirements are the way forward.
*Dr. Mariano Carrera is a Lecturer at King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Bangkok, Thailand