Students and staff at Huachiew Chalermprakiet University (HCU) making Chinese New Year decorations. (Photo: HCU / Facebook)

Chinese Students in Thailand: Cash Cow, At a Cost

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Thailand is reaping the benefits of a steady stream of Chinese students being enrolled in its universities. The trend, however, is not cost-free.

The number of Chinese students enrolled in Thai universities have been on the rise. While Chinese students have varied reasons for picking Thailand, Thai universities have their own reasons for admitting them. The Thai government clearly wants to capitalise on this trend, which would boost the Thai economy and burnish the country’s credentials as an ‘educational hub’ for international students. However, there are a host of problems it has to grapple with, namely compromised academic standards and Chinese students flouting their visa conditions.

According to Thailand’s Office of the Higher Education Commission (OHEC), the number of Chinese students choosing Thailand for their tertiary education has been rising in recent years. In 2009, Thai universities hosted 5,364 Chinese students. In 2020, the number had tripled to 14,423. Between 2018 and 2022, 7,231 Chinese students graduated from Thailand’s higher education institutes. The majority of the Chinese students prefer universities in the West, in countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. In Asia, Thailand —together with Japan and Singapore — count among the top choices for Chinese students.

Chinese Ka-ching

Source: Thailand Higher Education Database

Thailand is a destination of choice for a variety of reasons. Many Chinese students had failed the Gaokao exams in China, and as a result are forced to explore overseas universities. In 2018, 9.7 million Chinese pupils signed up for Gaokao, but only 500,000 students were admitted. Hence, around 9.2 million students were left to struggle to find university placements. Based on our interviews with Chinese students studying in Thailand, the majority come from largely rural provinces in southern China, such as Yunnan, Guangxi, Guangdong and Sichuan. The students are typically funded by their parents, and chose Thailand straightaway for their higher education to escape the pressures and anxiety of Gaokao. To them, there are several factors in Thailand’s favour. The kingdom has a lower cost of living compared to many Western countries. Students also feel safer staying in Thailand, with less risk of xenophobia, cultural bias and discrimination compared to the United States and other Western countries. Thailand is also viewed as a potential place to live and work after graduation, with job opportunites created from increasing economic, social and cultural cooperation between China and Thailand within framework of ASEAN and the Belt and Road Initiative.

For Thai universities, Chinese students are seen as an avenue for them to prop up their revenues, given that foreign students in general pay three times more in tuition fees than Thai students. In 2020, almost three-quarters of these Chinese students enrolled in Thailand’s private universities. The top five options are institutions based in Bangkok: Dhurakij Pundit University, Assumption University, Huachiew Chalermprakiet University, University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, and Krirk University. Only 4,340 Chinese students enrolled in state universities across Thailand.

The steady Chinese demand for Thai university places has prompted private Chinese investors to take a chunk out of Thailand’s education sector.

Generally, most Thai private universities seek to bring in more revenue and improve their international reputation by taking in more foreign students. In recent years, however, this has led to a disproportionately high number of Chinese students. In 2020, Chinese students enrolled in Thai universities accounted for 51.3 per cent of the foreign student population — a 3 per cent increase from 2019. The Chinese student market also serves as a substitute for declining Thai student enrolment.

The steady Chinese demand for Thai university places has prompted private Chinese investors to take a chunk out of Thailand’s education sector. For several years many of these private universities have utilised Chinese agents providing education guides to prospective students. Some private universities partnered with Chinese education investors to launch attractive international programmes. Krirk Univerisity, Dhurakij Pundit University and Stamford International University are examples where undergraduate degree courses are offered to meet the Chinese students’ demand.

The popular programmes offered by some private universities include business administration, finance and accounting, and international business management. Although these international programmes are supposed to be taught in English, the language of instruction has morphed into a mix of Chinese, English and Thai to help students struggling with the language barrier. While logical, this has come at a cost. Some Chinese students have complained that the courses are not taught properly and high grades are issued a tad too freely. It is likely that these universities, in their yen for yuan revenue, are compromising on academic standards.

Another matter of concern is the suspicion that some Chinese students enrolled as full-time students holding educational visas are engaging in full-time business activities. This is an offence under the Immigration Law.

Given these issues, the Thai government is starting to keep an eye on Thai private universities to ensure that education standards are maintained and the quality of educational management assured under the Private Institution of Higher Education Act (2003) and the National Education Guidelines. The issue of quality is not only a Thai concern, but also a concern for China as it is in the state’s interests to protect its students.

Rising Chinese student enrollments in Thailand bode well financially for private universities. In the long run, however, Thailand’s reputation as an international ‘education hub’ reputation may be affected if the academic calibre of students admitted and education industry standards are not maintained.

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