Transforming Thai higher education through global partnership 2

Story by Andrew King

To create a national higher education model to contend with the global best, in a country with a relatively low appetite for collaborative research or joint delivery, is little short of brave. But Thailand is looking to upscale its performance in higher education, pushing its universities to internationalise and to make rapid progress in creating a world class university system with an international reputation to match. 

The Thai Government knows that to succeed in its Reinventing University aspirations, it must build a powerful mechanism for international collaboration into the strategic mix. It knows that to be truly international is not just about creating academic links but about connecting with the right partners who can empower sustainable capacity growth and the ability to innovate like never before. Under its university reform plans, Thailand is intensifying its focus on expanding the potential for knowledge transfer and exchange, taking its research capacity and science innovation to new limits of practice, knowledge and discovery. And it’s doing this with the UK.

In response to Thailand’s ambition to internationalise its higher education, the flagship Thai – UK World Class University Consortium initiative pairs 7 Thai universities, through 15 research projects, with 14 lead UK university partners - an impressive stable of partnerships to empower outstanding collaboration on topics of national priority.

Set up by the British Council under its worldwide Going Global Partnerships programme, devised and co-funded in partnership with the Thai Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation, the Consortium aims to open a sustainable pipeline of Thai – UK higher education collaborations. The multi-faceted structure of its research programmes creates a matrix of diverse international interactions that Thailand needs for its strategy, including joint research, knowledge transfer, quality delivery across teaching and learning, greater staff mobility and increased student exchange and training. These are no ordinary, stand-alone partnerships but a programme with multiple layers of engagement to embed internationalisation throughout the Thai university system. They have been developed to embrace a holistic understanding of partner objectives and aspirations, framed by shared values and objectives. This builds trust and confidence between partners, gained by shaping outcomes together, equitably.

The Consortium’s initial set of research programmes are in full swing and are now creating fertile ground for a stronger, collaborative future. Its partners have already identified potential sources of new funding, leveraging support from their own institutions and identifying fresh expertise for both countries to extend the impact and momentum of its first raft of partnerships. A new round of British Council – Thai Government funding for existing Consortium member projects is expected to be announced in June 2022. 

The Consortium has already demonstrated the power of co-operative commitment, with lead UK members bringing 10 additional associate UK universities on board. This brings Thailand a formidable pool of British academic muscle to bear on its world-class aspirations. Boosting what is already a heavyweight programme of Thai – UK co-operative research. An opportunity for new members to join the Consortium will be announced in 2023.

With the UK, Thailand has found an ideal partner to carve a globally persuasive university education offer fit for the challenges of our times. Combining the excellence of the UK’s research capability, and its global reputation for innovation across learning and teaching (the UK has almost 20% of its universities ranked in the world’s top 100 in 2022, with four universities in the global top ten*), with the energy and aspiration of Thailand’s Ministry of Higher Education and the university sector, means Thailand can inject quality and strength into its systems more rapidly. The country sees internationalisation as a critical path to sustaining the growth of a competitive workforce that can motor economic ascent with technology, science and ideas. 

The Thai – UK World Class University Consortium brings positive personal benefits too. Students will gain a more dynamic world view through their studies, with the chance to learn with both Thai and UK academics, ultimately making them more employable and more willing to take a proactive, shared responsibility for the future. It promotes life-long learning, English skills and the opportunity to acquire micro-credentials or to access online and hybrid ways of learning that enable a rich university education in the face of restrictions and uncertainty caused by disruptors like Covid-19. 

Researchers focused on the Thai context will gain new perspectives from UK expertise and experience and will interact with a diversity of academics and disciplines from more than one British university. As one Thai member of the Thai – UK World Class University Consortium succinctly defines the initiative, “It’s a shortcut to relationship development.”

Partnering with Thailand brings rewards for the UK too.  A post-Brexit UK seeks to deepen its relationships and influence beyond Europe to advance its ambitious economic, trade and innovation agendas. The UK is currently Thailand’s third research partner after Japan and the USA, leaving ample room for the UK to increase and enrich connections with Thailand, enabling its educational practice and research excellence to be broadcast more widely across the country and the ASEAN network. 

Thailand’s location in South East Asia - with four ASEAN countries as immediate neighbours - sees it poised to become a regional education hub, an advantage the UK cannot ignore.  The Consortium offers the UK opportunities to boost its relatively modest TNE links with Thailand and a chance to grow its 45 (or 18.8% share of the Thai student market, a market that has been shrinking in recent years and open to increasingly stiff competition.  The organisation for regional education ministers (SEAMEO) has its HQ in Bangkok, and the British Council in the capital has an enduring relationship with the government departments that drive the nation’s world class education agenda. 

For both countries, the Thai – UK World Class University Consortium expresses a deeper collaborative aspiration for the UK and Thailand by seeking impact that can be applied far beyond their own national agendas. Priority subjects include Agriculture and Forestry, Architecture and the Built Environment, Chemical Engineering, Development Studies, Geography, Life Sciences and Medicine - a broad enough menu of topics for the UK to draw from its formidable bank of scientific, medical and environmental knowledge, research and innovation, but also topics of primary relevance to regional and global, social, environmental and healthcare concerns of our times. 

These topics speak directly to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, geared to improving the future of the planet and all those that live on it. In short, the impact of the Thai – UK World Class University Consortium is positioned at the heart of the global quest for ground-breaking solutions to our greatest challenges, placing Thailand’s higher education offer in the mainstream of world, and world-class, research.

The litmus test of any strong relationship is the willingness of both partners to not only develop themselves but to enable each other to grow. The Consortium encourages a truly inclusive and internationalised approach where the global exchange of diverse ideas, knowledge and perspectives, people and resources become part of the fabric of higher education. In other words, only by intrinsically being international can you ever hope to be a global education leader in the truest sense.

Like Britain, Thailand increasingly appreciates that international education leadership is not something done in isolation, especially in the context of increasingly complex global challenges and disruptors, such as the recent Covid-19 pandemic. It recognises that only by working with others can the epithet of ‘world class’ be much more than just a badge for Thailand’s higher education, but rather a statement of its essence. And with the UK, Thailand is on a fast track to success.

Let’s take a closer look at how two of the Consortium projects are delivering a legacy of national, regional and world-class impact. 

Case Study 1: Chiang Mai University – UK Research Centre for Ageing and Chronic Diseases

To tackle the burden of rapidly ageing societies and increasing chronic conditions the world over, a Research Centre for Ageing and Chronic Diseases is the vision of a collective venture between Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Medicine and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). With additional academic input from the University College London (UCL) and the University of Oxford, the Research Centre aims to enrich understanding of ageing and chronic conditions to improve the health and health equity of people in Thailand and worldwide.  

Leading specialists from the UK will conduct research with Chiang Mai University into chronic disease, to build capacity in using electronic and digital health records to assess the epidemiology of chronic disease and to research how health systems, policies and science can best respond to these conditions in Thailand and elsewhere, where chronic diseases are the main cause of mortality. So, the research will be universally relevant, and with its multi-disciplinary nature, will enable greater engagement and traction with new UK, regional and international partners.

In the first 3 years of the project, dialogue events and workshops will be used to scope a research framework. Training materials, pilot research and a website to promote ongoing studies will be developed to build capacity among Thai and UK research specialists. One of the aims is for joint research and publications to trigger fresh international funding resources, staff and student exchange, scholarships, and the establishment of new collaborative online international learning projects with UK partners, building the quality and breadth of health leadership and research into ageing and chronic disease. The project will promote high quality education and world-class research, aiming to propel Chiang Mai University’s global ranking in Medicine into the top 100, and will enable the UK to enhance its reputation in pioneering health research.

In bringing together outstanding practitioners, academics and innovators, with their different perspectives, cultures and field experiences, the Consortium is providing the light bulb moment needed to help find breakthroughs for chronic disease and geriatric medicine. 

Case study 2: Modelling Flood Risk and Community Resilience in Rayong Province, Thailand

One of the top ten countries most severely affected by extreme weather over the last 20 years, Thailand experiences the global climate emergency first-hand with its high propensity to flooding. As such, it needs solutions for itself that have international applicability.

A pioneering and expansive research partnership programme between Chulalongkorn University and the University of Sussex, LSE (London School of Economics) and University of Bristol is on course to apply innovative methodology and world-leading practice to solve local and global challenges of flooding and climate change impact. Combining expertise in climate science, physical geography, social science and economics, the partnership team will use high-resolution climate modelling to develop flood risk maps, research how government policies have shaped communities’ responses to flooding and how community knowledge and resilience can be applied to creating better flood management policies for the government and private sector in Thailand. This unique collaboration of exceptional people from different disciplines demonstrates the impact of the Thai - UK World Class University Consortium to managing the effects of climate change and to make a tangible difference to the lives of people and their communities.

In addition to pilot research, postgraduate researchers from Chulalongkorn University will join the project. It will establish a stronger teaching and learning environment and position Chulalongkorn as a world-class centre of geography and climate science research and education. The project empowers knowledge exchange, with UK partners able to learn more about hydrological modelling and flood management policy in Thailand.  On course to be completed in 2023, this project offers sustainable benefits for both countries. It is creating a platform for shared understanding to enable future collaborative joint research, teaching and exchange projects between Thailand, the UK and regional partners in South East Asia, where climate change and its effects, such as flooding, are of paramount concern.

(* 17 of the UK’s 90 universities in the 2022 QS World University Rankings are placed in the top 100)

About Going Global Partnerships and Thai-UK World Class University Consortium

The Thai – UK World Class University Consortium is a part of the British Council’s worldwide Going Global Partnerships programme. British Council Thailand’s combines its insight, connections and experience to bring exceptional partners from the UK and Thailand together, inclusively and equitably, to work on high-impact projects of national and global relevance. The team’s in-depth knowledge of Thai and UK higher education landscapes means British Council partnerships are hard-wired for impact, enriched by the ability to tap into a much larger pool of multi-lateral expertise available through the British Council’s global network to inform partnership strategies. 

Transforming Thai higher education through global partnership

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