A new start in the search for international competitiveness

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Dr Udom Kachintorn

Thailand has refined its plans for higher education to boost the economy through innovation. Dr Udom Kachintorn, president of Mahidol University, tells John O’Leary how his own and other institutions are adapting to meet the targets.

Thailand has had a strategy for increasing its international competitiveness through investment in its leading universities for the whole of this decade. But a reworking of those plans has sharpened their focus and introduced a longer timescale that has made those charged with delivering them more optimistic about their chances of success.

As president of one of the two universities that are charged with making the most progress, as well as chairman of the Council of University Presidents of Thailand (CUPT), Udom Kachintorn could hardly be under more pressure from the Thailand Excellence 2030 programme. But he is confident that the new targets can be met.

The programme, which is designed to complement the government’s Thailand 4.0 economic strategy, divides the universities into three categories: global research universities, specialists and community institutions. Innovation is seen as they key to greater prosperity in the long run.

“Thailand is caught in a middle-income trap and 4.0 is focused on a value- based economy,” Sansanee Chaiyaroj, Mahidol’s vice president for research and international relations, explains. “The government wants less emphasis on commodities and more on services. That involves a switch to demand- driven policies and more use of the country’s strength in biodiversity, for example in robotics, chemical hubs, agriculture and food.”

The plans, which have been overseen by an international advisory committee, demand structural change in the universities and much more collaboration with other institutions and with industry. Graduates need more depth and wider skills, it is said, as well as being more community-minded.

The previous plan, which saw a rise in research funding, identified nine research universities, outlining ambitious targets for them to become internationally competitive. At least five were supposed to be in the top 500 internationally. In the current QS World University Rankings, however, only Mahidol and Chulalonkorn are in the top 300, with three more in the top 700.

Dr Kachintorn says: “Thai universities have to be part of the world. Both Mahidol and Chulalonkorn will continue to pursue world-class status, which has been defined as positions in the top 200 in the world by 2030. The country can’t push many universities at the same time to become world-class. In the second phase, one more university may join the top group – first to be recognised in the ASEAN region and then to go on to be world-class.

“It is a good start, with a realistic timeline,” he says. “In my opinion, we can do it. There is a lot of potential, but we need more focus on research and innovation. We have a lot of publications internationally, but we need more in order to increase our citations count. We also need more partners and networking in Asia.”

Several university consortia have been formed, the first involving the research universities, with a focus on the six national economic priorities. Each university is working on different projects. Mahidol is leading the Ageing Society Innovation hub, which has been joined by hospitals around Thailand. “We have had to change our culture to collaborate more to maximise the available strengths. Indeed, the university has to be restructured to emphasise service and resource optimisation,” he adds.

Mahidol has grouped its international activities together under the banners of Comprehensive Globalisation and Transformational Process. The Comprehensive Globalisation programme promotes and integrates international and intercultural dimensions into research, teaching and academic services across the whole university, while the Transformational Process programme aims to expand globalisation beyond the traditional student and academic exchanges to include the establishment of long-lasting relationships with international partners.

The university has partnerships or carries out regular activities with almost 350 institutions across the world, and has a long track record in internationalisation. Its research partnership in neuroscience with the University of Oslo, for example, was established 50 years ago. It also takes a leading role in a number of regional programmes, such as the ASEAN University Network’s Human Rights Education Network, for which it provides the secretariat.

“We have to work together more – that is a government request but also the desire of the private sector,” Dr Chaiyaroj says. “We are also allowed to work with the vocational sector, something that was previously not allowed. The level of technology readiness is one concern – we are developing an eco- system. Our research will be more oriented to intellectual property, then working with industry, but a global outlook is very important and there has to be a focus on entrepreneurial education.”

“Universities in Thailand generally need more resources,” Dr Kachintorn says. “Still only 0.5% of GDP is spent on research. We can’t compete with Singapore and others where that figure is 5%. Collaboration with industry on research and development is one way to increase our funding, especially with our strength in medicine and medical sciences. Oxford has an office in Mahidol on tropical medicine, for example, and we also have World Health Organisation centres.

“We are looking to collaborate in the ASEAN region and further afield. We are now one community of ten ASEAN countries. There are 66 million people in Thailand but 600 million in ASEAN as a whole. Transnational research and commercialisation are so important to us. After all, ours is the only region with significant growth – this is a real opportunity that we should not miss, but we need speed of development.

“The Thai economy is up and down and we don’t have a strong pool of leadership, but we are still doing well in comparison with some other countries in the region. We are getting good support from the government. We can do quite well, in my opinion, if the government has a strong intention to drive forward. They have to focus on the universities and aim to develop its strategy because Thailand has to have innovation, and 85% of innovation comes from the universities. They have to give them more money to develop an ecosystem.”

The CUPT, in its response to the government’s plans, is seeking 1% of GDP for research. Only about 30% of adults are taking first degrees, according to Unesco. “That’s not enough to compete with other countries,” Dr Kachintorn says. “We need to develop our human resources.”

There are 170 universities in Thailand, half of them private. “We need greater quality and a more flexible curriculum” he says. “We need to change the curriculum a little bit to respond to the challenges of the future. Secondary schools, too, need to develop the way they teach to prepare students    for university. There is not enough analytical thinking either at school, or university. We do quite well in professional skills but we lack soft skills.”

At Mahidol there are 2,000 international students out of a total of 29,000. Postgraduate courses are taught mostly in English, but the university is extending this option at undergraduate level. There is collaboration with other ASEAN countries on the development of a joint curriculum in English, with transfers between universities. Mahidol has frozen its undergraduate numbers and may even reduce them, but it is open to further expansion at postgraduate level.

The university is in the top 100 in some QS subject rankings – medicine, pharmacy and biological sciences – but it feels that it is at a disadvantage from the high proportion of scores (50%) attached to reputational polling. Mahidol was founded in 1888 as a medical school and, as such, is the oldest surviving university. But the title of university was conferred only in 1969, when it took the late king’s father’s name, and Dr Kachintorn believes that its longer heritage is not well known.

With a limited budget, the university is working hard to connect with industry. “We have to recruit people from industry to be teachers and help shape the curriculum,” he says. “Which parts are required after graduation? It would be a boon to both sides to get that right.

“We have devoted a lot of the budget to MOOCs and other online learning – we now have 15 courses taught entirely as MOOCs. But there are still three big campuses in Bangkok and another three outside the city, which we may well allow to become independent in the future.”

Mahidol still reminds students of its “determination statement” which commits it to being “the wisdom of the land”. The phrase came from Prince Mahidol of Songkla, whose philosophy of higher education was that: “The true success of education is not in learning but in the application of knowledge for the people.” They are sentiments that fit remarkably well with the expectations placed on Thai universities in the new national plan.

Udom Kachintorn, MD, is a gastroenterologist by training, who graduated from the Mahidol University Faculty of Medicine in 1978 and is now president of the university. From 1988 to 1990, he was the recipient of a gastroenterology research fellowship at the University of California, San Diego, before returning to Thailand. He was clinical professor and dean of Faculty of Medicine at Siriraj Hospital, Mahidol University, and served as assistant dean for continuing medical education and chairman of the Department of Internal Medicinefor more than 15 years. Dr Kachintorn is a past president of the Gastroenterological Association of Thailand, and was president of ASEAN Medical School Network for 2014–2015. He has taken takes a leading role in transforming medical curriculum toward outcome-based learning. He became president of Mahidol in 2015 and now chairs the Council of University Presidents of Thailand.