By PierLuc Gagnon
At the onset of every new university trimester, not only Thai students don the traditional black and white attire for the first time. Every year, students from all over the world come to study in Thailand's universities for up to a year. These exchange students come to take advantage of the Kingdom's expanding international curriculum and to immerse themselves in Thai culture.
"I was very interested in learning the Thai language. Having travelled in Thailand before, I had a basic knowledge of the country, but I wanted to discover more", said Markus Mattila, a Finnish exchange student at Kasetsart University.
A desire to discover and adapt to Thai culture is indeed a characteristic commonly found in exchange students, says Arpaporn Iemubol, a Thai language teacher at Mahidol University International College. "Students have an interest to learn in order to avoid culture shock, to avoid behaving in a way that would upset Thai people. They are very motivated in taking part in cultural trips, for instance, going to temple for making merit", added the lecturer.
Correspondingly, Thai Language topped the eclectic list of subjects studied by international students in 2008, with Business Administration a close second, according to the Office of the Higher Education Commission of the Ministry of Education.
While exchange students undoubtedly have a lot to gain from such an experience, Thai universities reap great rewards from their presence as well.
For Dr Rassmidara Hoonsawat, dean of Mahidol University International College, becoming a more internationalised institution is a priority in a globalised world, and receiving exchange students a necessary condition to achieve that goal.
"We want to be an international university, so we need to have students from different nationalities studying with us, in order to have cultural exchanges, and also to gain global visibility. We want to train our students to be global citizens. We would like them to learn about other parts of the world as well."
Thai students attending these international colleges also find it beneficial to share their classrooms with international students. For Ailawil Uamcharoen, a diversified student body is a major factor in creating a challenging learning environment.
"Studying alongside exchange students helps diversify approaches and perspectives we might have towards a particular subject, because they come from different backgrounds and thus possess different points of view", said the secondyear student.
As for the education itself, some exchange students have noted that while the quality is often comparable, expectations towards students are sometimes lower than in their home institutions.
"I found a greater focus on methods that included students in the teaching process. However, the amount of effort expected from the students was lower at times, especially with test taking, where the grading was much lighter than at home. The students themselves also seemed generally more relaxed about their studies," said Andy Masters, a student from Eastern Illinois University currently on an exchange program in Thailand.
Interviewees also pointed out that Thai students in international colleges tend to be younger than their foreign counterparts.
Dr Rassmidara Hoonsawat, on the other hand, emphasised that almost 90per cent of her Thai students who participate in exchange programs obtain GPAs higher than 3.0 while studying abroad. An accomplishment, she believes, that reflects the parity in educational standards between Thai and foreign universities.
A growing trend
Higher education using English as the medium of instruction, as well as the number of international students coming to Thailand, have seen a tremendous growth in recent years. In 2008, 16,361 foreign students studied in 96 universities throughout Thailand, an increase of almost 300per cent from the 4,170 students recorded in 2003, according to the Office of the Higher Education Commission (numbers also include fulltime foreign students). The number of international programmes nationwide has also gone up from 153 to 296 at the bachelor's level during the same period.
A representative of the Office of the Higher Education Commission was unable to comment on whether this growth would be sustained in 2010, as the 2009 data will not be released until next month.
Institution with the highest enrolment in 2008 was Assumption University with 2,558 students, followed by Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University and Mahidol University, with 1,329 and 1,069 students respectively.