Chinese national Cherry He Ting rattles off in fluent Thai as she presents her master’s thesis ahead of graduating from a Bangkok university, where she has studied for the past three-and-a-half years.
The 28-year-old history student is among thousands of Chinese who join Thai universities every year, according to Thai government data, which shows their annual enrolment numbers have doubled since 2012.
Hit by years of declining enrolment of Thai students, the institutions are scrambling to meet this recent surge in demand as Chinese students look for alternatives to Western schools.
Chada Triamvithaya, an academic at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang who has been researching Chinese migration patterns in Thailand, said that universities currently make twice the amount in tuition fees from Chinese as they do from locals.
“Apart from private universities, state universities, even one for Buddhist monks, are now creating courses aimed at attracting Chinese students. It is all about the money,” she said, adding that the lure of rising Chinese demand in Thai education has already attracted Chinese investment into the sector.
Thai universities offer more affordable overseas study for Chinese students, compared with more popular destinations such as Australia, the US and the UK, said Diane Hu (胡丹), an assistant professor of Australian studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Many of these Chinese students come from the largely rural, southern provinces, hoping to escape a highly competitive, but poor education system back home and land well-paying jobs in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.
“Further interest in southern provinces can be attributed to heightened trade ties between the two countries and [China’s] Belt and Road-driven initiatives,” Hu said.
Chinese students say Thailand offers better prospects because of lower tuition fees and friendlier visa rules than in the West.
Studying for an undergraduate business degree costs up to 120,000 baht (US$3,700) in Thailand, while tuition for a similar course can range from US$8,000 in Singapore to more than US$60,000 a year at some US universities.
Chinese students are also facing greater scrutiny in countries like the US, where US President Donald Trump’s administration is considering new background checks and other restrictions over growing espionage concerns.
“If I work here, I will have more opportunities than where I came from,” said Cherry, who first arrived in Chiang Rai almost eight years ago as an exchange student.
She said she arrived by boat on the Mekong River from her hometown of Jinghong in Yunnan Province. She studied tourism management at a university in Bangkok before doing a master’s degree in history at another university.
As many as 8,455 Chinese students enrolled in Thai universities in 2017, twice that in 2012. The total is as high as 30,000 across the nation, according to research by Chualongkorn University’s Asia Research Center for Migration.
Thai universities rank well below those in neighbors like Singapore and Malaysia, according to the Times Higher Education World University Ranking.
Both those countries have schools among Asia’s top 50, whereas Thailand’s top institution, Mahidol University, has slipped nearly 30 places in recent years to rank near 100 out of 400 schools across Asia.
Chinese demand has risen in spite of this, and both private and state universities now hope that rising foreign enrolment will help bring in more revenue and improve the quality of education.
“Chinese students are part of the soft power assertion of China into Thailand,” Chada said, adding that the rising number of students has been followed by an increase in Chinese teachers, translators and academics getting more jobs in the Thai education sector.
Woraphong Dechasasawat, vice president of one of the nation’s largest Chinese-language business schools, said that the institution aims to find students from among the approximately 3 million Chinese who would struggle to find university placement back home each year.
“There will always be demand when you talk about China; it is about how ready are we in adapting to it,” he said.
Part of Dhurakij Pundit, one of the nation’s largest private universities, the school started with 23 Chinese students in 2010 and now hosts about 3,700.
Some Chinese investors have even invested in private universities, such as Bangkok’s Krirk University, with plans to introduce more courses aimed at the Chinese market, media reports said.
Many researchers believe this trend will continue as China looks to expand its influence across Southeast Asia and beyond.
“The Belt and Road initiative has led to more Chinese students going to study along its corridors in the past year through government scholarships,” said Aksornsri Phanishsarn, an associate professor of economics at Thammasat University in Bangkok. “But Thailand has seen its own surge as well due to large trade and tourism between the two countries.”
Additional reporting by Jiraporn Kuhakan and Panarat Thepgumpanat
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