A Bangkok Post article this week reported that another 60 students of Christian University in Thailand are demanding return of their tuition in the wake of the university’s failure to work out an agreement with the national nursing council to allow the nursing student graduates to take the national examination to be registered nurses. The council has been demanding that the university either hire more staff teachers who can be clinical nurse supervisors, or reduce the number of students in the program so that the 1 to 6 ratio set by the council is achieved. Up to this year, however, the council has allowed CUT graduates to take the exam and be employed. When the council refused to allow this year’s graduates to take the exam, insisting they were unqualified due to the substandard courses they had taken, 2 of those disqualified students sued the university for refund of their tuition. The case is pending a decision. Meanwhile, the university has complied with the nursing council by notifying students that they will need to register for other courses or transfer to nursing programs in other institutions. The 60 students claim this is going to cost them a year, since the new academic year is already underway and transfers are impossible. They want their money back. I understand that the bachelor’s degree in nursing will not be accepting new students for two years while the university reorganizes. One of the reorganizing actions being undertaken by Board of Trustees of the university is a top to bottom review of the university’s structure and personnel. A new president is set to take office on Wednesday, replacing the current president who has been in that position for more than 30 years, longer than any other current head of an institution of higher education in the Association of Christian Colleges and Universities in Asia, and possibly longer than any other head in Thailand.
This crisis has been brewing for a long time. For years Christian University of Thailand was one of the premiere schools of nursing in the country. It was located inside Bangkok Christian Hospital and had one program and one purpose, to supply the hospital with nurses. After ten years, just before the Asian financial collapse in 1997, the board decided it was time to expand. From the beginning of Christian College it had been the dream to have the college become the second of four universities, following Payap University in the north. Land was secured just outside the metropolitan growth area, within which a hundred rai (about 40 acres) needed for a university according to the Ministry of Education, would be impossibly expensive. Farmland was purchased in Nakhon Pathom province and construction began. In addition to sufficient land, the Ministry of Education guidelines for qualifying as a university specified that the institution must have 4 faculties. So Christian College moved into the countryside and began to build additional programs with courses of study that might attract sufficient enrollment to become viable. It was a heady time to work at Christian College. Things were popping. [Pictures accompanying this essay are from that time.] The college became a full-fledged university in 2001 with the Crown Princess opening the university formally a year later. The most successful new ventures over the next 5 years or so were the programs in Business Administration, and a Master’s degree in nursing management. The university also tried 15 or 20 different majors including, Hotel and Tourism, Restaurant Management, English, Physical Therapy, Multi-media, Mass Communication, and a PhD program in administration. Some of them thrived, some survived, and some basically succumbed to competition from other institutions. But the bachelor’s degree in nursing was the university’s largest program and the university’s “bread and butter” or “curry pot” to use the president’s favorite phrase for it. Nearly a third of the student body were undergraduate nursing students, some years it was more than half.
At the time Christian College moved to Nakhon Pathom in 1998-9 it was the only private institution of higher education between Bangkok and the southern border more than a thousand kilometers away. Quickly, however, both public and private institutions moved in. The government itself opened the flood-gate for higher education expansion beginning with the decision to allow every one of the 40 teachers colleges to expand into full-fledged universities offering whatever programs they wanted. Overnight the number of government universities in Thailand nearly doubled. Almost all the private institutions of higher education were privately owned and for-profit. Of the non-profit institutions, I believe Assumption University is the largest, Payap University was the first, and there are less than a handful of others. Meanwhile, demographics were falling as birthrates in Thailand declined from an average of 4 children per couple who had children, to the present rate of less than 1.5. That birthrate means that today’s high school graduates are nearly half as many as there were when their parents were their age. This year the tipping point has come and the situation is becoming acute. To put it succinctly, there are twice as many places available nationwide for incoming freshmen university students as there are applicants. One dream after another for filling the classrooms has faded. It was expected that the ASEAN Accords would open doors for great influxes of students from neighboring countries, but ASEAN has disappeared. The doors for migration remain closed. Economic disparity keeps them closed. China was another great expectation that has had to negotiate the treacherous passage between language and cultural differences on the one side and recruitment obstacles on the other. One calamity that has not yet happened is the invasion of big-name universities into Thailand to set up satellite campuses and draw students to such as Oxford University in Thailand, or Harvard University – Bangkok Branch. Apparently, those institutions know better than to build where there are few students who can afford tuition and fees that are ten times higher than local costs, and where the students who can afford it want to just go to England or the USA.
Let’s cut to the chase. What now?
CUT will have to cut its financial losses. It is too soon to say how they plan to do that. The new administration takes over next week. We’ll see what they negotiate with those unhappy students and graduates. Worst case scenario is that the tuition refund demands will mount to tens of millions of dollars, beyond any possibility of payment. In that case CUT will be cut. The Foundation of the Church of Christ in Thailand will have to cut costs to make the pay-out and figure out what to do with its bankrupt campus. It will probably not come to that. But the long-term prospects for both church-owned universities, Payap and CUT, are grim. Both institutions are growing smaller fast.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.