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Thailand University Entrance

My stepdaughter Peng finished school this year and set about applying for university entrance to graduate with a degree in teaching. This is our combined story of how that process works in Thailand.

I have written this post to share the specific observations I made in Peng’s situation plus a few more general assumptions. I am not an expert on this process and don’t set myself up to be…………………

…………………however, I am sure that when you read my words you will have a far better understanding of how this sometimes confusing process works than I did at the beginning. My other caveat is that Peng has some mobility restrictions and is formally classified as disabled although she is much improved after a major operation two years ago. Accordingly, there are some insights I offer that apply specifically to her more unique situation in that regard and, even if they’re not relevant in your case, will be a fascinating insight to Thailand’s attitude to students with issues of this type. The only other thing I will say is that I am Australian so the few references I make to alternative education systems are based on my limited experience of that country’s situation. I have added photos that are more family themed to start than strictly university related, just to break up the words. They are Peng centric, so are relevant in that way.

Team Eastmead/Vansutha.

Step One – Applications

At the end of school students are issued with a final scorecard, which lists all their subjects and a rating from 0 – 5. I believe this is a combined class plus exam rating. On the back of this report is a final score although I can’t give you specific details as to what that means for obvious reasons – see documents below.

From the very limited research I have done on the requirements for university entrance in Australia the key seems to be something called ATAR – Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (my eyes are glazing over as I type) One explanation of this joyful sounding acronym is:

The ATAR is a ranking of Year 12 results that measures your overall academic achievement compared with all other final year students in Australia (excluding Queensland). The ATAR is not a score out of 100 – it is a rank. The ATAR allows tertiary institutions to compare the overall achievements of all students who have completed Year 12.

The point I want to make when comparing this approach to Thailand is that as far as I know this ATAR score is the final determination of whether you get into An Australian university and what degree you can apply for. In Thailand their ATAR equivalent, which is a academic marking rather than a rating (see your eyes are glazing over as well now aren’t they) isn’t the only criteria used for entrance. Each university also seems require an exam to sort out the students that will be offered a place.

Now, you’d think that if a further exam was required that all universities would agree on the content and bulk test students in the one go. Think again. Some universities will combine the exam, so once the student sits the test those results can be applied to say two universities, but in Peng’s case most wanted kids to attend that university’s ‘own’ exam and the results were only applicable to them! Not only that but in several cases students had to travel to sit the exam. Peng had friends taking buses to Buriram, which is hundreds of kilometers from us, to sit that university’s exam. We had to go to Loei, which is a decent drive from us, for an overnight stay so that Peng could do their exam. I think Peng ended up sitting five exams in all to complete her applications.

So, go back one step and before the exam stage Peng had to decide on which university she wanted to apply for and what degree course she hoped to get into. Application forms and all the required information are available online, so make sure you have a printer handy. Payment is required for each application plus there’s a fee for the entrance exam. Some of these payments can be processed online but some require a visit to 7/11 or equivilant and in a couple of cases payment had to be done via a bank.

Just to make an observation about this initial stage. The fees for each application ends up being around 600 baht, which by expat standards, even with current rubbish exchange rates, is hardly over-the-top. However, when you think of the average unskilled Thai worker earning 300 baht a day, these fees might not come easy.

Peng has a friend whose parents only had enough money to pay for a few applications and she ended up missing out on entry. Maybe her marks weren’t up to requirements but it is sad to think that for the sake of a few thousand baht this girl has lost the chance to at least maximise her opportunity to get into university and what a difference that would have made to the rest of her life. If I ever won the lottery, one of the pleasing ways I can think of to give back to Thailand would be to offer to pay or subsidise the application fees for students struggling financially. How nice would that be!

Team Eastmead/Vansutha.

The outcome of each application is provided online on a nominated date. One more oddity of the Thai university system. It seems from my observation of Peng’s situation and her comments to Gaun about what was happening to her friends, that the degree you apply for may not be the degree course that’s offered to you. For example Peng was offered a law degree from Mahasarakham university, a course she never asked for as she wanted to be a teacher, and a media studies degree from Loei. A friend of hers applied for law, because he wants to be a policeman, but was offered agriculture! He will be the cop to talk to about the best pesticides for your sugar crop 🙂

The other oddity is that each university has a different results day! I believe this wasn’t always the case and previously all the offers were made on the one day. This seems to make sense to me because then each applicant knows the full range of offers available and can chose the one best suited to them. The current situation means that students might grab the first offer just to secure a place because they don’t know if any further offers are forthcoming. More on that in Peng’s case later.

Team Eastmead/Vansutha.

There are five cascading application rounds. By that I mean that students apply in round one and some of those are offered degree courses of the universities choosing. They either accept or reject those offers, which is done online. Students then have to get to the university in person to formally register on a nominated date. The unfilled places then cascade down to a second offering with another offer date. Students have to apply AGAIN if they want to be considered, so they need to lodge another application online and pay more fees (obviously no exam charge this time) and so it goes. There are five levels in this process with decreasing numbers being offered, if at all, by each university at each stage. 

Peng was offered two places for degrees she didn’t want in the first stage, as I have already told you. She then didn’t get any offers from her applications in stages two, three and four. I was getting really worried by then, and I am sure Peng and Guan were too, because I didn’t know what plan B was if Peng didn’t get into university.

For the fifth and final round Peng pulled out all stops and applied to six universities, Khon Kaen, Mahasarakham, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Loei and Nakhon Phanom. Now this is interesting and not widely known. Some universities hold back places that only students with disabilities can apply for. I don’t know if this is applicable for all five stages or just at the end. Anyway Peng only picked up on it for this final round and applied under this criteria as well as ‘normal’ entrance. 

Students with disabilities applying to fill places set aside for them pay no application fees. Verification is required using a government disability card. Just out of interest people holding a disability card pay NO medical fees. Peng had major surgery that might have required us to supplement the final bill. However, because Peng had her card the full treatment was free. Peng even gets a monthly disability pension (very small)! Compare that to your first world countries who would fight tooth and nail to give anything to people who needed it preferring to give tax cuts to millionaires.

The first university to offer a place (thank goodness – I was SO relieved that an offer arrived) was Rajabhat university in Chiang Mai. Now it is hard to get further away in distance from home, but because we didn’t know if any further offers would come in we grabbed it. The offer was to study to become a preschool (very young  children) teacher, which wasn’t what Peng has asked for. She wanted to be a Thai teacher (sounds odd but we have English teachers) for senior 15 – 18 year olds. This is another example of a variation between what you apply for and what you get offered. Keep Peng’s course in mind because it comes up again later.

Funnily or not, Peng then received offers from all five other universities after our Rajabhat acceptance including two under her disabled status! Maybe it would have been possible to change from Chiang Mai to another university at that stage, but we had already made the trip to Rajabhat, registered and paid for the degree course and accommodation, so the concrete was set.

Registration and Beyond:

The sections below is a little bit more specific to Peng but there will be aspects that relate to others so please read on.

By the fifth entry round everything is very rushed because it is the last stage of a process that’s already been happening for several months. We heard about Peng’s offer on the Thursday and we had to be in Chiang Mai to register that Sunday! This is why we didn’t have the option to wait and see if other offers came in, even if we wanted to take that chance. I wish they all came at once and we would have chosen Khon Kaen, which is only a couple hours drive from us.

The registration process on the day itself was efficient and painless. The university has set things up for large numbers and there were lots of existing students there acting as helpers. Peng actually got assigned her own to help with the paperwork and associated details.

It was during this process we discovered that Peng had to be back in Chiang Mai on Friday (this was Sunday) to move into her accommodation and start a two week pre-class period designed to promote teamwork and build friendships and support groups between the new students. Monday we were still in Chiang Mai, Tuesday we had the 700 km ten hour drive home. Wednesday Peng had a doctor’s appointment in Khon Kaen, a two hour drive from home and then Thursday we had to be on the road back to Chiang Mai. Phew – all go.

Registration day at Rajabhat, Chiang Mai.

Peng with other students on that day. Her helper on the right.

Fees and other costs:

University education is user pays as it is in most countries these days. Each university sets its own cost structure depending on popularity and the type of degree being studied. Becoming a doctor will cost more than a teacher’s degree. People have the choice to either pay upfront or to take on a government debt that has to be repaid once they join the workforce, like HECS-HELP in Australia (Higher Education Contribution Scheme), defined as:

When you attend university or an approved higher education provider, you can get a HECS-HELP loan to pay for your studies. You can only get a HECS-HELP loan if you are enrolled in a Commonwealth supported place (CSP).

A HECS-HELP loan does not cover costs like accommodation, laptops or textbooks.

In Thailand I think the loan covers all costs including accommodation but stand to be corrected on that. Whatever, I didn’t want Peng to start life paying back a loan so I had committed to Gaun years ago that I would cover all of Peng’s university costs. This isn’t too onerous even over a four years period for a teacher’s degree. 

At Rajabhat the term study fee (two terms in each year) for Peng was 7,500 baht, a course material fee was 2,500 baht and insurance 1,000. A neighbour has a daughter at Mahasarakham university studying computing and her term fees are 18,000 baht.

Accommodation was available in a campus room, three people per room, at 5,000 baht for the term. Water is provided free but students pay for electricity (150 baht split three ways in Peng’s case). This is for year one only. After that students have to find accommodation outside campus, but this may only apply to Rajabhat. Allow 3,000 – 4,000 a month once that happens.  Add food and spending money on top of that.

One thing we did learn was that disabled students can get their education free of charge on application and confirmation. That is a wonderful offer from the Thai government and once again leaves our western counterparts way behind. We had already paid for term one, so I will see it the offer can be applied to the second term and after, when the time comes. If this information applies in your situation then make enquiries as to what this covers – just tuition fees or more? I don’t know but the heads up is here to use. Please report back in the comments section if you know.   

Heaps of new students and existing ones there to help them register.

The Rajabhat Experience:

It was only at registration stage that we discovered that Rajabhat has two campuses. There’s one in Chiang Mai city, which was where the registration was happening and they are in the early stages of building a new rural campus at Mae Rim, which is 30 km outside Chiang Mai. This is where we now found Peng was to be based.

The next day we headed out there to meet up with the senior student assigned to her to get settled in. 

Well, this campus is in the middle of nowhere situated in a vast site with what buildings they have completed spread out all over the place to make transport as difficult as possible. It is also two km off the main public access road (the 107) so finding public transport is impossible. This is bureaucracy’s idea of a good idea, which puts the user to maximum inconvenience in my opinion.  

Rajabhat University.

I am sure it may come together in the longer term once it is more complete. The upside is that this is a modern, newly built facility and therefore has been better planned for students with mobility issues. The area that has classrooms, dormitories and food areas for students studying to become teachers is very compact in size, so very easy for Peng to get around, which covered one of Gaun’s main concerns.

Classrooms. I don’t want to be negative but this blog is always realistic so…..the construction I saw was usual Thai, mostly for show and lacking a bit on the go. I suspect the paint was thrown on for a grand opening rather than longevity and it’s peeling already. The foundations are being undermined, with earth being washed out and the concrete itself is a rough as. All good for long distance photos but don’t get close for detailing.

Covered walkways join all the areas, which is so sensible in this heat and rain too of course.

Ramps are provided everywhere too as an alternative to stairs.

Evidently you can get a degree in Thai dancing – the very formal version, not the type you might see in Pattaya or at street parties 🙂

A big dining hall is provide for students as it’s a long way from any commercial alternative. No meal is more than 30 Baht, with most at 25 baht. There is a 7/11 almost next door and ATMs are provided. There are lots of motorbikes around so students can get off-campus. Peng can’t ride a bike so is stuck. The longer she is there the more friends she will make and hopefully they will include her in a few outings.

Lots more building underway.

On this second day, the one after registration, Peng got to meet some of her classmates and she was allocated a room on the ground floor to minimise stairs. The room is pretty basic, a bunk bed for two and a single bed for Peng. Three lockable cupboards, a ceiling fan and a cold water bathroom. A western teenager might have problems but for a Thai person this is very much the norm at the more basic level. Peng has come to appreciate her room back home since moving out!

Peng front row in new uniform, very conservative, and classmates.

Peng’s Start – complications

We were back in Chiang Mai the following Friday with a pick-up load of household things and clothes. We got Peng settled in and sadly said goodbye until we saw her again (that was the plan) end of term in November (?)

One of the positives about modern communications is the ease and low cost of keeping in touch whether from Isan to Chiang Mai or across the world. Peng and Gaun talk several times a day via video link, so although Peng had some adjusting to do, there was still a strong visual connection to home and family.

Gaun and Peng chatting while Gaun cooks dinner. 

When Peng was living here she often joined Yuan to help sell vegetables at the local street markets and really enjoyed it. This evening she was there in spirit via a video link from Chiang Mai 

In the second week of Peng’s classes we (Gaun) got a phone call from her teacher. She was worried that with Peng’s mobility limitations she might find it difficult to get a teaching position once she completed her degree, because preschoolers require a more active physical involvement. Good call. She undertook to approach the head of department to see if, even at this late stage, Peng could be transferred from preschool to the class for Thai teachers at the senior level!!!! Yay, what Peng always wanted.

That approval was given and Peng has since made that transfer (last week), with two weeks of extra homework to do to catch up with her new classmates.   

These are some of Peng’s new classmates. 70 Thai teachers in training, split into two classes. Peng second row on the far right.

The final challenge is to sort out accommodation. The room Peng currently has is only for preschool teachers. The rest of her class are based in Chiang Mai city and get transport out to the Mae Rim campus as required until accommodation is built there at some stage. In line with the very considerate attention Peng has been receiving because of her disability, the university told her she can stay where she is. There are some classes held at the Chiang Mai city campus, so we will have to work out how to get Peng to those, as she’s the only person making the opposite trip to all her classmates.

There is a meeting for all students classified as disabled and their parents next Sunday and we will meet Peng’s teacher then to finalise details. Maybe she is better being based in Chiang Mai and travelling out with her classmates. Time will tell.

And just as a final ‘well done Thailand’ for their respect and support for the disabled the Thai government (Gaun say that the King pays for this service) provides a full time government carer to a student in a wheelchair and a fulltime live-in sign person is proved to a group of students with speech or hearing impairment.

I may have missed aspects of this process as I type on a flow basis without planning or thought. If I come across anything I think is relevant I will add it as an update.

If you have had experiences of your own relating to the Thai university system the PLEASE add it as a comment for the benefit of myself and other readers.

And to finish off here’s a little story I think you’ll enjoy:

Moving to live in a new country is an opportunity to view life through a different set of glasses and observe sights and absorb knowledge that hopefully keeps us expats engaged and young in spirit, even if increasingly not so much in body. I had a lovely reminder that I am still learning about Thai life, sometimes at the most basic levels, when we were in Chiang Mai.

I have often noticed schoolgirls in uniform (I know what you’re thinking so keep on reading) and they very often have paper clips attached to their belts. It’s one of those observations that never engaged my brain in follow-through thinking as to why this seemed to be part of the standard dress code!

The answer came in Chiang Mai. Peng was in her old school uniform to register at university and when it came to buy the new uniform, her belt came off to try on the updated skirt before purchase. It was only then I realised that Thai school skirts don’t have any loops to feed a belt through. The boys have loops on their shorts but not the girls. Why is this so I wonder? You’d think someone would make a fortune making school skirts with belt loops as belts are usually standard issue for both sexes.

The Thai workaround? Paper clips to attach belt to skirt  By luck if you look closely at the girl in a photo I had taken below what will you see on her belt?????

So next time you are out and about in Thailand you will have a legitimate reason to check out the schoolgirls and see if I am right about the paper clips 


Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment because it gives me something to read in exchange.


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