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Year : 2016  |  Volume : 29  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 160-161

Understanding culture in higher education in Thailand

Indonesian Student Association in Thailand (PERMITHA), Bangkok, Thailand

Date of Web Publication19-Aug-2016

Correspondence Address:
Joko Gunawan
Indonesian Student Association in Thailand (PERMITHA), 600-602 Petchburi Road Ratchatewi, Bangkok 10400
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/1357-6283.188783

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How to cite this article:
Gunawan J. Understanding culture in higher education in Thailand. Educ Health 2016;29:160-1

How to cite this URL:
Gunawan J. Understanding culture in higher education in Thailand. Educ Health [serial online] 2016 [cited 2022 Aug 17];29:160-1. Available from:

Dear Editor,

In 2013, Thai public and private higher education institutions together offered a total of 1,044 international programs using English as the medium of instruction at the undergraduate and graduate levels. [1] A survey on international students revealed that in 2012 there were 20,309 foreign students enrolled in 103 Thai higher education institutions. [2]

However, dealing with the cultural diversity of these thousands of students from many backgrounds can be a challenge for Thai education and teachers. Students also need to know the cultural they are training in, understanding appropriate behaviors in the Thai context. This letter speaks to some of these important appropriate behaviors.

Part of the value of Thai education stems from Buddhist teaching. [3] The Buddhist principle of "no self" (anatta) teaches Thai people not to be strongly attached to things because everything changes. This is why Thais are quite flexible and pragmatic in their work, study and interactions. [4]

Four specific aspects of Thai culturee pertinent to education in Thailand are the following:

In Power Distance, based on which teachers are highly respected and considered authoritative and knowledgeable, students acknowledge their teachers' seniority and experience. [5] Students' acceptance of teachers' power is seen in how they address them, always using the titles Ajarn or Kru,[6] which are close in meaning to the English word "professor" but also connoting respect and authority. Recognizing seniority is reflected in the Thai proverb about obeying adults, 'Phu yai arb nam ron ma kon' or 'dern tam phu yai ma mai kad', which mean adults see the world before children, so children should obey them. [4] Thais refer to this cultural deference to seniors as kreng jai, which is a dominant norm influencing all social relations, including both within schools and within other formal organizations. [7] In teaching and learning, students are trained to place their trust in their teachers and to believe their words without question. Moreover, Thai students are often not willing to ask questions directly of the teacher in class and tend to remain quiet to show respect and avoid discomfort. However, some universities have now adopted student-centered teaching-learning and now try to reduce this power distance, asking students to be more active participants in the classroom.

The second important aspect of Thai culture is collectivism. Thai students emphasize the importance of the group and avoid conflict from introducing their needs and opinions in discussions. Thais generally believe and behave in accordance with the group. [5] They often do not feel that their contributions as an individual are important. Therefore, students generally prefer to remain quiet, avoiding actions that might make them stand out from the group. Students sometimes do not agree with decisions of the group, but they generally prefer not to voice their opinions, which might disturb group consensus. [7]

The third aspect of Thai culture relevant to student behavior is femininity. Thais tend to have many characteristics that some regard as feminine, including politeness and quietness. Thais also employ the concept of sanuk (to have fun and to have a good time) in their social interactions. Therefore, in class Thais tend to avoid serious discussions and often use humor and joke to reduce tension. Learning while having fun approach can be effective for most Thai students. [7] The feminine Thai characteristics of caring and being helpful to others is related to Thai Buddhist system, 'merit making', which is the notion of doing good in order to help redress the balance of one's own, possibly bad karma or to help the positive balance of karma for another person. Karma means the likely status that a person will achieve in the future. [8]

The fourth aspect of Thai culture is avoidance of uncertainty, looking for various ways to deal with uncertainty. There are two kinds of uncertainty avoidance, namely weak uncertainty avoidance and strong uncertainty avoidance. In cultures with weak uncertainty avoidance, students like open-ended learning, broad assignments, no timetables, and accept a teacher who says "I don't know". In contrast, students with strong uncertainty avoidance prefer structured learning situations, detailed assignments, strict timetables, and they tend not to disagree with teachers. Thais have mid-level uncertainty avoidanc, feeling threatened by ambiguous situations and also trying to avoid challenging experiences. This is an appreciation for conformity to group norms, social norms, rules, and regulations. On this point, Thai students pay close attention and carry out all instructions given by teachers. They seldom take initiative in the classroom, preferring to wait to see what they are to do. They also might ask the teacher to decide for them, as an expression of their trust. [7]

Understanding and appreciating these aspects of Thai culture can be key to effective communications, relationships and learning for non-Thai students. They will help students know how to behave and thereby get along better with other students and teachers. Not understanding the culture can lead to miscommunications, poor relationships, and a less than optimal educational experience.


I acknowledge the Educational Attache of the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia to the Kingdom of Thailand, Dr. Yunardi Yusuf.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

OHEC, Study in Thailand 2013. Office of the Higher Education Commission. Bureau of International Cooperation Strategy. Thailand: Ministry of Education; 2014.  Back to cited text no. 1
OHEC, Foreign Students in Thai Higher Education Institutions 2013. Office of the Higher Education Commission. Bureau of International Cooperation Strategy. Thailand: Ministry of Education; 2013.  Back to cited text no. 2
Pitiyanuwat S, Anantrasirichai A. Curriculum and Learning Reform in Thailand; 2002. Available from: [Last retrieved on 2016 Feb 26].  Back to cited text no. 3
Yuenyong J, Yuenyong C. Connecting between culture of learning in Thai contexts and developing students′ science learning in the formal setting. Procedia Soc Behav Sci 2012;46:5371-8.  Back to cited text no. 4
Chutigarn R. Cultures and Learner Behaviours: A Qualitative Investigation of a Thai Classroom. Ph.D Thesis. University of Warwick; 2008.  Back to cited text no. 5
Wallace M. Today′s cultural dilemma for the thai teacher: Moral parent and critical thinker The University of The South. United States; 2003.  Back to cited text no. 6
Holmes H, Tangtongtavy S, Tomizawa R. Working with the Thais: A Guide to Managing in Thailand. Con Buri Thailand: White Lotus; 1995.  Back to cited text no. 7
Caffrey RA. Caregiving to the elderly in Northeast Thailand. J Cross Cult Gerontol 1992;7:117-34.  Back to cited text no. 8

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