‘Flying over India…’ – Sheila Trahar reflects on her research trip to Thailand

IMG_0570According to the ‘moving map’ in front of me, we’re flying over Kolkata.  I’m on my way back from Thailand, having spent the last week or so participating in 2 events related to internationalisation of higher education there.  The first one was a British Council/Newton Fund workshop ‘Internationalisation of Higher Education: Developing Values-Based Intercultural Research Approaches’ that ran over 4 days in Bangkok, organised by Newcastle University and Kasetsart University, Bangkok. There were about 30 of us there, academics from the UK and Thailand at varying stages of our careers. The workshop was an opportunity to share experiences and understandings of internationalisation of higher education, to discuss methodological approaches that are more suited to intercultural research and to work together to identify possible joint UK/Thailand research projects. I found it fascinating to hear about how internationalisation is being conceptualised in Thailand at the moment. The focus appears to be mainly on mobility, both inward and outward of students and staff, with little focus on the complexities of learning, teaching and assessment or on internationalised curricula.  It seems that an ‘international ‘programme is one that has English as the medium of instruction and that also has students and staff from outside Thailand. One of the criticisms of such programmes is that they are aimed more at middle class Thais than they are at an international constituency and thus their potential for developing learning environments that are more diverse is, perhaps, somewhat limited. It’s always fascinating to get the insider perspective at such events and, as we were a small group, there were many opportunities to share stories and experiences.  I learned that some lecturers in Thailand don’t want to teach on international programmes, irrespective of whether those programmes have international students or not, for a variety of reasons, including a resistance to making any changes to their teaching.  Something else that really fascinated me was that the obligation to give academic service to the public and to preserve Thai ‘cultures’ is embedded in the job description of Thai academics. There seems to be considerable scope, however, for the ways in which academics can perform these activities.

After a ‘free’ day on Sunday. I was then taken to Prachin Buri, which is in central Thailand, about 2 – 3 hours from Bangkok, not far from the Cambodian border.  My role here was to participate in the Research ‘Away days’ of about 50 academics from the Department of Foreign Languages at Kasetsart.  I had been invited to give 2 presentations – ‘Narrative Inquiry and Educational Research’ and ‘Internationalisation of the Curriculum and Managing International Programmes’.  Following the presentations, I then worked with several academics, either supporting them to frame research proposals or in enabling them to consider more carefully those elements of internationalisation that are currently not present in institutional strategies.  Narrative inquiry is still relatively unknown in Thailand and I gave seminars on narrative at Thammasat University last April where Dr Adisorn Juntrasook, is certainly spreading the word, in particular via his chapter in my co-edited book ‘Using Narrative Inquiry for Educational Research in the Asia Pacific’. Dr Navaporn Snodin, an Assistant Professor at Kasetsart and the person who invited me to participate in these events, has applied to the Newton Fund to do research into international student and academic experiences of Thai HE and of ‘internationalisation’, using narrative inquiry. Should her proposal be successful, I hope to be going back to Thailand to support her and her fellow researchers in using narrative.

It wasn’t all work.  Never having been outside Bangkok before, it was great to get away from the sprawl of the city, see some of the country and try local delicacies, including river prawns which must be the largest, juiciest prawns I’ve ever eaten.  As always, doing such things is so much better when one is with locals.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Navaporn is successful in her bid to the Newton Fund as there’s so much more to learn about the politics of  HE – and, in particular, given my interests, about  the developing conceptualisation of internationalisation – in this fascinating context.  And, of course, there are so many more foods to try….

Editor’s Note: Dr Sheila Trahar is Reader in International Education in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. She has published widely in the area of international higher education and intercultural learning and teaching. Her book Developing Cultural Capability in International Higher Education: a Narrative Inquiry http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415572392/ was published by Routledge in December 2010, and she has also edited several books and Special Issues of journals.