Originally published at AsianCorrespondent.com on 23rd December 2014

When schools in Thailand reopen after the New Year holidays, high school students from Grade 12 will have just a matter of weeks until their time at school is behind them.

After 12 years in the Thai school system most students will be looking forward to graduating and moving on to pastures green. But these remaining weeks will be an anxious time as students prepare for their final examinations and weigh up their options for life beyond the school’s walls. In this increasingly competitive world, the decisions students make at this period in their lives can have huge implications for their future.

Over 70% of high school graduates from Thai schools continue on to higher education. Graduate enrollment at universities across Thailand has grown by 300% over the past decade and there are now 170 higher education institutions catering for over 2,500,000 students.

This massive growth has had major implications for the employment market. University qualifications have become so common that they are now necessary for even a basic clerical positions. The huge number of graduates enables local employers to take their pick from thousands of university educated applicants. And with so many graduates in the job market, competition for rewarding positions with international organisations is fierce. International organisations that recruit young professionals in Bangkok often shortlist their applicants by only including graduates from foreign universities or Thailand’s most established institutions, such as Chulalongkorn University and Thammasat University.

For students hoping to break into the international job market, a qualification from an international degree programme could be an important advantage. In recent years a growing number of universities across Thailand have begun offering these international programmes in which courses are taught in English. At present there are 344 international bachelor degree courses available to students in Thailand.

The rapid growth of these programmes has resulted in teething problems at some universities. At present the quality between courses and institutions varies considerably and students should do their research before signing up for one of these programmes. However, despite initial challenges, there are clear advantages for students studying in this way and it’s predicted that this sector will continue to grow.

The growth of international programmes at Thai universities also signifies Thailand’s ambitions of competing with foreign universities. But how realistic are these ambitions and how do Thai universities rank internationally?

Well, according to the results from this year’s Times Higher Education University World Rankings, East Asian nations are now challenging the traditional dominance of European and American universities.

But Thailand, along with most of Southeast Asia, has a long way to go before their higher education institutions can be compared with the top universities in America, Europe or East Asia.

In the THE University Rankings World Rankings 2014, Thai universities struggle to compete with universities in East Asia. Thailand has just two institutions making the top 100 Asian universities. When you compare Thailand’s top universities with those in Europe and America, the disparity becomes clearer still, with Thailand’s highest ranking university, King Mongkut’s University of Technology, coming just inside the global top 400.

These statistics go some way towards explaining the attraction of studying at university abroad, an option which is now accessible to more students than ever before. Each year, around 25,000 students from Thailand attend university abroad. The most popular destination for Thai students is America, followed by the UK, Australia, Japan and Malaysia.

The benefits of studying abroad are huge. There are the obvious benefits such as high academic standards, internationally recognized qualifications and the opportunity to become fluent in English. But the benefits are not just academic. Living and studying in a foreign country is an incredible experience which builds character and helps broaden horizons. Cultural capital gained from studying abroad is an advantage which cannot be acquired staying in one’s home country. This international experience is attractive to employers looking for dynamic individuals who can contribute to their organisation’s success.

International university degrees also open the door to working abroad. In the 21st Century, education is the key to global mobility and with the opening of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) there will be increasing opportunities for skilled workers. This increased mobility of skilled labour will lead to greater competition for top jobs across Southeast Asia. Thai graduates will suddenly be competing for employment alongside graduates from across the region. Singaporean graduates in particular will be formidable rivals, with their high levels of English language proficiency and widely respected education system.

So for those high school students counting down the days until they can ditch their school uniform, there are fantastic opportunities ahead but it is going to take informed decision making, hard work and savvy social networking before they can reap the rewards of these 21st century Century opportunities.

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Daniel is an English Literature graduate from the University of London who has spent the past 20 years living and working in Southeast Asia. Passionate about education, health care, sustainable development, equality and human rights, Daniel is a regular contributor to Asian Correspondent, Ajarn, The Educator and Bangkok Post.

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