Chinese national Cherry He Ting rattles off in fluent Thai as she presents her masters thesis ahead of graduating from a Bangkok university, where she has studied for the past three and a half years.The 28-year-old history student is among thousands of Chinese who join Thai universities every year, according to Thai government data, which shows their annual enrolment numbers have doubled since 2012. Hit by years of declining enrolment of Thai students, the institutions are scrambling to meet this recent surge in demand as Chinese students look for alternatives to Western schools.Chada Triamvithaya, an academic at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang who has been researching Chinese migration patterns in Thailand, said universities currently make twice the amount in tuition fees from Chinese students as they do from locals. “Apart from private universities, state universities, even one for Buddhist monks, are now creating courses aimed at attracting Chinese students. It is all about the money,” she said, adding that the lure of rising Chinese demand in Thai education has already attracted Chinese investment into the sector.Hit by years of declining enrolment of Thai students, the institutions are scrambling to meet this recent surge in demand as Chinese students look for alternatives to Western schoolsThai universities offer more affordable overseas study for Chinese students, compared with more popular destinations like Australia, the United States and Britain, Diane Hu, assistant professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University told Reuters. Many of these Chinese students come from the largely rural, southern provinces, hoping to escape a highly competitive but poor education system back home and land well-paying jobs in Southeast Asia’s second biggest economy.“Further interest in southern provinces can be attributed to heightened trade ties between the two countries and Belt and Road-driven initiatives,” Hu said. China’s Belt and Road programme promotes expanding land and sea links between Asia, Africa and Europe, with billions of dollars pledged for infrastructure development.Chinese students say Thailand offers better prospects because of lower tuition fees and friendlier visa rules than in the West. Studying for an undergraduate business degree costs up to 120,000 baht ($3,700) a year in Thailand, while tuition fees for a similar course can range from $8,000 in Singapore to over $60,000 a year at some US universities.Chinese students are also facing greater scrutiny in countries like the United States, where the Trump administration is considering new background checks and other restrictions over growing espionage concerns.“If I work here I will have more opportunities than where I came from,” said Cherry, who first arrived in Chiang Rai in northern Thailand almost eight years ago as an exchange student.She said she arrived by boat on the Mekong River from her hometown of Jinghong in southern China. She first studied tourism management at a university in Bangkok before doing a master degree in history at another university.As many as 8,455 Chinese students enrolled in Thai universities in 2017, twice that in 2012. The total is as high as 30,000 across the country, according to research by the Asia Research Center for Migration at Chualongkorn University.‘Soft Power’Thai universities rank well below those in neighbours like Singapore and Malaysia, according to the Times Higher Education World University Ranking, Both those countries have schools among Asia’s top 50 whereas Thailand’s top institution, Mahidol University, has slipped nearly 30 places in recent years to rank near 100 out of 400 schools across Asia.Chinese demand has risen in spite of this, and both private and state universities now hope that rising foreign enrolment will help bring in more revenue and improve the quality of education.Published in Daily Times, January 18th 2019.