On the fifth floor of an unremarkable concrete building in the Thai capital, several dozen students are scribbling furiously as they take their end-of-term examinations. The clusters of test-takers do not come close to filling the rows of wooden desks that stretch the length and breadth of the cavernous room where, administrators say, 1,000 people can attend a class.
This is Ramkhamhaeng University, a college with one of the world's largest enrollments: More than 300,000 students spread across 24 campuses study in this system, say officials. Enrollment is open to all who can afford it, and the institution is very inexpensive: Tuition is roughly $30 per term.
Universities like Ramkhamhaeng are a key part of the success Thailand has had in expanding its higher-education system and enrollment rates in recent decades. While inequities remain, gross enrollment rates have increased from 19 percent of the college-age population in the early 1990s to 50 percent in 2007, and the number of colleges and universities has risen from five in 1967 to 166 in 2008, according to a World Bank report from last year.
But while institutions like Ramkhamhaeng have opened educational doors for some, education observers say colleges in Thailand need to modernize and become less insular.
Academics and administrators at Thai universities are reluctant to criticize the university system, but Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of Prachatai, an independent news Web site, says universities are rife with outmoded practices like rote learning and do not encourage students to think creatively or question authority.
"The government tries to control education at the university level," she says. "People cannot exercise their own brains."
To be sure, the Thai government has grand plans for its higher-education system.
Some of its latest proposals have focused on turning the nation into a hub for higher education in Southeast Asia by 2016, drawing more international students from the region. The government has yet to offer many details on the plan, but Thailand faces stiff competition in this venture; Hong Kong and Singapore have already become regional centers for higher education.
The Thai government also wants to create a $157-million "science city" in an industrial park east of Bangkok in part to stimulate science education. The government wants to work with university researchers and technology businesses to develop it.
But some say those efforts are misplaced. Rather than pump millions of dollars into glitzy endeavors, they would like the government to fortify the country's basic higher-education structure.
In 1999, the government sought to create a sweeping overhaul of the higher-education system, focusing on issues like improving teacher standards. But Christopher Johnson, an American who was an assistant professor for six years at Bangkok's National Institute of Development Administration, says "80 to 90 percent" of the plan was never acted on.
Mr. Johnson, who now teaches education at Taiwan's National Cheng Kung University, argues that without reform, problems like professors at research institutions who do not actually publish research, and the lack of rigorous course work for students, will persist.
Of Thai students' lack of motivation, he says, "The attitude is, I am paying for my education, so give me a degree. It's as if they're saying, 'I have gone into McDonald's and ordered my burger and fries.'"
Thailand's Ministry of Education and its Office of the Higher Education Commission declined to respond to several requests to discuss their plans beyond what has been publicly disclosed.
But Omporn Regel, a World Bank expert on Southeast Asian higher education who helped write the 2009 report, defends the government's policies. She says that Thailand's plan to become an education hub would push universities to compete with others in the region and force them to improve. She also called the science-city idea laudable.
"Having these ideas doesn't necessarily hamper reform," she says.
Given the polarized political environment in Thailand, it's unclear whether any education projects will be able to gain much ground in the coming years.
From April to May, anti-government protesters rallied in the capital, paralyzing part of the city. Ninety-one people were killed in clashes with the military.
Nicholas Farrelly, an associate lecturer at Australian National University and an expert on mainland Southeast Asia, says "comprehensive higher-education reform is unlikely in the current national climate." He says improving the country's university system is a long-term project that would require "a culture of free inquiry and open debate" that is now lacking.
Indeed, on July 29, the Office of the Higher Education Commission sent a letter to all universities in Thailand, asking them to monitor the political content of student plays and other productions, according to local news media. And Prachatai, which has been censored by the government, reported that security guards seized political posters from students who were peacefully protesting a visit to Bangkok's elite Chulalongkorn University by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
At Ramkhamhaeng, students and professors are for the most part focused on their own work, and administrators don't offer to comment on the need for higher-education reform at the national level.
The university was established in 1971 as an alternative to Chulalongkorn University, Thammasat University, and the country's other exclusive institutions.
"This university is for the masses," says Anchamai Sukee, an education professor, smiling. "Even farmers can study here—people from all walks of life."
It has a mixed academic reputation, with its voluntary class attendance and mammoth class sizes a detriment, some say. But some employers say that the school's graduates display diligence, while students at other colleges are used to being coddled. And the Ramkhamhaeng students seem content.
At the university's main Bangkok campus, a temple with a red, spired roof sits on a spit of land surrounded by a lake. Academic buildings are positioned on the outer fringes along the water, and students sit on benches, studying.
Manop Laumkaew, a freshman from Sisaket, a rural area near the border with Cambodia, says he likes Ramkhamhaeng University because "we can study and work at the same time and can choose subjects to study on our own," he says. He earns 130 baht, or just over $4 per day, at his work-study job in the computer lab.
Luke Cassady-Dorion, an American who is studying the Thai language at Ramkhamhaeng, praises what he calls the university's democratic approach to education. He says Ramkhamhaeng's curriculum is challenging and points to a well-known Thai saying about the institution that refers to its open enrollment—and the fact that graduating is not always a sure thing.
"There's an expression in Thai," he says. "Ramkhamhaeng—it's easy to get in but hard to get out."