Studying abroad increasingly trendy, but no cakewalk

By Thuy An   November 20, 2023 | 03:13 pm PT
Vietnamese families are pushing sooner and harder than ever before for their children to study abroad, but doing so is often more difficult than expected, both financially and academically.

Kim Chi, 21, said she spends VND1 billion (US$41,327) each year living and studying in Australia, which is nearly 20 times more than Vietnam's average per capita income of $2,317 in 2022 according to the General Statistics Office.

"I've tried looking for a part-time job here [in Melbourne] but I couldn’t find one, so I’ve been relying on my parents," she said.

Chi said that before her family decided she would study abroad, her parents made sure they were financially capable.

But not all students come from well-off families like Chi. And without adequate financial support, living abroad can be a struggle.

At 18 years old, Hoang Dang Vu found this out the hard way when he left his family for Japan in 2016.

Vu had no scholarship and he couldn’t communicate in Japanese. But he and his family had always dreamed that he would study finance in Japan.

To fulfill the dream, his parents had to borrow more than VND200 million.

"Given my parents’ income, it [the cost to study abroad] is quite high. The first year I arrived in Japan, my family spent around VND300 million, including the cost for me to study at a language center, paperwork fees, the price of living at the dorm for six months, as well as the price of books, and tuition."

After arriving in Japan, Vu had to work to help his parents pay off their debts.

Vietnamese students in Japan join an interview to get a part-time job. Photo by Kim Manh Hiep

Vietnamese students in Japan join an interview to get a part-time job. Photo by Kim Manh Hiep

At one point he was working four part-time jobs, all while also trying to succeed as a full-time student.

"Working too much directly affected my studies and I did not do great at school," Vu said.

"The financial situation was stressful and I often fell ill from working too much, all of which made me horribly homesick," he said.

After eight years in Japan, Vu has not been able to graduate from university, which he describes as a "huge regret."

Trending for better or worse

Experts have said that the psychological draw towards following the crowd, the fear of missing out and a desire for a modern educational environment has pushed families to invest in sending their children abroad to study.

Around 40,000 Vietnamese people go abroad to study each year, a 2.5-fold increase compared to before 2013, said Pham Quang Hung, director of the Ministry of Education and Training's International Cooperation Department.

And Hung said Vietnamese families' desire to send their children abroad for education is only on the rise.

A survey conducted in 2018 by HSBC revealed that spending on education accounted for 47% of total family expenditures in Vietnam.

Nguyen Phuong Hao, founder of Hanoi-based SG Education Vietnam center, which provides study abroad consulting services, said that Vietnamese families are preparing to send their children overseas much sooner than they did 10 years ago.

"Previously, most parents only sent their children abroad for higher education, which means they waited until after high school."

Students that applied to study at overseas high schools before the pandemic accounted for an annual 35-40% of all clients at Hao’s company, but this year the figure has increased to 50%.

Expectations vs reality

Hoang Ha, 21, who is studying at a university in Australia, said his family had to borrow VND500 million to send him abroad.

"I did try to get some scholarships but they were out of my league. So, I came to study in Australia relying on my family’s funding," she said.

However, after four months in Australia she had to find a part-time job to support her family instead of the other way around.

In an opinion piece published recently on VnExpress International, David Pickus, an Associate Professor of History at a university in Da Nang, Vietnam, pointed out that studying overseas requires comprehensive planning.

"Studying abroad has many advantages, but contains a built-in problem that study abroad could become an expectation that does not require careful thinking about either the goals sought or the methods used to obtain them," Pickus wrote.

He pointed out that "over the past two decades, educational institutions have created a great many new enrollment openings and now they need to fill them."

"Increased opportunities for study abroad did not appear from nowhere. They were a consequence of an even larger process, one that scholars call the "massification" of universities. This (funny) word refers not only to the rapid growth in the number of universities and their size, but also in the number of needs the university seeks to fill," he said.

Pickus argued that there are now both increasing shortages of unskilled workers abroad and increasing difficulties for educated graduates trying to find a job.

"Competition for skilled jobs can be extraordinarily fierce, and employment opportunities vanish and change with great rapidity. Can study abroad help? Maybe yes and maybe no."

A Vietnamese student of Washington University in St. Louis cleans up his place to get ready for a feast to celebrate the New Lunar Year with other overseas Vietnamese students, February 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Phuong Phuong

A Vietnamese student of Washington University in St. Louis cleans up his place to get ready for a feast to celebrate the New Lunar Year with other overseas Vietnamese students, February 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Phuong Phuong

Xuan Thu Trang, a lecturer at Swinburne Vietnam, an alliance program between Swinburne University of Technology in Australia and Vietnam’s FPT University, said that in order to succeed when studying abroad, students "should avoid illusion, never cease thriving and build as many relationships as they can."

According to Trang, students wanting to go abroad should adopt realistic attitudes, not expectations.

"Students should not paint a rosy picture of studying abroad in the first place because it will not always turn out as what you dream. Living abroad means everything will be different."

However, she said that young people these days can catch up very easily and there are many students thriving abroad because they prepared themselves carefully by joining exchange programs and taking part in online courses. For Trang, this is the way to take full advantage of the opportunity to be an international student.

She said many of these students who studied in Europe have been able to establish careers in the countries they studied in after graduation, and many such professionals have even become naturalized in their adoptive nations.

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