Vietnam's IELTS fever explained

By Thanh Hang   November 22, 2022 | 12:43 am PT
Hang had spent nearly VND100 million ($4,024) for an IELTS study course for her daughter three years ago, just so she could use the score to gain college admission in 2023.

Thousands of Vietnamese now require foreign language certificates for both studying and working inside and outside of Vietnam. The recent suspension of these exams in Vietnam, due to disruptions in approval procedures with the education ministry, has sparked numerous concerns.

So, what makes these foreign language certificates so important?

The IELTS exam, which made its appearance in Vietnam in the mid-90s, was first used for students to study abroad with scholarships and then for anyone who wants to study abroad. In recent years, English certificates including IELTS have become a requirement at many schools in Vietnam.

Since 2021, admission for 6th graders into classes more specialized in English in Ho Chi Minh City considers the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), the Cambridge Flyer and TOEFL Primary Step 2 exams. Those with IELTS or TOEFL scores may either be admitted directly or have more advantages than those who do not when it comes to getting into public middle schools too.

Nghe An Province in the central region is the first Vietnam locality to allow direct admission into high schools using English language certificates, starting in the 2021-2022 school year. Thai Nguyen has introduced policies to either reduce or exempt exam fees for students with an IELTS score of at least 4.0. Students with IELTS scores of at least 6.5 also have more advantages in getting into certain high schools in Hanoi.

Two students and a parent (R) check answers after taking the English test at the high school graduation exam in HCMC, July 8, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Two students and a parent (R) check answers after taking the English test at the high school graduation exam in HCMC, July 8, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

Teachers said foreign language certificates confer advantages for students when it comes to graduation and entering universities.

The Ministry of Education and Training grants students with an IELTS score of at least 4.0 an automatic 10 in English for the high school graduation examination. In Hanoi, the number of students eligible for this policy increased from 3,000 to 10,800 from 2019 to 2021. In HCMC, around 7,900 students did not have to take high school graduation exams for English this year, a 2,000 increase from last year.

In certain universities, foreign language certificates are also used during admission and graduation. The National Economics University in 2017 became the first one to use IELTS and TOEFL scores for admission, followed by other schools like the Foreign Trade University and the HCMC University of Technology and Education.

The percentage of students being admitted into universities using foreign language certificates has increased too. At the National Economics University, the percentage jumped from 5% in 2017 to 30% in 2022. Similar trends were also observed in other schools like the Foreign Trade University and the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. A university admission officer in Hanoi said their school received 11,000 applications wishing to enter the school using foreign language certificates, while the school only intends to let 2,000 students in that category enter.

Vu Thi Hien, head of the management and training department of the Foreign Trade University, said foreign language certificates are trustworthy enough to determine a student's language proficiency.

Dao Cuong Viet, head of HR for the LG Innotek Vietnam Hai Phong company, said workers with foreign language proficiency are always in high demand. It means a foreign language certificate would be an advantage when applying for jobs, he said.

Foreign language certificates are also a matter to be concerned for policymakers, as localities began to factor them into benefits and training opportunities for their workers.

In September, Hanoi decided to let high school teachers with IELTS scores of at least 6.5 enroll in a 14-day training course abroad. Nghe An's education department also plans for its English teachers to undergo exams for the TOEIC certificates from 2021 to 2024. In the nearby Vinh Phuc Province, its People's Council passed a resolution last year where government workers can earn bonuses of between VND30-70 million if they have IELTS scores of at least 6.0 (other foreign language certificates are also applicable).

Hang's daughter got an IELTS score of 6.5, but she believes that's not enough to absolutely secure a spot in more prestigious universities, like the Foreign Trade University.

"I want her to take the exam now, so if the score isn't high enough, she can take it again or we'll think of another plan after Tet," Hang said, adding that she is willing to spend more money so her daughter could get an IELTS score of at least 7.0.

Lai Thi Phuong Thao, vice principal of Foreign Language Specialized School, said foreign language certificates are playing more important roles as Vietnam enters the global market. However, learning a foreign language does not always require a certificate, she said.

"As long as learners know their aims, their motivations and have the desire to improve their language proficiency, that's fine."

Benefits overseas

IELTS and TOEFL are the most common certificates for English, the HSK and HSKK for Chinese, the JLPT for Japanese, the TOPIK for Korean and the DELF for French. An exam could cost between VND450,000 and VND4.6 million (US$18.11-185).

The demand for Japanese and South Korean certificates has also increased in recent years to serve both study and work purposes.

By the end of 2019, Vietnam had around 190,000 students studying abroad, an increase from 170,000 in 2018 and 130,000 from 2016, according to the Ministry of Education and Training.

Meanwhile, around 600,000 Vietnamese are working in over 40 countries and territories, according to data from the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs in July. Japan remains the largest market for Vietnamese workers since 2018.

A foreign language certificate might not be a must for manual workers, but more and more people are studying to take exams for the Japanese-language JLPT anyway, said Tuyen, head of the customer service department of an employment agency for jobs in Japan.

Tuyen said that about four years prior, among the 40 people who signed up for jobs in Japan, no one knew Japanese. In order to reach level N5 of the JLPT (the lowest level), each person was taught Japanese for four to six months. But this year, about a third of 200 people signing up for jobs in Japan have been able to reach the N5 level, and some even got N4.

Tuyen said that as companies begin to provide benefits for those with proficiency in Japanese, more people begin to learn the language too. Proficiency in Japanese is also a requirement to work for another two years in Japan after contracts expire, she added.

"Knowing the language makes living abroad easier, it's an undeniable fact," she said.

A sales director of a software company said that a few years ago, N1-N3 certificates of engineers would be included in their profiles to prove the company's capabilities. While this is no longer necessary as customers have begun to trust their Japanese skills, a high-level certificate is always encouraged, the director said.

"Applying for visas to work in Japan for more than six months would require certificates," she said, adding that there are levels of financial aid corresponding with the levels of the certificates.

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