Studying abroad is not for everyone

November 5, 2023 | 04:56 pm PT
Vo Nhat Vinh Researcher
Nga, an office worker in Hanoi, recently asked me whether or not she should send her 17-year-old son to study abroad after graduating high school.

The boy has an above average study performance. Nga's family is not especially affluent, but they want their child to have the opportunity to study in an advanced education system so he can get a good job after graduating.

Nga was introduced to professional training programs in Europe, with promises such as free tuition, monthly stipends, and most importantly, a clear future with big bucks. But Nga still had a lot of concerns.

Finance is usually the biggest concern that parents approach me with for advice, especially on open campus days where I teach in France. This day is an annual event aimed at introducing such programs and answering families' questions. Answering the questions of French parents, I realized that finance is the same concern for parents everywhere, including Vietnam.

Studying abroad nowadays is not limited to students from a country with a less developed education system to one with a more advanced system. The term now entails international transfers and exchanges to build the skills needed to adapt to new environments. The education programs at the institute where I teach in France now all require a term exchange or interning abroad. The desire to study abroad is not solely a Vietnamese wish.

Vietnamese students studying abroad fall into four main categories:

The first group are students from affluent families. The second are students with exceptional academic or social performances who receive full-ride funding from prestigious sources, which only constitute a small number. The third group are good students receiving partial scholarships from education institutes, which usually include discounted tuition and/or some stipends. These students typically have to maintain a certain level of performance to continue to receive their financial aid. Finally, the fourth group are students from not-so-affluent families who are determined to "invest" in their children's education. These families typically aim at education systems in countries with lower costs. The parents provide a certain amount of support, and the students typically have to make ends meet in different ways, including part-time work.

Nga's family falls into the fourth category, studying abroad on a rather tight budget. Many families in these groups are attracted to "paid professional training" programs, which sound almost too good to be true.

In France and many other European countries, besides traditional modules, students increasingly wish to pursue a joint education program between education institutions and corporations. In this form of study abroad, students have their tuition paid by the corporation, and they then receive a small traineeship salary, which helps them ease the financial burden. The students in turn have to divide their schedule into study hours and work hours at the company. To be qualified for these programs, students need to meet the requirements of both the institutes and the companies. The corporations need to be convinced by the economic potential of the students.

In addition, the students would have to fulfill the tasks of both the institutes and the corporations, which typically require strong time management skills and the ability to handle pressure. Two out of three students participating in these duo programs in France end up wanting to change companies before their education program is complete, an issue in all European countries implementing these programs. In other words, Vietnamese students should know that participating in these programs is not an easy task for any student.

Students need to at least have sufficient language mastery to handle themselves in both the educational and professional context, which theoretically requires a B1 or B2 level in the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR), which is equal to 500 to 750 hours of learning. These are theoretical figures. In reality, to meet the requirement, students typically need a much higher language level, which requires sufficient learning time and financial costs. The students also need various soft skills, which are quite hard for high school graduates. Everything is calculated, and there are no free lunches. Additionally, the stipends the students receive during these periods are quite low, even compared to minimum income levels. And the salaries students receive after graduating are also subject to significant tax and social contributions, not to mention the high costs of living.

Studying abroad is a good path for exposure to more advanced education, diversifying social experience, and improving skills to adapt to new environments. But it is not an option for every family.

*Vo Nhat Vinh is an R&D expert based in France.

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