How can Vietnam bring in more international students?

February 28, 2024 | 05:00 pm PT
Giap Van Duong Educator
In recent years, Vietnam has been the leader among Southeast Asian countries with regard to the number of students studying abroad.

In the 2021-2022 academic year, there were over 132,000 Vietnamese students studying abroad, compared to about 56,000 from both Malaysia and Indonesia.

This is a considerable figure, closely linked to various other socioeconomic issues in Vietnam, including brain drain, and lack of trust in the domestic economic system, etc.

But there is another question worth considering, why do international students not come to Vietnam?

Annually, there are approximately 4,000 to 6,000 international students coming to Vietnam to study. This mostly comprises two main groups, international students coming to Vietnam to study the Vietnamese language and Laotian and Cambodian students coming in the governmental exchange/training program. There are almost no self-paying students coming to Vietnam to pursue a tertiary degree.

This issue is considered a default, a status quo of the Vietnamese education system. There is no one raising the question of why this is the case.

We need first to look for the reasons why Vietnamese students choose to study abroad. In my opinion, there are two main reasons.

First, the students wish to experience the high education standards that many countries have to gain more knowledge at the international level. These students tend to choose the U.S., U.K., Australia, or Canada as their destinations for tertiary education. A smaller number would choose Japan, South Korea, Singapore, or China.

Second, many students also wish to pursue professional training, and typically choose Japan or South Korea for this purpose. These trainings are de facto work-focused vocational trainings, disguised under the "university" brand.

If a student wishes to study in Vietnam, any reason that may prompt them in that direction would likely be close to the reasons why Vietnamese students study abroad.

First, for tertiary education, the Vietnamese education environment needs to become more advanced and internationalized to attract international students. The system now is simply not there yet, still teaching some knowledge that has been "extinct" from the modern international curriculum.

Second, for vocational training, Vietnam needs to provide a booming job market with high incomes like Japan or South Korea. Nevertheless, in a report published by the Asia Productivity Organization in 2022, Vietnam’s productivity level is only one-half of Thailand’s and one-tenth of Singapore’s. This does not necessarily mean that the individual productivity of workers is lower, but that the overall productivity of the whole Vietnamese market is behind its peers.

When can we start to attract international students to pursue study programs in Vietnam?

In 2000, I was among the first group of Vietnamese students studying in South Korea. Since those years, the country began to attract more students thanks to its developed economy, with strong industrial developments.

When I first went, the Korean people’s annual income was approximately US$12,000 per capita. Adjusted for inflation, it would be an equivalent of $20,000 per capita in 2024. In addition, South Korea continued to have active policies to attract more students, including generous scholarship programs like the Brain Korea scholarship.

A combination of strong economic development, which is a primary condition for socioeducation development, and pro-active policies, attracted the first group of students, including me, to study in South Korea, and many other subsequent generations of students.

Is it safe to say that, economics-wise, if Vietnam’s per capita income reaches approximately $15,000 to 20,000, the country may attract more international students coming to study?

This could be achieved in the medium term. According to the report of an international financial institute, Vietnam’s GDP by 2045 could reach $2.5 trillion, an equivalent of GDP per capita of $18,000.

From now until that prospective moment, what can we do to promote foreign students here? Or should we just patiently wait for the glory days to come?

In my view, even when the macro-economic situation is not yet ready, Vietnam could take more steps to prepare for a future where Vietnam become a study destination.

First, regarding the improvement of quality, Vietnam needs to incorporate more English-language courses and programs to promote internationalization. For example, China’s prestigious Tsinghua University in 2023 has moved over 700 courses from Chinese to English.

These changes could come through cooperative education agreements with foreign academic institutes for joint education programs or acquiring licenses from online mass-education curricula, which could provide quick access to international-level education materials in the fastest manner.

Second, Vietnam should seek to actively participate in international accreditation for tertiary education programs to help bring additional validations for its educational quality.

Upon competing with international institutes, Vietnam needs to present objective indications of excellence to help convince prospective students.

Third, Vietnamese institutes should allocate a certain number of financial resources to provide some small scholarships for tuition reduction or stipends for international students coming to Vietnam. This funding serves as a form of advertising to promote the institutes' reputation internationally.

Finally, Vietnamese institutes and domestic corporates should seek to cooperate with international tertiary institutes to provide professional training for students. These opportunities would encourage students to come and experience Vietnam for a short period, which may contribute to future decisions to spend extended periods in Vietnam.

Then, are there any other actions Vietnam could take in the short term?

One of the biggest considerations of students upon choosing their studying abroad destinations is the tuition fee. The cost of studying in Vietnam is significantly lower than in most developed countries, at approximately $1,000 a year.

In other words, Vietnam should also actively advocate the cost effectiveness of studying in Vietnam. Though the education quality remains the main issue Vietnam needs to address, having good cost effectiveness is certainly a bonus point.

To make Vietnam a study-abroad destination for international students in the future, there is no way but to fundamentally revamp the education program to meet the required international standards.

If Vietnam cannot do this, not only will it not attract any international students, more and more Vietnamese students will continue to go abroad to seek better opportunities rather than having faith in the domestic education system.

*Giap Van Duong is a Vietnamese educator and former researcher at the Temasek Laboratories of the National University of Singapore.

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