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11th Apr 2013

Why Vietnam? A market snapshot

If Vietnam has yet to appear on your institution’s international student recruitment radar screen, this article might make you think again. Below you’ll find a compelling overview of the market, chock full of statistics plus Vietnamese attitudes towards education, which programmes and markets they are interested in when considering study abroad, tips for recruiting effectively in Vietnam, and the latest quality controls from the government. The following is a guest post - the first in an occasional series - from Dr Mark A. Ashwill, founder and managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a human resource development company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. From 2005-09, he served as country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam.

Vietnam by the numbers

For a host of reasons, including the generally poor quality of secondary and postsecondary education in Vietnam and a growing ability to afford an education overseas, there were 106,104 young Vietnamese studying in 49 countries and territories in 2012, according to the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training (MoET). To put this in perspective, that’s nearly 5% of domestic postsecondary enrolment. A full 90% were self-financing, a 10-fold increase compared to a decade ago. The Vietnam Ministry of Finance estimates that the total investment falls in the US $1-1.6 billion range. The top five study destination countries in 2012 were:

  • Australia;
  • US;
  • China;
  • Singapore;
  • UK.

Nearly 40% of all Vietnamese studying overseas were in two countries: Australia and the US. Based on surveys and anecdotal information, the US is the preferred destination, which means that many students whose visa applications are rejected end up going to second-choice countries like Australia, Singapore and the UK. In the US, Vietnam ranks…

  • 8th among all sending countries (IIE/Open Doors, 2012 and SEVIS/DHS);
  • 5th in international undergraduate enrolment (IIE/Open Doors, 2012);
  • 3rd in international enrolment at US community colleges (IIE/Open Doors, 2012).

The growth in the number of Vietnamese studying in the US over the past 15 years has been nothing short of meteoric: a thirteen-fold increase from 1998 (1,210) to 2012 (15,572). As of the end of December 2012, using SEVIS information, that figure rises to 18,740, including all levels and types of institutions. Vietnam continues to lead Southeast Asian countries in the number of students studying in the US, with Thailand a distant second, followed by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Education as a high investment priority

If you glance at the top ten sending countries and rank them by students and GDP (gross domestic product at purchasing power parity per capita), Vietnam jumps off the page. It ranks eight in the number of students in the US, but is 43rd in GDP. For comparison purposes, consider Saudi Arabia, which ranks fourth among places of origin, and comes in at 24th in GDP. All of the other countries are in the top 20. This tells you - with a gigantic exclamation point - that Vietnamese parents are spending enormous sums of money on overseas study in proportion to per capita income. In a phrase, education is important and parents are putting their money where their priorities and values are.

Community colleges are hot!

When I first arrived in Hanoi in 2005 to take up my position as country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam, there was very little awareness here about the benefits and advantages of community colleges as a gateway to four-year schools and a bachelor’s degree. That has changed dramatically over the past eight years. US community colleges are now all the rage in Vietnam for all of the usual reasons, including quality education at a reasonable cost, an open admissions policy, transfer opportunities and aggressive recruiting on the part of a growing number of community colleges. According to the 2012 Open Doors report, there were 87,997 international students enrolled at America’s community colleges. Of that number, 8.7%, or 7,656 students, were Vietnamese. This means that 68% of Vietnamese undergraduates were studying at a community college, nearly all with the goal of transferring to a four-year school to complete a bachelor’s degree.

… And so are high school completion programmes

The state of Washington, which ranks eleventh nationally in international student enrolment with 20,198 pupils, has 1,656 Vietnamese students. Many are enrolled in community colleges and, more specifically, high school completion programmes offered by community colleges that allow students to kill two academic birds with one stone: earn a Washington high school diploma and an associate degree in two years, assuming additional English language training is not required. In addition to saving time and money, high school completion programmes enable students to make a smooth linguistic and cultural adjustment and better prepare them for study at a four-year college or university. For Vietnamese parents of means, these programmes are a cost-effective option for their children to obtain a quality education, something that is in short supply at home. A new government policy has provided an additional incentive for some parents of means to send their children for overseas study: two years of mandatory military service when their sons turn 18 years old. And an additional reason for the popularity of high school completion programmes and high school study in general, including boarding and day schools, is the fact the 12th grade is considered to be a waste of time for students planning to study overseas and therefore, they have no need to take either the secondary school completion or university entrance exam.

Vietnamese student profile

Unlike many other Asian countries, Vietnam is primarily an undergraduate market with nearly three-quarters of international students enrolled in associate and bachelor degree programmes. Another 17% are in graduate programmes, a percentage that has been decreasing in recent years. Finally, 5.5% fall into the “Other” category (e.g., intensive English programmes), while 5.2% are involved in Optional Practical Training (OPT). Just under 40% of Vietnamese students in the US are studying business and management. This is by far the highest percentage of any of the top 25 places of origin. STEM studies also have appeal - the second highest percentage is engineering (9.6%) followed by math/computer science (7.1%). Other areas of study include physical/life sciences (6.8%), health professions (4.5%), and the social sciences (4.5%). While California, Texas and Washington play host to well over half of all Vietnamese students in the US, they can be found in nearly all 50 states. This means that institutions that are not located in one of these top three states have to go the extra mile in branding and spreading the good word about themselves in what has become a fiercely competitive market. In addition to the increase in tuition dollars and diversity that Vietnamese students bring, universities and colleges welcome them with open arms because they distinguish themselves academically and through their active involvement in extracurricular activities.

Recruiting in Vietnam

An October 2012 World Education Services (WES) report, entitled Beyond More of the Same: The Top Four Emerging Markets for International Student Recruitment, identified Vietnam as one of four emerging markets for international student recruitment, along with Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey:

“High recruitment potential is attributable to Vietnam’s growing middle-class and strong study abroad interest. Institutions of higher education that identify and reach Vietnamese students with the financial means to study in the US should enjoy a good deal of recruiting success in the coming years.”

Like in other countries, institutions need to develop and implement a long-term and multi-pronged strategy that meets their unique needs and accommodates the budget. This includes helicopter marketing (e.g., fairs, info sessions, presentations, high school outreach), armchair activities (e.g., marketing and promotion; virtual student fairs), and different forms of short- and long-term in-country representation. Recruiters (and the administration) will also need a healthy dose of patience and perseverance. An initial checklist would look something like this:

  • How often do you come to Vietnam?
  • What types of activities and events (e.g., fairs, information sessions, high school outreach, individual meetings, alumni outreach) do you participate in?
  • Do you have Vietnamese language promotional materials?
  • Do you have Vietnamese language web content?
  • How do you use education recruitment agents?
  • Do you have a marketing strategy?
  • Which of your “selling points” appeal to the Vietnam market?
  • Assuming you have Vietnamese students, do you make use of them (e.g., referrals, word-of-mouth advertising for in-country events, written/video testimonials)?

With an Internet penetration rate of 35%, nearly 32 million netizens, and over 12 million Facebook users as of last month, most of whom are young people, the effective use of social media is key in reaching young people and prospective students. Finally, be sure to select a local partner whom you can trust and who shares your commitment to transparency, excellence and quality service.

Quality controls in Vietnam

The push for quality in Vietnam’s higher education system is coming from all directions, including MoET, employers, parents, students, and even some expatriates who work in the education sector. For example, Decision 05/2013, which was proposed by the Ministry and approved by the Prime Minister, will provide for closer scrutiny of education agents. This is the result of recent scandals and demands from the public for more oversight of these companies. This is good news for students, parents and those companies that conduct their business in an ethical and transparent manner. Another area that has received considerable attention from the government is higher education enrolment. The Ministry recently announced plans to reduce enrolment at 23 universities and colleges. According to Bui Van Ga, a vice minister, the intent of the policy is to "focus on quality instead of quantity.” There are currently 419 universities and colleges in Vietnam, including 82 private institutions with a 2012 enrolment of 2.2 million, of whom 66% were enrolled at a university. This is extraordinary when you consider that Vietnam still has an elite higher education system. To put this in perspective, there were 153 higher education institutions in 1999/00 with an enrolment of 893,754. Like many other aspects of Vietnamese society, there has been a mad rush to make up for lost time, take advantage of a plethora of new opportunities, and respond to a surging demand for education and training - without the requisite infrastructure or quality control. Not surprisingly, one end result has been “deficiencies in infrastructure and teaching staff,” which is one of the reasons for the enrolment freeze. It remains to be seen how this contraction will influence the number of Vietnamese students studying overseas. For those who choose (or are obliged) to study at a college, the impact should be non-existent. Limits on access to private schools may be an impetus for more students of means to select an overseas study option. Yet another area that has consumed copious amounts of ink and untold millions of gigabytes in recent years is the crackdown on unauthorised foreign institutions operating in Vietnam. Enter Decree 73, intended to put a stop to the influx of unregulated foreign educational institutions by stipulating the terms and conditions of foreign investment in short-term training programmes, preschool education, K-12 schools, vocational institutions, universities, branch campuses, and foreign-invested institutions that work in cooperation with Vietnamese partners. A prelude to Decree 73 is an official statement made in August 2010 by Dr. Nguyễn Xuân Vang, director of the International Education Development Department of MoET, that unauthorised joint training programmes are illegal and that the Ministry will not recognise the diplomas of programmes offered in cooperation with unaccredited foreign partners. This was the culmination of a “summer of discontent” in the nation’s media about the nefarious activities of foreign rogue providers, most of which hailed from the US.

A look ahead

In spite of some recent economic stumbling blocks, Vietnamese continue to value and invest in education for their children both overseas and at home. This growth trend should continue for the foreseeable future. The Wild West environment - in which corruption has been rampant, chasing after money seems to be the order of the day, and cutting corners “business as usual” - appears to be going the way of the dinosaur, which is good news for students, parents and Vietnam as a whole. The rising tide of expectations and the emergence of educated consumers bode well for the development of a higher quality education sector that is better equipped to prepare young Vietnamese for a globalised economy.  

About the author

A 2011 Hobsons consultant’s report noted that “The work of Dr Mark Ashwill, formerly of IIE, and the former US Ambassador, Michael Michalak, helped to promote the United States as a destination for Vietnamese students, and strengthened the ties between the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) and US universities.” Last summer, Jeff Browne wrote in his blog Vietnomics that “Much of the credit for the strengthening US-Vietnam higher education link goes to Hanoi-based educator Mark Ashwill, director of Capstone Vietnam and key advisor to student-run nonprofit VietAbroader, both of which help Vietnamese students navigate the American education culture.” Dr Ashwill can be reached at markashwill[AT]capstonevietnam.com. He blogs at An International Educator in Vietnam. Capstone Vietnam works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the US, and officially accredited institutions in other countries.

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