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Spotlight on Vietnam: quality issues, demand for study abroad and graduate employability

As a previous ICEF Monitor post outlines, there are a variety of reasons why Vietnamese students choose to study abroad, including “the generally poor quality of secondary and post-secondary education in Vietnam.” The United States and Australia are the leading study destinations for Vietnamese students, accounting for nearly 40% of the 106,104 Vietnamese students studying abroad in 2012. Another 34% – roughly 36,000 students – were enrolled outside of Vietnam but within Asia.

Vietnam is more and more on the radar of international recruiters in recent years, in part because of significant growth in outbound mobility from 2000 on, and particularly between 2005 and 2010. As the following table illustrates, the number of Vietnamese students enrolled in institutions in the leading destinations of Australia, the US, and China at least doubled during this period.


Top three destination countries for overseas Vietnamese students. Source: World Education News and Reviews

Although the pace of Vietnamese enrolment growth has slowed since 2010, there are a variety of reasons why the country remains a key market for institutions seeking “to diversify their international student body” including:

  • Capacity limits in domestic secondary and post-secondary systems;
  • A developing economy that is boosting household incomes and making study abroad more affordable for a greater proportion of families.

Australia number one but students dream of America

Australia is the number one study destination for Vietnamese students according to World Education News and Reviews (WENR). “In 2012, the nation’s institutions of education hosted 22,551 Vietnamese students, which is a significant drop from the almost 26,000 students who were in Australia in 2010, but still way higher than the 10,387 students enrolled in 2007. Current visa statistics suggest that Vietnamese numbers are set to rebound, with March data showing student visa applications up 36% and grants up 56% versus the same time last year.”

Vietnamese students reportedly regard higher education in the US as “the best in the world” and “as a priority worthy of significant financial investment.” A 2010 survey undertaken by the Institute of International Education (IIE) found that Vietnamese students perceive the US as a scientifically and technologically advanced country with a top-notch education system.

Cost appears to be the main obstacle preventing a greater number of Vietnamese students from pursuing studies in the US. The IIE survey indicates that the US is perceived as being more expensive than alternate destinations such as Singapore or Australia.

Persistent quality issues

Vietnam’s higher education sector system, according to researchers from Harvard Kennedy School, is in “crisis.” And The Economist notes that Vietnamese education lags far behind the systems of China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea.

The Harvard researchers highlight “the comparative lack of articles published by Vietnamese researchers in peer-reviewed international journals” and point to the fact that “the government was awarding research funding ‘uncompetitively’, and that there was a tremendous difference between what graduates had learned and what prospective employers wanted them to know.”

No Vietnamese universities yet rank in the world’s top 200, or even in Asia’s top 100. However, the government has an ambition to improve the country’s standing in this respect. As University World News reports, Vietnam aims to have at least one “world-class” national university in time for 2020, whilst simultaneously enhancing their regional research-led universities to contend with the finest in Asia by 2015.

Some observers note that the institution closest to achieving Vietnam’s world-class aspirations is Vietnam National University, Hanoi (VNU). To get even one top-200 ranking by 2020, however, “a massive investment of funds in one institution; the creation of a completely autonomous public university; and measures to concentrate research talent – students and staff – in one institution,” are required says Martin Hayden, from Southern Cross University and consultant to Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training.

Employability of graduates and labour market issues

Meanwhile, graduates from Vietnam’s universities are facing the dual problem of increasing youth unemployment and the reality of “over education” – that is, a mismatch between graduates’ skills and employers’ requirements.

As of October 2012, there were 165,000 unemployed graduates in Vietnam – representing roughly 17% of all unemployed Vietnamese – and stories of skilled graduates working in supermarkets as cashiers or driving taxis are commonplace in the country. Minister of Education Pham Vu Luan has said that universities do not always offer subjects that “society needs”, and that some universities are producing graduates “who still cannot meet the requirements of employers, especially English and informatics knowledge.”

About 50% of the unemployed in Vietnam are between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the rate of youth unemployment is three times that of older Vietnamese. Speaking to University World News, on the release of its Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013: A Generation at Risk report, the ILO’s Vietnam Director Gyorgy Sziraczki says:

“Increasing numbers of young people are turning to part-time jobs or find themselves stuck in temporary employment. Skills mismatch of youth labour markets has become a persistent and growing trend whereas over-education and over-skilling coexist with under-education and under-skilling.”

Sziraczki adds, “It is time to strengthen the link between education and training and export growth, economic diversification and the creation of more and better jobs.”

New vocational training initiatives in ASEAN

In a new collaborative approach announced last year, three Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries – Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand – are joining forces to tackle some of these persistent issues in the region with respect to skills gaps and youth unemployment.

In an interview with The Nation, Dr Chaiprug Sereerak, secretary-general of Thailand’s Vocational Education Commission, notes, “The three countries have shared very similar problems when it comes to vocational education. For example, vocational training is not popular among youths. They also lack adequate teaching staff and modern equipment. Moreover, most – if not all – of their brightest students prefer to enter general-education programmes”.

Under this collaborative plan, however, each country will develop vocational training programmes to prepare their graduates for work in any of the three countries. “Their degrees and skills will be officially recognised in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam alike,” adds Dr Sereerak.

Vocational institutions in the three countries will share equipment and resources, and the three-country plan also provides that professional standards would be consistent across borders, so that graduates can move with ease among the participating countries to seek work. Dr Sereerak says that the new initiative should in time filter through to all ten ASEAN states.

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