In 2016 when Tran Anh Tuan, deputy director for the Ministry of Education and Training, addressed the dearth of foreign students studying in Vietnamese schools, he candidly stated that it indicated a failure of presence for his nation in a global landscape.
“This shows that Vietnam’s education still has not integrated into the world,” Tran said in remarks reported by VietnamNet.
At the time, there were reportedly 2,000 foreign students studying in Vietnam’s schools, a number far out of balance with the the over 100,000 Vietnamese students studying outside of the country. A rector of FPT University called the situation “a trade gap in education”.
A Dutch Student Abroad in Vietnam
When Timo Schmid, a Dutch media and communications student, was asked what was bad about his study abroad experience, Schmid responded over instant message “No negative experiences! I didn’t even get food poisoning or anything.”
Schmid recently returned to Holland where he studies at Hogeschool van Amsterdam after four months studying in Ho Chi Minh City thanks to his university’s partnership with Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).
While he said Saigon could have been cleaner — “a lot of litter around the city … I think people should be more careful and cleaner with the environment”—he rates his experience as overall very positive.
“I got to learn a new culture and new people, which made me realise that the world has so much more to offer than the things I have in the Netherlands. When you don’t travel you don’t learn other cultures and meanings”.
Schmid had been in Vietnam two years before he came as a student. “I liked it so much that I wanted to go back so this was a great opportunity for me”, Schmid said.
A European encountering Vietnam in an academic context might encounter a place defined by apparent contradictions. According to Schmid’s account of his experience, while the grounds of RMIT are very modern and state of the art, the world it lives in is radically different from the type of environment a prospective Western student might be familiar with.
The study abroad experience in Vietnam is “for people who want to a part of the world that’s completely different than their own,” Schmid said. “It’s actually quite adventurous”…
Those who want to have what Schmid calls a “super comfortable life” may want to look elsewhere for their study abroad experience.
“But for me this was the best decision to make,” he said.
Minding the Gap
The effort to recruit inbound foreign students began in earnest in 2011 when Vietnam eased it’s university enrollment requirements and demanded that more coursework be available in English. Additionally, education officials called on more foreign researchers to conduct their work in Vietnam.
Image source: studentexchange.vn
The initiative appears to have at least partially worked. In 2011, education officials estimated approximately 500 students enrolling in Vietnamese universities, however,the precise figure is unknown because at this time the government didn’t keep official data on these statistics.
In 2015, Tuoi Tre News reported over 1,100 international students currently in Vietnam doing academic work. The government had begun compiling official data on the 23 universities that were running exchange programs with international partners. At that point, the greatest sources of incoming foreign students were from schools in the European Union and North America.
Noting the uptick, education officials credited the decision to offer English curriculums.
“One important reason for the surge is that many universities have offered advanced training programs taught entirely in English, which helps international students find it more favorable to choose the Southeast Asian country as their academic destination,” Deputy Minister Ga told Tuoi Tre News in remarks reported in 2015.
Still, with 2,000 inbound foreign students, the number continues to be far out of balance with the 130,000 Vietnamese students studying abroad, according to Vietnamese governmental data.
Image source: image.freepik.com
Minor gains are being realized. In the academic year ending in 2017, the number of U.S. students studying in Vietnam reached 1,012, a modest increase from the 922 students that had come to study in the year prior.
In the academic year ending in 2017, 325,229 U.S. students studied abroad. About 11 percent of them chose an Asian country as their destination, according to a 2017 study by international scholastic activity research organization Open Doors.
The additional steps universities might take to tackle the “trade gap in education” aren’t obvious, but maybe one area to focus on is updating the image of Vietnam for foreigners who’ve never been there. For example, Killroy, a study abroad and travel service company, notes in its listing for RMIT that Vietnam is a safe destination despite a perception that the security situation hasn’t settled from the American War nearly 40 years ago.
Similarly, Schmid said his experience studying in Ho Chi Minh City surprised him in notable ways, such as how modern RMIT’s facilities were and how kind the Vietnamese people were toward him.
Schmid said his changed impression of the city left him with a love for Vietnam and a strong desire to return.
“I really wanna come back!” he said. “Vietnamese people are lovely and super friendly, I hope they will always stay like that!”