Transnational higher education providers in Vietnam are having to work harder to attract students and some international investors are bailing out as cross-border education appears to be losing favour after almost a decade of exponential proliferation.
When Trung Nguyen (25) planned to undertake a masters degree a year ago, he first considered a joint programme with a degree granted by a reputable Swedish institution. But he eventually chose a local MBA.
“Constant disputes over the legality and validity of some foreign-linked programmes at the time is one of the reasons why I selected the local one instead,” Trung Nguyen told University World News.
Despite the Vietnamese government’s determination to regulate the cross-border education industry over the past two years, growing numbers of students have switched back to local institutions.
In June 2012 the Ministry of Education and Training, or MoET, fined three foreign-affiliated institutions – Raffles Vietnam, ILA Vietnam and ERC Vietnam – US$10,000 each for offering degree courses without a licence.
Raffles Vietnam also had its operational licence revoked and was told to reimburse the tuition fees of 800 affected students.
Another high profile case involved a partnership between the Centre for Educational Technology and Career Development, an affiliated training school under Vietnam National University, Hanoi, and Griggs University, an American institution headquartered in Michigan.
The programme came under suspicion of granting degrees to students without requiring them to write essays, and of allegedly recruiting students whose university admission scores were below the cut-off point set by the ministry.
The government has tightened regulations governing foreign-linked education providers. In late 2012 it issued so-called ‘Decree 73’ covering cross-border education to set common standards. Under the decree the government would allow in only qualified and committed foreign partners by setting a minimum rate of investment per student.
Coupled with a stricter policy on quality from exporting countries, this has led to a more standardised and stable transnational higher education environment in Vietnam, according to Nhai Nguyen, an independent education expert in Ho Chi Minh City.
Nhai, who wrote her doctoral thesis on “Selling Western Dreams: Australian transnational education in Vietnam and the formation of students’ identities”, said the majority of students who participated in her research supported the government’s policies.
This was “because they protect the right of ‘customers’”, she said: “As students are better informed, they become very ‘picky’ and ‘choosy’ customers.”
However, in a ‘credential’ society where a degree is more important than genuine knowledge, paradoxically the programmes that comply with quality standards cannot always attract and keep students.
Van Do (23) is currently studying for a bachelor degree in international trade at Vietnam National University, Hanoi, a programme taught in English set up with a Malaysian partner. The number of students in her class is just one-third of that at the beginning of the course two years ago she told University World News.
“We have to follow very strict regulations set by the degree-granting institution and professors’ demands are challenging for us,” said Van Do.
In Vietnam, many students enrolled in cross-border programmes have performed less well in the nationwide admission exam than some of their peers and are unable to gain admission to the best public universities.
Van Do admitted that a significant portion of her classmates “defected because they could not follow the programme”. She added: “They were dissatisfied because they could not earn the degree within three or four years as they previously expected.”
Local reports indicate that some foreign invested education establishments have “quietly disappeared from the market” after failing to attract enough students and others have been sold to local Vietnamese buyers, according to a report on the news site http://Vietnam.net this month.
Established in 2000, Kent International College was one of the first foreign education establishments in Vietnam. Its two institutions in the country have granted Australian advanced diplomas to 10,000 students.
However, the Australian owner decided to sell 60% of its stake to a domestic investor two years ago, http://Vietnam.net reported a former Vietnamese senior executive from the college as saying.
Blackhorse Asset Management, a Singaporean investment company, recently sold to domestic investors 80% of its stake in Institute of American Education and the Vietnamese American Training College in Ho Chi Min City, which provide foreign language and vocational courses.
“Sudden changes in education policies” were behind the foreign investor’s withdrawal after the ministry allowed public universities to take students with lower marks, reducing the numbers seeking vocational programmes, the http://Vietnam.net report said.
Vietnam’s recent economic downturn had also led to fewer people opting for cross-border programmes. People become poorer “and some become unemployed and they decide to come back to school when waiting for new jobs”, Van Do said, adding: “Local courses are a good choice as the tuition fees are affordable.”
Mai Thi, a senior officer in charge of quality assurance at a Hanoi-based university, said the changing economic and regulatory climate in Vietnam has brought both challenges and opportunities for offshore education providers.
“Recent data on joint programmes at my institution indicates that while certain courses are facing difficulties enrolling enough students, others, in contrast, are still enjoying a significant increase of applications.”
Mai admitted that the economic recession had led to the loss of some potential customers but it had also opened up a new market segment – those who previously planned to study overseas, then decided to stay in Vietnam and opt for an offshore service instead.
“The [cross-border education] industry is still lucrative for those who respond more quickly” to the changing regulatory environment and local market, Mai insisted.
Nevertheless for Anh Vu, a former director of Center for Educational Testing and Quality Assessment at Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City, there is still a long way to go for Vietnam’s policy-makers to ensure a landscape supportive of transnational education.
The current regulatory environment has a “blurred zone” in both sending and host countries that is “out of the authorities’ control” and allows education providers to dodge the rules.
Cross-border curricula “are often truncated and testing is not serious as many institutions just want a high pass rate so that they can recruit more new students”, Anh Vu wrote in her personal blog, a well-known site on current education debates in Vietnam.
Vietnam should learn from neighbouring countries like Malaysia or Thailand. A separate quality assurance system for the foreign-linked education sector and an easy-to-access system that provides comprehensive information for students are urgent tasks for the government, Anh Vu wrote.
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