VIETNAM: Struggling to attract international students

Vietnam is changing university enrolment requirements to make it easier for foreign students to study at its universities. The new rules are part of a strategic plan to internationalise universities, produced earlier this year, which also includes more courses delivered in English and inviting foreign scholars to Vietnam to conduct research.

However, some academics doubt that the plan to attract more foreign students by issuing top-down government decrees, can be successful. In particular, without more courses taught in English attracting more international students will be an uphill struggle.

"The success of the internationalisation in higher education plan does not depend only on the government's top-down aspirations, but also on suitable and dynamic bottom-up policies of institutions," said Dr Hoang Nam Nhat, head of international relations at the University of Technology and Engineering, which is part of Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

Vietnam's Ministry of Education and Training issued a new decree in March that would allow university rectors to decide on their own criteria for enrolling international students from the admissions season that began in July.

Previously, foreign students were required under Vietnamese law to take university entrance examinations in Vietnamese, making it difficult if not almost impossible for non-Vietnamese-speaking foreign students to apply.

In an interview in the official Tien Phong newspaper in February, before the regulation's formal release, Vice-minister of Education Bui Van Ga said: "International student enrolment is one of the criteria to rank [Vietnamese] universities. Attracting foreign students is also a way for Vietnam to promote Vietnam's education to the world".

Ga was credited with a successful internationalisation plan at Danang University during his tenure as university president from 2005-10. Some 500 international students are now accepted annually at Danang, mostly from neighbouring China and Laos.

International students study Vietnamese

Although there is no official data on the figures, Vietnam National University (VNU), the Foreign Trade University, the National University of Economics, Hue University and other leading institutions also enrol undergraduate and graduate international students every year.

Most are from the Asia Pacific region including China, Japan, Korea, Australia, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, while a few come from the United States and Europe.

"Most of them [international students] study Vietnamese studies, Vietnamese literature or South East Asian studies, which makes Vietnam the best destination [for them]," said Nhat of VNU. "In other disciplines such as science, engineering, economics, finance or law, it would be a big achievement if we could grant admission to one or two international students."

Leading institutions such as VNU-Hanoi and VNU-Ho Chi Minh, which have a tradition of hosting international students, run preparatory courses in Vietnamese for foreign students.

However, "it's widely recognised that if they [universities] do not have programmes taught in English, they do have a challenge to enrol international students," Nhat said.

Pham Truong Hoang, director of the international cooperation department at the National Economics University in Hanoi, told University World News that he would like the university to admit more foreign students.

It currently has more than 50,000 students, about 500 from foreign countries, mainly Laos, Cambodia, China and Mongolia. The university offers classes in English but does not have any full-time students from Europe or North America, although some come for month-long classes.

According to Hoang, Vietnamese students would benefit from having full-time native English speakers on campus. "They will have more chances to speak in English, and it's a good opportunity for knowledge exchange," he said.

Programme to enrol more foreign students

The education and training ministry has been implementing the so-called Advanced Programme launched in 2008 with a budget of up to US$40 million for the first three years with the aim being to enrol around 3,000 foreign students by 2015.

The programme will set up around 30 undergraduate courses in English, delivered by visiting professors from high-ranking universities and Vietnamese lecturers with PhDs from foreign institutions. Now in its third year, the programme has not been formally evaluated. However observers suggest only 1% to 2% of the target enrolment has so far been achieved.

VNU-Hanoi, the country's largest institution, has been carrying out a similar project since 2008, setting up six undergraduate, three masters and a PhD programme taught in English and duplicating the curricula of high-ranking partner institutions such as Tufts and Brown universities in the US, the National University of Singapore and the University of New South Wales in Australia.

VNU-Hanoi has set a goal of full-time international students accounting for 3% of total admissions by 2015. But only one foreign student, from Korea, is enrolled in a course other than Vietnamese studies. He is studying on a bachelor of business administration course, an area in which Vietnam does not have an advantage over other countries.

My Thu, a senior administrator in charge of academic affairs at VNU-Hanoi said: "The case like the Korean freshman who enrolled in a course that is not sought-after [in Vietnam] is quite rare."

International networks to attract students

To attract more international students VNU-Hanoi has tried to take full advantage of membership of networks such as the Asian Universities Network (AUN) and BESETOHA, the forum of four major universities in East Asia including Beijing University, Seoul National University, Tokyo University and Vietnam National University.

"We have reached agreements with other member institutions about credit transfer in the BESETOHA forum and AUN," My Thu said. The university's leaders expect to receive more exchange students in the coming years and this programme will pave the way for the university to attract more full-time students in future.

However, with 15 years of experience of lecturing at European universities, VNU's Hoang Nam Nhat is not upbeat about the likelihood of success in reaching the 3% goal.

"Internationalisation is a global-level competition, and the most flexible player will be the winner. Bureaucracy still seems to remain the main obstacle for our higher education system," Nhat said.

* Mike Ives in Hanoi also contributed to this report.