Crackdown on foreign-linked colleges has many baffled, stranded

When Chi, a 22-year-old marketing student at Raffles Vietnam, heard that the government had ordered the college to suspend “advertising, admission and training activities” earlier this year, she wondered what would become of her education.

The news that Raffles’ courses would be suspended was “unexpected and very bad,” she said after the announcement in January. “The educational quality at Raffles is very good, and the professors are great,” Chi told University World News, declining to give her full name.

The Vietnamese government’s crackdown on institutions it said were offering unlicensed courses, left Chi and hundreds of other students wondering where they would study in the short term. Chi subsequently moved to Singapore to study at a different institution.

Students who had already graduated feared that their Raffles degrees, which offered a Singaporean qualification, could hurt their career prospects instead of improving them.

Over 60% of Vietnam’s population is under 30. Chi and other young Vietnamese regard international education credentials as a ticket to high-paying jobs. Because many of them cannot afford to study abroad, they often enrol in locally based foreign-affiliated colleges.

Walking a fine line

Educators in Vietnam say that Raffles and other foreign-linked institutions offering courses that go beyond basic English instruction have always walked a fine line with the government because they are not licensed as universities.

In December, the Ministry of Education and Training levied fines totaling some US$10,000 against three private foreign-affiliated institutions.

They were: Raffles Vietnam; ILA Vietnam, a foreign language centre offering degrees from Australia’s Martin College; and ERC Vietnam, the German Education and Research Centre with degrees validated by Greenwich University and masters from the Australian Institute of Business Administration and the UK’s Wolverhampton University.

The state-controlled newspaper Tuoi Tre reported that the institutions were fined for “illegally recruiting students for programmes that were not permitted”.

Apart from having to pay fines, in some cases the institutions also had to refund tuition fees to affected students.

Raffles most affected

Raffles Vietnam suffered the most, with some 800 students affected. The institution appealed against the government’s decision, according to a statement by its parent company in Singapore, Raffles Education Corp. But in March, state media reported that Vietnam had revoked the institution’s business licence.

According to official reports, Raffles Vietnam was permitted by the Ho Chi Minh City Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs Department to offer short-term vocational diplomas in fashion design, interior design, graphic design and multimedia design.

However, Nguyen Huy Bang, the ministry’s general inspector, said it was found to have enrolled 396 students for advanced diplomas and bachelor degrees from Raffles College of Higher Education Singapore and for bachelor degrees from Raffles College of Design and Commerce Australia. These degrees are not officially recognised in Vietnam.

Raffles’ chairman and CEO in Singapore, Chew Hua Seng, announced in a statement that the company would relocate more than 400 students to other Raffles campuses in Australia, Cambodia and Singapore.

Raffles, Chew said, had been in Vietnam since 2005 and for seven years had “consistently operated as a responsible educator and provided education opportunities to the citizens of Vietnam”. In early May the Raffles Vietnam website was no longer displaying information.

The parent company website says Raffles institutions across the Asia-Pacific focus on “vocational outcomes and employability of students”, without mentioning the word university. It insists it “has all the necessary paperwork” to allow it to run courses, including in fashion and design, multimedia and hospitality, marketing and business qualifications.

Raffles said the fine and cancellation of courses in Vietnam had led to a 10% to 12% drop in the company’s revenues during the final quarter of 2011, and called the actions of the Vietnamese government “unreasonable”.

Reasons for crackdown unclear

It is unclear what prompted the sudden crackdown by the authorities after allowing foreign-affiliated institutions to operate university-like courses for years – or why people don’t seem to want to talk about it.

The three foreign-owned schools that received fines all declined to respond to written requests for comment from University World News. An administrator at the US-funded Vietnam Education Foundation also declined to comment, and calls to the cellphone of an employee at the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Education and Training rang unanswered.

Two foreign educators in Ho Chi Minh City familiar with Vietnam’s higher education sector offered divergent explanations for why the government may have decided to impose the fines on Raffles and other international colleges offering university-like courses.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one told University World News that the crackdown was an illustration of Vietnam’s preferential treatment towards local institutions over foreign-affiliated ones.

He said educational quality at Raffles, ILA and other foreign-affiliated institutions in many cases far exceeded that of an average Vietnamese university, and that students attended the courses because they viewed them as offering the best educational opportunities.

He said foreign-linked institutions are subjected to what seems like undue inspections and fines.

“The government wants to see standardisation of quality across the board but I don’t know if [standards] are being applied evenly,” he said, adding that Vietnam should make investments in its state-run universities in order to improve quality.

Local institutions also affected

The other foreign educator disagreed, saying laws governing foreign-affiliated schools in Vietnam had been unclear for years and the government had previously 'turned a blind eye’ with regard to related violations.

He noted that the recent crackdown on university-style programmes included locally owned institutions.

After ministry inspections of 24 local universities towards the end of 2011, three local institutions were also told they could not recruit students from July, when enrolments for the academic year beginning in September start.

Ostensibly, they were told it was due to a too-high teacher-student ratio “well in excess of national standards”. The ministry has particularly targeted vocational courses taught at higher education institutions, observers noted.

“Foreign organisations were pushing too hard” to establish themselves in the country, and in the end they operated illegally, said the educator.

Nguyen Linh Nhi, a graduate of the London College for Fashion Studies in Hanoi, said the quality of international teachers at foreign-connected schools in Vietnam tended to vary widely. Most teachers she knew were expats living in Vietnam rather than trained teachers especially recruited from overseas, she said.

But Nhi also said that most students at Vietnam’s foreign-affiliated institutions do not press their administrators to improve their business models.

“Students at foreign-connected schools in Vietnam only care about obtaining a degree or using the degree as a step to studying abroad,” she said. “For that reason, such degrees are not as good as the ones we can earn in the foreign schools’ native countries.”