More university courses in English, in internationalisation drive

Three postgraduate courses at Vietnam National University-Hanoi – masters and doctoral degrees in organic chemistry, and doctorates in Vietnamese studies – are the latest to switch to being taught in English from the semester that began this month.

They join 14 other courses, seven undergraduate and seven postgraduate, delivered in English since 2007 at the country’s largest multi-disciplinary university, under its Nhiem vu chien luoc (Strategic Tasks) programme to lay the foundations for internationalisation.

The programme also has extra funding to increase the number of international students and academic staff, as well as for research and international publication, in order to push the university up the global university rankings.

Academics are obliged to spend more time on research, and curricula and textbooks have been introduced from prestigious partners such as Tokyo University in Japan, the University of New South Wales in Australia and the University of Illinois in the United States.

All courses under the programme must be delivered in English, partly by local lecturers and partly by international lecturers from partner institutions.

Students must follow a preparatory English course in their junior year and are only eligible to register for their major course after achieving a minimum ILETS score of 5.0. A score of 6.0 is required by the end of the programme.

So far, around 126 students have received bachelor degrees and 26 masters degrees under the Nhiem vu chien luoc project, which is funded by the Ministry of Finance.

“Many of them were sponsored to continue postgraduate studies in reputable foreign institutions,” Dat Vu, a Nhiem vu chien luoc coordinator at Vietnam National University, told University World News.

More broadly, the Ministry of Education and Training is monitoring a separate Chuong trinh tien tien (Advanced Programmes) project launched in 2008 under which 35 undergraduate courses are delivered in English at 23 institutions nationwide.

The first fruits

The hope is that by 2020 the Vietnam National University-Hanoi (VNU-HN) and ministry projects will lead to at least one Vietnamese university being in the top 200 of global rankings.

There is some scepticism among academics that this goal is achievable, and VNU-HN and the ministry may have to be satisfied for the time being with early fruits of the internationalisation programmes; four of 14 courses under Nhiem vu chien luoc were recently accredited by the ASEAN University Network.

All 20 technical courses in Chuong trinh tien tien are following the guidelines of the widely recognised Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

And it is considered an achievement that VNU-HN has enrolled two foreign students for degrees that traditionally are not in Vietnam’s areas of competitive advantage – in business administration and computer science.

“We had full-time international students before but mostly in Vietnamese studies and some other social science majors like South East Asia studies and Vietnamese literature,” Dat Vu said.

However, there are obstacles such as lack of motivation and preparedness of lecturers, teaching and studying in English and lack of clarity on how the programmes will be funded in the long term.

Challenges for teaching

“We can read and write an article, we can communicate with our international peers, but it’s a big challenge for us to teach in English,” said Quan Nguyen, a physics lecturer at VNU-HN.

“It’s difficult, almost impossible, to transfer scientific insight to local students in a language that’s different from their mother tongue.”

He said many of his colleagues prepared syllabus notes, lectures, slides and other documents in English, but in class tended to communicate in Vietnamese with students. Consequently, some students do not understand when lecturers talk in English.

Some private universities, like Hoa Sen in Ho Chi Minh City or Nguyen Trai University in Hanoi, are also piloting teaching some courses wholly or partly in English.

At Hoa Sen University, “students and parents seemed to be lured by our plan to teach some undergraduate courses in English in the two last years, without any awareness of how carefully they will need to prepare their English-language skills in the first two years,” said Rector Phuong Bui.

Financial constraints

The most challenging constraint is financial and so the outlook for teaching in English is uncertain.

Students under both the Nhiem vu chien luoc and Chuong trinh tien tien programmes receive special funding from the government. But when these projects come to an end in 2017 and 2015 respectively, the question for VNU-HN and ministry officials is where the financial resources will come from to maintain the quality of teaching in English.

The full annual cost per student taught under the two programmes is around US$4,000 to US$5,000, which is eight to 10 times more than for regular students, and currently government subsidies have been made available to make up the difference.

“An increase in the tuition fee is not a possible solution because those who can afford to pay US$4,000 to US$5,000 will choose to study abroad rather than stay in Vietnam,” Dat Vu said.

Student loans are another option. However, since the government’s first regulation on student loans in 2007 there has been little take-up.

One reason may be that the maximum of 800,000 dong (US$40) a month may not be enough for students to live in expensive cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, or simply that Vietnamese students are unaccustomed to the idea of student loans and may be unaware of them, according to experts.

“Few students benefit from this [the loan regulation],” said Huong Nguyen, a specialist in public financial reform from Hanoi.

Talking to Chuong trinh tien tien students in Ho Chi Minh City in April, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan promised that the government would adjust its policies to make student loans more attractive.

Nevertheless, “the situation does not seem to have changed much”, said Huong Nguyen.