Vietnamese students look at the US and head north

In the past year, I have heard from quite a few Vietnamese parents and students who either decided to choose Canada over the United States as their primary overseas study destination or were considering transferring from a US to a Canadian institution.

While anecdotes are useful and often spark my interest in learning more about possible trends, I prefer hard data, which can confirm whether or not the stories we hear from various sources in Vietnam and elsewhere signal a shift, or perhaps even a sea change.

With the latest figures released by the Canadian Bureau for International Education, the jury has returned a verdict, cause for rejoicing in Canada and yet another dark and ominous cloud looming on the US international student recruitment horizon, at least for the medium term.

For the first time ever, there are nearly half as many Vietnamese students in Canada as there are in the US, a country with nine times the population and thousands more educational institutions. Remarkably, Vietnamese students had the highest percentage increase in 2017 at 89%, making Vietnam the fastest growing market in Canada.

Canada is now a top-five host country for Vietnamese students, after Japan, the US and Australia, followed by China.

Is the bloom off the US rose?

It appears that the bloom, or at least a few of its petals, is temporarily off the red, white and blue rose for growing numbers of Vietnamese parents and students. Is it possible that ‘cold’ and ‘boring’ have been supplemented or supplanted in their minds with quality, tolerance, openness and safety? Add to that appealing mix ‘less expensive’ than the education offered by the country it borders to the south (one reason for this is the current favourable exchange rate).

In fact, in the past three years Vietnamese enrolment in Canada, mostly in higher education, jumped from 5,000 to nearly 15,000. That’s a record-shattering 300% increase over 2015. Vietnamese students now comprise 3% of total international enrolment in Canada and rank fifth in country of origin terms, as they do in the US, coincidentally, after China (28%), India (25%), South Korea (5%) and France (4%).

There are now nearly half a million (495,525) international students in Canada, a 20% increase over the previous year. This is in contrast to the US which experienced an anaemic 2% increase in international student enrolment from May 2016 to May 2017. Some 84% are in three provinces: Ontario (48%), British Columbia (24%) and Quebec (12%). Aside from Viet Nam, the most impressive one-year increases were for students from India (63%), Iran (45%), Bangladesh (41%), Brazil (28%) and Mexico (16%).

As in the US and other countries, the majority of Vietnamese students are in higher education, including colleges and universities.

For some Vietnamese, Canada is their first-choice country. For others, it’s a second-choice country after the US, Australia or the United Kingdom. At the end of the day, it matters not to their Canadian hosts. When your enrolment triples in a span of three years, institutions and communities benefit in myriad ways, including financially.

A longer-term benefit is the potential for word of mouth advertising, assuming most of those students are happy, academically, culturally and socially.

There are a number of powerful push and pull factors that will likely help to maintain double-digit growth for the foreseeable future, to the detriment of the US. The former applies to overseas study in general and includes growing ability to pay, family ties, the prospect of substantial merit-based funding for high-achieving students and the prestige associated with a foreign educational credential, which still holds considerable sway. Let’s focus therefore on pull factors, most of which are unique to Canada.

Pull factors

Aside from superficial concerns about the climate – keep in mind that there are Vietnamese students in all 50 US states and most European countries, including Scandinavia – Canada has a number of competitive advantages over friendly competitors such as Australia, the UK and the US. These include:
  • Reasonable cost and high quality: For example, tuition, fees and living expenses for one year at Saint Mary’s University, a liberal arts university in Halifax, Nova Scotia, cost US$22,000 without any scholarships offered. That’s in the upper range of many US community colleges, especially in the high-demand areas with a generally higher cost of living.

  • Off-campus work opportunities: Unlike in the US, which restricts international students to on-campus employment, their peers in Canada are permitted to work off-campus. The minimum wage is CA$14 (US$11) in Ontario, CA$11.25 in Quebec and CA$11 in Nova Scotia, for example.

  • Co-op programmes: Institutions that offer these programmes are especially attractive to parents and students, not only because of the opportunities to earn money and defray costs but for the valuable professional experience they offer.

  • Family ties: There are an estimated quarter of a million Vietnamese-Canadians, most of whom live in Ontario (in Toronto), Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec.

  • French-speaking Canada: Montreal is a draw for some parents who prefer that their children live and study in a French-speaking environment.

  • Justin Trudeau, prime minister: For many, he is the handsome and charismatic public face of a Canada that is welcoming, dynamic, tolerant, educated and civilised. (One student used the last word in a brief word association survey I administered on Facebook.) The comparison to his counterpart in the US is stark, vivid and jolting.

  • Post-graduation work and emigration opportunities through provincial programmes: For example, the Nova Scotia Nominee Program targets prospective immigrants who have the skills and experience needed in Nova Scotia, including physician, entrepreneur, international graduate entrepreneur and skilled worker.

  • Safety: Canada ranked eighth in the world last year in safety, according to the 2017 Global Peace Index. The UK ranked 41st and the US 114th in the same survey. While mass shootings and other violent acts are perennial occurrences in the US, they are statistically rare events in Canada.
Keep in mind that this unprecedented enrolment growth was achieved without any sustained national Study in Canada digital and traditional marketing campaign in Viet Nam. Perhaps it’s proof that a tipping point that has been simmering for a while has finally been reached.

The American Dream has moved to Canada

Such was the title of a 2017 Macleans’ feature article with ample evidence to prove that bold assertion. Canada has become a dream study destination for hundreds of thousands of international students looking for a quality education at a reasonable price in a safe and welcoming environment, topped off with possibilities to work off-campus while studying, and to emigrate, if they meet certain criteria and that is their long-term goal. It currently ranks third after the US and Australia, followed by the UK and Germany to round out the top five.

In some respects, Canada has the complete package, including high-quality study opportunities at a lower cost than in other English-speaking countries, an enlightened immigration policy and favourable perceptions of Canada as progressive and peaceful.

Compare and contrast that with the current situation in the US: nativist with a related anti-immigration climate; parent and student concerns about what will happen to the Optional Practical Training or H1-B work visa programmes; an unstable political system; frequent incidents of gun violence; and the rising perception that the US is not as welcoming and open as it once was. That’s exactly what many Vietnamese parents and students are doing.

Dr Mark Ashwill is managing director and co-founder of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Ashwill has lived and worked in Vietnam since 2005. He blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam.