From recipient to partner in international education

Vietnam’s Strategy for Education Development 2011-2020 emphasises the enhancement of international cooperation. This is a high priority for the country and is named as one of the eight fundamental initiatives in Vietnamese education.

Internationalisation of higher education is seen in policy as a tool for overhauling the outdated higher education curriculum, keeping pace with regional and international developments (China and South Korea are near neighbours of Vietnam), lifting the global ranking of the nation’s universities and for human capacity building.

But what are the trends, challenges and possibilities in internationalisation? This is the focus of a newly published Springer-Nature book, Internationalisation in Vietnamese Higher Education.

The primary dimensions of internationalisation in Vietnam include:

  • • Student and staff mobility, particularly outbound flows, but potentially also inbound mobility;

  • • International cooperation in programme development and delivery: internationalisation of the curriculum through what are designated ‘advanced programmes’ in Vietnam;

  • • Joint and twinning programmes, including the provision of ‘internationally recognised’ qualifications;

  • • International universities and institutes;

  • • Use of English as the medium of instruction;

  • • Internationalisation of research, including cross-border collaborations in research, assessment of research performance and outcomes relative to international standards and the development of key research centres and institutes incorporating collaboration with and support by foreign partners.

Internationalisation at home

The advanced programme or Chu’o’ng trình Tiên tiên is a primary internationalisation project initiated by the government of Vietnam. Its goal is to internationalise the curriculum and boost the quality of teaching and learning at selected universities by importing the curriculum from prestigious universities ranked in the top 200 universities in the world.

The programme was founded as part of the government’s aspiration to develop graduates’ capacity for an increasingly globalised labour market.

Commencing in 2006 and using English as a medium of instruction, the advanced programme has achieved considerable successes, providing students with access to advanced disciplinary knowledge, materials and learning environments. It has also increased the employability of graduate cohorts in local and regional labour markets. It lifts generic skills and English proficiency.

However, the larger objective of the advanced programme – producing a high-quality workforce for Vietnam – is still far from being achieved and its current implementation leads to inequalities and inequities.

The programme is implemented among a small proportion of students in selected disciplines in certain elite universities. Because only a small proportion of students have access to the programme, its positive impacts on teaching, learning and graduate capacity are fragmented, narrow and small scale.

Where advanced programmes delivered in English and mainstream programmes delivered in the mother tongue are offered in parallel within the same institution, inequities readily arise. Advanced programmes are considered more privileged than the Vietnamese-medium programmes accessed by students who cannot afford tertiary education in English, or are not ‘advanced’ enough to be accepted into advanced programmes.

Moreover, the advanced programme draws on entirely imported models in relation to programme structure, design, management and curriculum ideologies and content.

Given the differences in histories, national needs, cultures, educational ideologies and especially infrastructures between Vietnamese universities and their foreign partner universities, this essentially neocolonial approach generates challenges in terms of sustainability, feasibility and practicality.

Joint and twinning programmes

In the past two decades, especially following the nation’s World Trade Organization accession and General Agreement on Trade in Services, joint and twinning programmes have multiplied. There are now approximately 300 joint and twinning programmes offering certificates or degrees in cooperation with 32 countries, an increase from 133 programmes in 2007.

More families want to expose their children to international education so as to enhance their competitive advantage and can afford the higher tuition fees charged by internationally recognised programmes located within the country. Joint and twinning programmes facilitate international cooperation by Vietnamese universities and the importation of foreign curricula.

However, there are problems associated with the joint and twinning programme model. Vietnam lacks a coherent and transparent regulatory framework for quality assurance and accreditation and lacks strategies to ensure the sustainability of these transnational programmes.

Scholars note that “the low quality of many foreign-owned programmes, the profusion of empty partnerships and the ‘second-rate’ nature of foreign academics in Vietnam” are among the critical issues facing transnational education provision.

Student mobility

Inbound student mobility, aimed at gaining regional and international recognition and generating revenue, has not grown as strongly as outbound student flows. The key factors that explain this lack of balance include Vietnam’s level of development and capacity, the status of its education and its policy and bureaucratic systems.

The Vietnamese government’s initiatives in curriculum internationalisation, including the development of advanced programmes, the ‘Excellent University’ and joint programmes, the provision of more courses using English as a medium of instruction and the growth of internationally accredited programmes are key factors in attracting more international students.

The government’s goal is to have up to 150 programmes accredited by international accreditation agencies between 2016 and 2020.

Encouraging branch campuses

The government has also set out to create conditions and mechanisms that will encourage international investors and foreign universities to open international branch campuses in Vietnam (for instance, the RMIT University Vietnam and the British University Vietnam) or to cooperate with local universities.

Adopting a more active approach and moving beyond being a mere importer of international education, the government is also committed to providing institutions with more flexibility and autonomy in determining international enrolments and introducing new courses.

In addition, leading receiving countries of international students like Australia and the United States are promoting study abroad to Asia to provide their students with Asian exposure. For example, the New Colombo Plan, Australia’s signature initiative of outbound mobility and public diplomacy, provides funding to support Australian students to develop professional knowledge and connections with the Indo-Pacific.

This provides Vietnam with an opportunity to reap the potential of reverse student mobility. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of Australian students supported by the New Colombo Plan to undertake study and internships in Vietnam increased more than fivefold, reaching 1,539 by the end of 2018.

Moving forward

Vietnam has become a more active partner in internationalisation and many universities have been quick and flexible in taking advantage of the various internationalisation opportunities.

Internationalisation has contributed to enriching and diversifying the Vietnamese higher education system in terms of institutional structures and operations, programmes, activities, curricula and models of student exchange and mobility.

However, issues of inequity and inequality have emerged, inevitably, from the fragmented and ad-hoc way internationalisation is being implemented. This has privileged a small group of elite students who can afford the fees and satisfy the entry requirements to ‘internationalised’ programmes such as the advanced programme in higher education (Chu’o’ng trình Tiên tiên ) or the double-qualification programme in the high school sector (Chu’o’ng trình dào tao song bang tú tài).

At the same time, admissions to joint and twinning programmes raise questions of quality, as these programmes often do not require entrance exams or they offer places on the basis of lower academic credentials than are required for other programmes in Vietnamese public universities.

Moreover, internationalisation activities are mostly concentrated in demand-absorbing professional fields, in particular business and accounting.

Internationalisation is a key strategy whereby the Vietnamese government can enhance the capacity of its higher education system, enable the sector to contribute more effectively to national development and augment human capacity building for the country.

However, expected outcomes cannot be achieved without appropriate policies and structures to support institutions and individuals to promote effective and sustainable internationalisation.

In the Vietnamese context of internationalisation, it is important to develop:

  • • A national policy for internationalisation and specific action plans and frameworks to facilitate the implementation of internationalisation;

  • • A regulatory framework for quality assurance and accreditation;

  • • A supportive environment and incentives for individuals and institutions;

  • • Investment in creating internal impetus for international cooperation and helping staff understand the value;

  • • More institutional autonomy in international integration;

  • • Stronger resources to support staff capacity building and professional development for internationalisation as staff play a crucial role in internationalisation;

  • • Encouragement of local leadership and champions of internationalisation at the institutional and system levels;

  • • Good practices in designing, administering and implementing internationalisation activities and programmes at the institutional level, across the different regions of the nation. These should be disseminated and promoted through a holistic channel.

To capitalise on the potential of reverse mobility, further steps are needed:

  • • Flexibility: short courses/ internships/ hybrid models of study tour, internships and cultural experience/ English medium/ creative and flexible programmes/ internationally recognised programmes;

  • • A strategy at sectoral and institutional levels to promote Vietnam as an attractive destination, especially for short-term study programmes and internships;

  • • The creation of a professional organisation to oversee the internationalisation of Vietnamese education.

Ly Tran (PhD) is associate professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the School of Education, Deakin University, Australia. Simon Marginson is professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.