Improving the contribution of returning students to SDGs

There is an increasing recognition of the importance of re-orientating the aims of international higher education towards making a positive contribution to society. The benefits of international education lie not only in increased revenue for universities, but also in developing international students’ capacity to be informed and enable positive change in their societies.

In that way, international education can contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4: Quality Education and the Education 2030 Framework for Action.

In keeping with these sentiments, a study was conducted using extensive surveys and interviews with Vietnamese international graduates to understand their aspirations, opportunities and experiences of applying overseas-acquired knowledge, skills and attributes upon returning home.

The research praxis employed gave these graduates voice and opportunities to share candid views about their personal ambitions, struggles and achievements as they considered their role as development actors in Vietnam’s emerging knowledge society.

The study focused on graduates’ work experiences across economic sectors and civic engagement across community organisations. The findings align with two specific targets of SDG 4: Target 4.4, Relevant skills for decent work; and Target 4.7, Citizenship education for sustainable development.

The study also examined the benefits of international education in developing the capacity of university educators as a means to implement SDG 4 (Implementation 4c).

One of the key findings is that international education provided Vietnamese graduates with some momentum for self-drive and self-actualisation to contribute to Vietnam’s macro development. Their application of overseas-acquired knowledge and skills to enable what they viewed as effective changes, however, depended on the types of employers, civic groups and relationships they had with their colleagues and leaders.

While employers generally valued the international experiences, the returning graduates’ experiences suggest a competing agenda.

On the one hand, they wanted to use the knowledge, skills and attributes obtained overseas for their personal development and for improving the professional standards and practices in local firms, community groups and universities.

On the other, they were obliged to follow and maintain the status quo set by leaders and colleagues to fit in with the organisational culture and to access opportunities that may allow them to mobilise their overseas-acquired resources, although these were never guaranteed.

Vietnamese international graduates felt that their contributions to Vietnam’s development were mainly in economic development through their jobs and education as a result of their university teaching.

In the areas of social development such as health, social welfare, poverty and underprivileged groups, democracy and human rights, the benefits of international education were somewhat limited.

Transferable skills relevant for work

The types of overseas-acquired skills and attributes most relevant for returning Vietnamese graduates in the workplace were transferable skills such as independent thinking, problem solving, oral and written communication, especially in the English language, and work-ready attributes.

Technical and technological knowledge and skills were less beneficial because these tended to be specialised within the subject disciplines of host universities and oriented towards labour markets in advanced economies of Western countries.

Those who worked in newly established service sectors like banking and finance or in applied research roles in sectors like information technology were able to use technical skills and discipline-specific knowledge more than those in the manufacturing or agricultural sectors.

There were intersecting reasons for the underuse of technical and technological skills. Vietnam’s business and legal contexts, infrastructure and rules and regulations were still underdeveloped across many large economic sectors, such as agriculture and manufacturing. This resulted in fewer opportunities for returnees to apply overseas-acquired technical knowledge directly in their work.

In addition, many graduates lack personal connections in state-owned enterprises, government agencies and Vietnamese firms, which are employers of the majority of the labour force. This problem was much more critical for graduates without prior work experiences in Vietnam.

In addition, foreign-owned firms’ operations in Vietnam tended to be in product manufacture and distribution rather than research and product development; with the latter requiring higher levels of technical skills and knowledge.

Graduates are oriented towards foreign firms, particularly multinational corporations, where they took on prestigious managerial jobs, often in non-technical roles, but at least they could use transferable skills.

While some graduates spoke about the overseas networks that they established while studying abroad, most relied on their immediate Vietnamese networks in the sectors and among employers to mobilise their skills and find job opportunities.

For many, the culture of personal relations (quan hê) within these networks created tensions with regard to cultural fit and shared understandings about professional standards and work practices.

Citizenship and social responsibility

One of the impacts of international education for Vietnamese international graduates was a heightened sense of ‘civic self’ and citizenship brought about by their changed conception of ‘community’.

Living overseas allowed them to experience different government systems and community structures, which extended their idea of community beyond the Vietnamese traditional extended family and kinship lines.

Social responsibility became important and with that perceptions of opportunities for social change and confidence to take up some of these opportunities.

These graduates took part in a range of civic activities, from humanitarian to community services. Their aspirations to contribute to social development were varied. The international experience was often highlighted by graduates as informing them of the value of building human capacity, which was contrary to the Vietnamese culture of short-term welfare and gifts.

More strategic rationales, such as to cultivate networks for career prospects, were also evident at times, particularly in some graduates’ desire to engage with international NGOs. The Vietnamese priority attached to personal relations and trust emerged as a counterpoint to the more formal structures of these same international NGOs, which explained many graduates’ preference for informal networks.

It was also within these networks, which were an extension of families and friends, that the returnees found their shared values and opportunities to do ‘good’ for the community.

One of the great insights was the graduates’ commitment to long-term community work, which was mainly driven by the values of community work itself, rather than achieved outcomes or a perception of possibilities for social change.

They perceived the potential for change to come about in non-systemic ways, even unintentional ways, or as a result of their interaction with existing political institutions and community groups.

Teachers and educators

Graduates who returned to work as academics also perceived transferable skills, English skills and work-readiness to be valuable in their teaching career because they could transfer these skills and attributes to students.

This benefit of international education was more evident in private or foreign-owned universities due to a higher demand for jobs-related skills development, which were, in part, attributable to purchased educational programmes from Western universities.

Vietnam’s Higher Education Reform Agenda presented opportunities for returning academics to apply their overseas-acquired disciplinary knowledge and teaching practices.

However, most encountered challenges in applying Western-oriented pedagogical practices due to the didactic teaching and learning environment in Vietnam, a lack of understanding and shared values about Western pedagogy and teaching resources by Vietnam-trained academics, a lack of autonomy in curriculum and programme design and a general mentality of resistance to curriculum or pedagogical changes by Vietnamese university leaders.

Irrespective of qualifications and years of service, overseas-educated academics’ teachings were limited to either translating basic concepts or comparing different theoretical applications at an abstract level, rather than applying overseas-acquired knowledge and pedagogy in practical and direct ways.

This limitation may also be attributable to Vietnam’s broader economic contexts and development stage where Vietnamese firms have limited capacity or incentive to provide information that academics can draw on for teaching.

Despite the somewhat limited application of their overseas-acquired disciplinary knowledge and pedagogical practices, these graduates saw themselves as education reformers who could cultivate students’ self-development, independence and freedom, which they associated with Euro-Western teaching and learning and considered to be far superior to the Vietnamese-based academic system.

Implications for policies and practices

Although these findings are specific to Vietnam and Vietnamese international graduates and bounded by the contexts of the study, they offer some implications for universities engaging in internationalisation activities.

For example, the international education curriculum could include industry knowledge in the contexts of developing countries that the students will return to work in.

As a pathway into the local workforce, there could be work placements or internships as part of international study programmes to give international students real experiences of working in their local economies.

In addition to gaining knowledge about the local economy, businesses and working culture, which Vietnamese employers felt international graduates often lack, doing work experience could help international students to develop the personal relations necessary to gain entry or advance their career when they return home.

Host universities could foster international students’ consciousness of the social impacts of education for their home communities, particularly on issues of human rights, gender equality and citizenship.

This can be achieved by including peace and human rights education as well as intercultural education and education for international understanding, or through an action-based approach such as volunteering programmes in host or home communities which can develop the interest, knowledge and skills needed to participate in civic activities.

Policy-makers and employers in developing countries like Vietnam could find policies and mechanisms to attract and incentivise returning international graduates to use their technical knowledge and skills across sectors to develop their own knowledge and pathways so they are not just replicating models from foreign markets.

In the course of higher education reform or internationalisation strategies, policy-makers and university leaders can bring international ideas to local universities through overseas-educated academics with intercultural sensitivity and openness.

This requires engagement with returning academics as cosmopolitan educators to allow them to effectively incorporate new ways of teaching and learning, not just borrowing overseas programmes.

With their ambitions and sense of social responsibility as displayed in this study, Vietnamese international graduates are the key actors to meet Vietnam’s national needs and to achieve SDG targets. They should be empowered, adequately remunerated, motivated and supported in their work, in their universities and through international cooperation.

Such ambition is not easy to achieve, but it is worthwhile to pursue, as there is much potentiality for international education to be a bridge to development in Asia’s emergent knowledge societies where the majority of international students come from.

Lien Pham is a lecturer at the Graduate Research School, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. She received her PhD in sociology from Macquarie University, Australia. Her research interests and publications are in education and development, civil society, language and identity of diaspora, and Vietnam studies. She has conducted extensive research on educational policies for multilateral development agencies in the Asia-Pacific region and public policies evaluation for Australian government organisations.