Is Vietnam the next TNE destination for UK universities?
This year the UK and Vietnam celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations. The celebrations have further advanced ongoing dialogue and collaborations on international education between the two countries, including issues around student mobility, transnational education and joint research projects.
The 2022 International Education Strategy of the UK identifies Vietnam as a strategic growth area. Will this make Vietnam the next TNE destination for UK universities?
The geopolitical environment
According to the World Bank, Vietnam’s shift from a centrally-planned economy to a market or mixed economy has transformed the country from one of the poorest in the world into a lower middle-income country. Vietnam is now one of the most dynamic emerging countries in the East Asia region.
Between 2002 and 2021, GDP per capita increased 3.6 times, reaching almost US$3,700. According to a forecast by PricewaterhouseCoopers in February 2017, Vietnam might have been the fastest-growing of the world’s economies, with a potential annual GDP growth rate of about 5.1%, which would make its economy the 10th-largest in the world by 2050.
According to DBS Bank in 2019, Vietnam’s economy had the potential to grow at a pace of about 6%-6.5% by 2029. It was suggested that Vietnam could overpower Singapore’s economy by the next decade because of its strong foreign investment in-flow and productivity growth. However, Vietnam surpassed Singapore just a year later.
Over the past 30 years, in addition to joining the World Trade Organisation and signing a free trade agreement with the US, Vietnam has signed numerous trade agreements with different partners, which has seen it become one of the main manufacturing hubs in the world as it seeks to benefit from the fact that its labour costs are lower than China.
It is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Free Trade Area with China, India, Japan and Korea and a member of the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area and is a signatory to the European Union/Chile/Korea/Japan-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement. It also benefits from its proximity to China.
Increasing competition between China and the US has aided its recent economic growth, such as the shift of Apple’s manufacturing business and that of Google’s Pixel Phones, Microsoft’s Xbox and others. Other Western countries have also relocated their manufacturing business to Vietnam.
Currently, both Beijing and Washington invest heavily, economically and militarily, in Vietnam due to Sino-US tension. This could indicate a similar economic development path to that of China over two decades ago. Internationalising higher education will be crucial for the economic growth of Vietnam so that it can train the talent it needs to take advantage of all of these developments.
When it comes to Sino-US geopolitical competition, Vietnam has a high geostrategic value in terms of the Southeast Asian region and the South China Sea geo-maritime space. With increasing geopolitical tensions between China and the West, including with regard to the impact of the recent China-Russia Pact, Vietnam is likely to attract more direct foreign investment. However, it will have to tread carefully or it might find itself having to take sides at some point soon.
Following the success of the previous 10-year declaration, the renewed “Joint declaration on UK-Vietnam strategic partnership: forging ahead for another 10 years” in 2020 shows the UK’s commitment to supporting the education reform strategies of the government of Vietnam.
It promotes bilateral cooperation to increase and strengthen the number, range and quality of joint education programmes and UK qualifications at the governmental and institutional levels.
The UK Vietnam Higher Education Network was formally launched by Vice Minister and Associate Professor Nguyen Van Phuc during the UK Vietnam Higher Education Collaboration forum in October 2018. The network includes more than 60 UK and Vietnamese universities, organisations and businesses who together deliver 12 partnerships in four key areas of priorities (university leadership and governance, transnational education and quality assurance, university-industry links and research, and mobility).
It was established as part of a commitment to support Vietnam in its efforts to internationalise higher education through the UK Vietnam Higher Education Partnership (UK-VN HEP) and is based on a report produced by Universities UK on The scale of UK higher education transitional education 2020-21, the key findings of which include the fact that Asia continued to be the top host region for UK TNE students in 2020-21, hosting 49.5% of total UK TNE students.
Vietnam has over 530 approved joint programmes, according to the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), and the country shows enthusiasm for joint programme/franchise programmes as well as credit transfer.
A 2022 QAA report shows that as of 2020-21, there were 79 UK providers with recorded UK higher education TNE students in Vietnam, affecting 5,130 students. They include the University of Nottingham, the University of Birmingham and the University of Greenwich.
Vietnam’s decree 86/2018/ND-CP on foreign cooperation and investment in education (Decree 86) took effect on 1 August 2018, with some amendments being made in the following few years.
It covers everything from the scope, type of collaborations, approval process, duration, quality assurance and accreditation of courses to assessment, staff-student ratio and degree certification issues.
According to the decree, the mode of delivery can be in class, online or through blended learning. For joint training at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, it states that most joint education projects have to comply with Vietnam’s current regulations on quality assurance, as well as the relevant governing body of the foreign institution, with the approval body being the Minister of Education and Training.
The full Decree on Foreign Cooperation and Investment in Education can be accessed here.
A competitive environment
In recent years, it has become easier for foreign higher education institutions to enter the Vietnamese market as a result of the demand for quality higher education at a lower cost, in particular, English-taught programmes.
Compared to other countries in Asia, such as China, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Singapore, which represent a rather saturated market for UK TNE, Vietnam represents a growing opportunity for UK TNE development due to its increasing GDP and limited local education provision.
Australian universities are well represented in Vietnam, with RMIT being one of the oldest foreign institutions in Vietnam. However, according to 2022 figures from MOET, the UK is well ahead of the US, France, Australia, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and New Zealand in terms of the number of joint programmes it runs in Vietnam.
With the growth in student numbers in Vietnam and the launch of the post-study route in the UK, studying in the UK or gaining a UK degree qualification in Vietnam are becoming more popular than ever.
Opportunities and challenges
Despite a large number of TNE or joint programmes being established in Vietnam, the number of students enrolled is relatively small as a result of language and financial barriers, governance and other issues. However, as GDP has increased, foreign education – either in another country or at home – has become more affordable. At the same time, it enables students to develop their foreign language skills which are much needed in the labour market.
Engaging in partnership proposals involves challenges and risks, from institutional strategic alignment to the quality of teaching and learning. It is critical to ensure that a sound business case and full due diligence and risk management plans are put together to assess the potential, scale and feasibility of any programme, but there is clearly a good case for at least considering the possibilities Vietnam may offer.
Cheryl Yu is an international higher education practitioner and researcher.