The COVID-19 pandemic continues to hit education very hard. As a new semester approaches, in many places the threat of the virus still looms large; classes have been switched to online or hybrid modes and travel restrictions or even bans have been imposed.

Traditional destinations for international education, particularly Western countries, are losing their international students. Many universities in those countries are struggling with enrolments and are at risk of closing down programmes and courses as a result.

Within just a few months, internationalisation of higher education and student mobility have been severely impacted. This situation has opened up opportunities and forced us to reflect and rethink global higher education and the internationalisation of higher education.

Vietnam, a middle-income developing country with a population of 97 million people, provides us with specific instances of how we can reimagine student mobility and the internationalised higher education landscape.

Proactive internationalisation at home

Due to the pandemic, many of the 21,000 international students studying in Vietnam find themselves unable to return to the country to continue their studies. The number of Vietnamese international students is, of course, much greater and they have found themselves stranded at home, unable to go back to their overseas institutions as the pandemic has escalated. Many of them have been forced to change their study plans.

Those who had been planning to study abroad before the pandemic are also reconsidering their options. Indeed, many of them and their parents are hesitant to pay high tuition fees for online delivery provided by overseas institutions. After all, international education appears rather unattractive without actual day-to-day social and on-campus interactions.

The unexpected presence of many thousands of Vietnamese international students at home has prompted the relevant actors in Vietnam’s higher education sector to put their heads together. Specifically, the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) has requested that all domestic higher education institutions (public, private, foreign-owned and branch campuses) work together for timely and innovative solutions to attract and admit these students.

On 21 July at the Conference on Promoting Opportunities for Studying International Education Programs in Vietnam, Minister Phung Xuan Nha highlighted the case for making the in-country study abroad option available to Vietnamese students.

Over recent decades, the internationalisation of Vietnamese higher education has been marked by increasing outbound student mobility. Vietnam currently has about 200,000 students studying abroad.

MOET’s imperative has generated a call to (re)examine existing international higher education programmes in Vietnam. According to Dr Pham Quang Hung, head of MOET’s Department of International Cooperation, there are currently 452 international programmes of various forms offered by 70 universities in Vietnam.

Among these programmes, 50 belong to institutions which receive foreign investment, 50 are enabled by collaborations between the Vietnamese government and other nations and 352 are transnational programmes managed by domestic universities.

This (re)examination also acknowledges that higher education institutions and programmes in Vietnam have improved a great deal in the international rankings over the past decade. Hanoi University of Science and Technology is ranked in the top 350-500 universities in the world for mathematics, mechanics, information technology and electronic engineering.

Other Vietnamese universities, including Vietnam National University Hanoi, Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh City, Ton Duc Thang University, Can Tho University, the University of Da Nang and Hue University, rank well in multiple international rankings.

Vietnamese administrators and commentators argue that credits, certificates and degrees from these Vietnamese universities should be equivalent to those issued by institutions of similar rankings in the world.

While these universities’ ‘standard programmes’ have a certain international quality, MOET’s reference to ‘international programmes’ places an emphasis on joint programmes that build cross-border curriculum partnerships and are taught in foreign languages. In fact, before the call from MOET, these joint programmes had already experienced a significant increase in enrolment as a result of the pandemic.

Specific initiatives

At the Seminar on Readiness For Welcoming Overseas Students to Higher Institutions in Vietnam organised by the Government Portal on 23 July, Dr Nguyen Thu Thuy, acting head of MOET’s Department of Higher Education, affirmed that MOET was ready to help institutions to check the status of foreign universities in their respective countries and to obtain a comprehensive understanding of their credit systems.

Likewise, Dr Thuy assured that MOET would publicise information about the existing 352 transnational programmes so that Vietnamese institutions and their prospective students could use it to make appropriate decisions.

Various admissions options and procedures have been proposed by MOET and institutions in Vietnam. School transfer and credit transfer will be based on conditions such as prior admission to well-recognised overseas universities, especially those in the top 1,000 universities or rated 5-star by QS, and the quota for each target programme in respective Vietnamese universities.

The admissions committee at each institution will evaluate the credits the applicants have accumulated to decide whether to make them transferrable. Overseas (Vietnamese) students could also be admitted on the basis of their SAT or A-Level scores. The International School at Vietnam National University Hanoi, for example, asks for a minimum of 5.5 IELTS (or equivalent) and a satisfactory interview result. Applications to take courses for just one semester or one academic year are being encouraged.

Universities with more established English-medium instruction (EMI) programmes and courses, such as Vietnam National University Hanoi, Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh City, Ton Duc Thang University, FPT University, Duy Tan University and Hoa Sen University, have been spearheading the internationalisation of higher education.

The pandemic has given them a clear advantage in terms of attracting prospective international students as well as those Vietnamese students who are now rethinking their study abroad options.

At the very least, these universities will have more opportunities to showcase their programmes’ quality and improve their internationalisation strategies, curricula and practices as they diversify their student bodies.

At the same time, collaboration between Vietnamese and foreign institutions will bring about opportunities for student exchange. For example, the Foreign Trade University (FTU) participates in a network of approximately 200 partner universities in the world. Students from these partner universities can attend equivalent courses at FTU without having to pay any additional tuition fees.

Building on its strong collaboration with Cornell University, VinUniversity (VinUni) – the newest player in Vietnam’s higher education sector – announced on 1 July that its Study Away programme presents an opportunity for the over 5,000 international students at Cornell, students who cannot return to their home campus in Ithaca, New York, to experience residential and campus life at VinUni’s world-class campus in Hanoi. Visiting students will continue to take online courses from their Cornell faculty.

In addition, VinUni will create a special Vietnam immersion course so that students can engage with local culture, business and society. According to repeated local media coverage, VinUni has proactively come up with specific plans to respond to and embrace new developments with regard to student mobility, prompted by the pandemic.

The autumn 2020 term targets Vietnamese students who are current Cornell students or have already been admitted by Cornell but are unable to go to Ithaca. It also opens its doors to Vietnamese students who have already been offered a place by internationally recognised overseas institutions but are unable to go. It promises a special and fast-track admissions path for such students.

For the spring 2021 term, VinUni plans to host Cornell students from other Asian countries as well. The university also invites students from other prestigious universities to join its Study Away programme. Professor Rohit Verma, founding provost of VinUni, has speculated that a ‘consortium of universities’ model might emerge in response to student recruitment issues associated with the pandemic.

A vision for internationalisation at home

Vietnamese higher education can promote internationalisation through improving its capacities in foreign languages and ensuring effective procedures for credit transfer and qualification recognition.

Minister Phung Xuan Nha has endorsed the prioritisation of quality assurance and accreditation. He has asserted that every education programme must be a high-quality programme.

MOET has recently examined all the existing transnational higher education programmes and terminated the operations of nearly 200. Minister Nha has also suggested that local universities diversify the academic fields which embrace internationalisation.

For instance, most of the existing transnational programmes are in the fields of business and management. More programmes in information technology, biological technology, tourism, social sciences and humanities could be established.

At present, Vietnamese higher education enjoys advantages from the country’s relative success in combating the pandemic and from the high concentration of many Vietnamese students who cannot go overseas to commence their studies.

In the long run, the internationalisation of Vietnamese higher education requires not only well-thought-out strategies, but more importantly visionary thinking that addresses the purposes, ethics and effects of internationalisation, student mobility and teachers and students studying at home.

The current emphasis on transnational education programmes reflects a belief in the benefits of cooperation between Vietnamese and foreign institutions, but this cooperation is by no means neutral. The current dominant discussion on the internationalisation of Vietnamese higher education lacks debate on what and whom it should serve.

Likewise, responses from MOET and institutions in Vietnam appear to prioritise English-medium instruction (EMI) almost exclusively. Published studies and discussions of the EMI situation in Vietnam over the past two decades have highlighted a lack of consistency with regard to policy and institutional support and a shortage of academic staff with the necessary content knowledge and language expertise required to deliver EMI.

In fact, many local universities are in a rush to recruit teachers who can teach in English, as enrolments in EMI courses and programmes are rising.

It is acknowledged by administrators and experts that the current response is more about coping and developing ad hoc solutions rather than having a long-term strategy. Therefore, this is an important time for universities in Vietnam to take EMI seriously and to put EMI teacher training for diverse disciplines in place. MOET and universities ought to work closely together.

In the midst of all the above, however, little attention is being paid to programmes and courses in the medium of Vietnamese and how they could also benefit from internationalisation at home and reverse student mobility.

They, too, need to be thought about, revamped and refreshed to provide students and teachers with learning and teaching opportunities on a par with any high-quality international programmes in English locally and elsewhere.

Why deny Vietnamese university students opportunities to thrive in their own language alongside English (and other languages) and deny international students the chance to be exposed to innovative Vietnamese-medium courses and programmes?

We would like to close with the following words from a Vietnamese international student currently stranded in Vietnam: “I’ve never attended any university courses in Vietnamese because I went overseas right after high school. I can’t go anywhere now and I’m actually keen to sit in classes at a local university with my friends and see what it is like to study in Vietnamese and with Vietnamese teachers. I think this is a unique experience for me, and I’m eager to educate myself.”


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