Western degrees a let-down for Vietnamese

Economy and culture not structured to harness skills obtained overseas, claims researcher

May 27, 2019
Source: Getty

Vietnamese students reap little net benefit from skills acquired at Western universities because an economic “mismatch” hinders them from using their newfound abilities to enrich themselves or meet national needs, according to a new book.

Research by Sydney educational sociologist Lien Pham suggests that although overseas-acquired qualifications boost earnings in Vietnam, the payoff does not cover the investment. And the country is also short-changed, for cultural and structural reasons.

Dr Pham said most returning graduates sought prestigious jobs in multinational corporations, which tended to value overseas-trained people’s English fluency and problem-solving abilities. In the more hierarchical culture of Vietnamese-owned companies, employees who volunteered ideas were “not appreciated”.

But Vietnamese branches of multinationals tended to specialise in manufacturing and distribution, not research and development, and had little need for technical skills. Consequently, overseas-trained graduates gravitated to managerial positions where they could use “soft” skills such as communication, but their engineering and scientific expertise was redundant.

The research, based on extensive surveys and interviews, has been summarised in Dr Pham’s book, International Graduates Returning to Vietnam. Most interviewees felt that they were making little contribution to meeting Vietnam’s needs in areas such as health, poverty, human rights and public administration.

And while returnees who obtained management jobs with multinationals could command salaries of up to $1,000 (£790) a month – compared with typical Vietnamese earnings of about half as much – the extra pay was a paltry return on master’s degrees that could cost $150,000 in tuition fees alone.

Dr Pham, who lectures in the Graduate Research School at the University of Technology Sydney, acknowledged that her findings were controversial. “Most universities offering international education put it out there that [students will] find better jobs and higher income when they finish. But there’s some question about that.”

Foreign study was nevertheless an attractive proposition, she said, partly because of the migration possibilities and partly because of “post-colonial” reasons. “The symbolic image of quality education is that it lies in the West. The university system in Vietnam cannot compete with that,” she explained.

Postgraduates fared reasonably well when they returned home, Dr Pham said. Many had attracted government scholarships and already had the personal networks needed to find employment in a country such as Vietnam. But most students were undergraduates supported by their parents, and they had never worked in Vietnam and had “no point of leverage” to get jobs.

She said universities could best help by arranging internships in Vietnam, rather than the host country, and with Vietnamese-owned firms rather than multinationals. This would enable students to make connections and harness their technical skills. Most importantly it would expose them to Vietnamese work culture “so they’re not so shocked when they come back and get a job”.

Although organising offshore work experiences might sound a tough task for a university, some Sydney institutions already offered this service, Dr Pham said. “It requires a curriculum change and good links, but it can be done,” she said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

I wish I can read this book. The author’s concern for the graduate returnees’ employment and earnings triggered my curiosity. Is there any comparison between the oversea returnees’ employment status and the home educated graduates’ both in short-term (less than three years since graduation) and in long-term (5 years or over)? Is there any analysis of patents’ influence on the Vietnamese students’ choice of overseas education and destination afterwards? Presumably the parents who can afford their children studying at Western university for 3-4 years are not average parents in a developing county.
Hi Helen, thanks for your comment and questions. The study did not set out to compare between home-educated and overseas-educated graduates. However, this issue came up frequently during the interviews. The general views were that home-educated graduates had the benefits of local industry knowledge and most importantly personal connections. Overseas-educated had better work-related skills like problem solving, lateral thinking and most importantly English skills. They also had very high expectation of salary compared with home-educated graduates which also led to their choice of managerial jobs with MNCs. The perception was that if work-related skills and English skills can be taught well in Vietnamese higher education institutions, then overtime, the appeal of overseas-educated will be diminished. The benefits of international education were also more apparent for those that had been back less than 3 years compared with those who had been back for a while. In other words, the longer the person was in employment, the less they could leverage benefits of overseas education. In fact, this finding was consistent among returning graduates and employers. There was significant parental influence on the choice of host countries, particularly for undergraduates. Australia tended to be chosen when there were existing families (diaspora) living in Australia. In contrast, the US, and European countries were country of choice even if they had no family connections. This maybe because of the campus environment in these countries which is different to Australia where students usually live very far away from campus. Similarly, all participants in this study chose to return to Vietnam for family reason and scholarship conditions. The study’s participants’ demographic background indicated that they were from high socioeconomic background. But it would not be incorrect to say that most Vietnamese families irrespective of wealth would exhaust all means to secure financial resources to provide an overseas education for their children. The study also concerned with returning graduates’ civic engagement and higher education teaching. The findings were similar in terms of skills and structural mismatch. If you are interested in reading the book, I could send you a chapter that this story was based on. Please send me an email to lienph1@gmail.com.

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