I was invited to speak on Friday, 14 October to representatives from 60 British colleges and universities who were in Vietnam for a series of events, including the UK higher education fairs in Hanoi, HCMC and Danang. My assigned topic was The Study Abroad Market: A US Perspective.
During the 30 minutes or so at my disposal, I focused on the status of the US as the “preferred overseas study destination” of Vietnamese students based on an unscientific Internet survey (IIE-Vietnam, 2009), anecdotal evidence and a look at the sheer numbers of young Vietnamese studying in the US, mostly at the undergraduate level. (Vietnam ranks 6th in international undergraduate enrollment; most begin at a community college and then transfer to a four-year school to complete the bachelor’s degree.)
According to the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), there were 2640 Vietnamese higher education students as of September 2010. (Like Open Doors data, HESA data are always a year old.) 51% were undergraduates and 49% postgraduates.
In a section about the influence of US higher education in Vietnam I took the liberty of quoting myself from a June 2011 article entitled Letting in the Fresh Air and the Flies: The Mixed Impact of US Higher Education on Vietnam in which I wrote The bittersweet fact is that the United States exports some of the world’s best and worst higher education. This was in reference to the sizable number of US-based unaccredited institutions operating in Vietnam and the less than stellar nationally accredited schools, most of which are for-profit, online universities.
One question I posed to the audience was What do the Bergin University of Canine Studies and Harvard University have in common? Do you know the answer(s)? 1) They’re both accredited! The former is nationally accredited (i.e., ACICS) and the latter is regionally accredited (i.e., (NEASC). 2) Since they are both accredited, the US State Department’s global network of EducationUSA advising centers is charged with representing both.
While the US is the world’s second leading destination for Vietnamese students after Australia, many more could be benefiting from US higher education, if the student visa denial rate weren’t so high. (The overall issuance rate is below 60% while the rates for the UK and Australia are 84% and 78.6%, respectively.) Essentially, 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which states that Every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for admission, that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant status…, is an Achilles’ heel in US visa policy. The US could learn from other countries that recognize the practical (economic) imperative for a certain percentage of international students to emigrate.
Other issues I was asked to discuss were US government plans to attract more Vietnamese students and US government strategy as it relates to educational exchange. I highlighted the role of former Ambassador Michael Michalak as the Education Ambassador and all of the resources (and requests for additional resources, including those contained in the April 2008 U.S.-Vietnam Education Memo) devoted to educational exchange. I predicted that education would remain a high priority during the tenure of Ambassador Shear. Included in the folder of information that I distributed to each participant received was a copy of a document entitled Public Diplomacy in Vietnam: Opportunities in Education, released in 2010 by the US Mission in Vietnam. A number of recently released Wikileaks diplomatic cables related to education reveal ongoing and concerted efforts to exploit Vietnam’s (educational) crisis as a means of exercising soft power and even molding Vietnam in America’s image.
I noted that the US has been resting on its laurels, quoting Mitch Leventhal, SUNY Vice Chancellor for Global Affairs, who wrote in a May 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education article calling for the establishment of a national export council for higher education “Yet despite our nation’s historic advantage in higher education, we are not doing as well as one might expect – in fact, …over the past decade, America has suffered a nearly 30% decline in international student market share.” (4% of US higher education enrollment consists of international students while that figure is 15% for the UK and 20% for Australia, respectively.)
The US has yet to formulate a comprehensive international education policy that would signal that all of the relevant cabinet-level departments (State, Commerce, Education, Homeland Security, Justice) are on the same page. What it currently has are departments that sometimes work in cooperation and are often at odds, or even at loggerheads, with each other. A case in point is the issue of international agency-based student recruitment. EducationUSA, which is part of State, rejects the use of agents in any shape or form, while Foreign Commercial Service offices worldwide actively promote education as a major service sector export, including agent matchmaking through its Gold Key Service.
Finally, I touched on international agency-based recruitment as a controversial issue in the US yet a long accepted practice in the UK, Australia and other countries, and the need for a multi-pronged recruitment strategy in competitive markets such as Vietnam (e.g., helicopter marketing, armchair activities, long-term, in-country representation, etc.).