In Vietnam, where cheating is a national pastime and ethical business practices are in dangerously short supply, the world of educational consulting is no exception. EducationUSA fantasies notwithstanding, the reality is that most parents and students work with an education agent instead of applying directly to U.S. (and other foreign) colleges and universities, as in other Asian countries.
Another reality is that most education agents are substandard in terms of quality and ethical standards. Let’s face it – anyone can create a Google Sites website, set up a Facebook account, hang out a sign and begin the frantic search for customers. Unfortunately, not everyone has the requisite education, experience, standards and moral compass to do it the right way and succeed in the long-term.
Whatever It Takes?
In what has become an intensely competitive market (e.g., there are 160 educational consultancies in Hanoi alone), many companies attempt to secure some kind of competitive advantage, any kind of competitive advantage, by hook or by crook. This runs the gamut from cheating one’s customers (customer as easy mark instead of king or queen), facilitating fraud on the part of their customers (e.g., encouraging the use of and even supplying fraudulent documents such as fake bank statements and academic transcripts in the visa application process) to copying other companies services lock, stock and barrel. In Vietnam, wholesale and shameless imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery.
Why Create When You Can Copy?
The prevailing mentality is why invest elbow grease when you can copy and paste? Of course, copying and executing are two completely different things – just like saying something don’t make it so. (I’m reminded of a quote by Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame: My attitude was that competition can try to steal my plans and copy my style. But they can’t read my mind; so I’ll leave them a mile and a half behind”. From Grinding It Out: The Making Of McDonald’s.)
While I like to see new companies created, especially those that have something NEW to offer the market, I’d prefer to see them do it the old-fashioned way by adhering to a set of ethical standards not by cheating. At the end of the day, ethical business practices translate into good business. In this industry there are many opportunities to do well and do good.
Innovation Over Imitation
My advice to the wannabes – innovate don’t imitate! Vietnam will not rise in the global economic food chain unless there is more innovation across-the-board. Chances are, you don’t have the education, experience and network to outperform your competition, which means you’ll always be a step or two behind. Chances are, the hopes and dreams of today’s business license approval and grand opening will end up as tomorrow’s old news and bittersweet memories. Vietnam’s economy continues to struggle with more bankruptcies than new businesses being created. According to a Ministry of Planning and Investment report, there were 15,839 enterprises that suspended operation or declared bankruptcy in the first quarter of 2013 compared to 15,707 new businesses. I expect this trend to continue for into 2014. One of the issues that will ultimately hold Vietnam back is this penchant for copying and cheating. It is innovation that will take Vietnam to the next level and help to liberate it from the dreaded middle income trap.
Agents Behaving Badly: The Times They Are A-Changin’!
Parents are desperately looking for companies they can trust, that will treat them with respect and not cheat them of their time and money. There’s a reason why this is such a hot-button issue in U.S. higher education and why the Vietnamese government is attempting to regulate this industry by imposing certain criteria that companies must meet, including requiring mandatory training and certification for advisers. According to Decision 05/2013/QD-TTg, proposed by the Minister of Education and Training (MoET) and issued by the Prime Minister on 15 January 2013, study abroad education consultancies have to meet the following requirements effective 10 March 2013.
- companies must have on deposit VND 500 million ($23,800) in a commercial bank; and
- owners and agents must have a university qualification, be proficient in at least one foreign language and be certified by MoET.
In addition, education consultancies must publicize all information about schools in foreign countries, among other requirements. Local departments of education and training (DoET) are responsible for implementing this decision, which is happening slowly but surely nationwide. As with all new approaches, however, it will take a while before the “Wild West” becomes less wild, less greedy and more responsive to the needs and demands of its customers and higher education partners. But this type of certification is a step in the right direction.
Follow this link to read the second post in this series.