The End of An Era: Life Without the IIE Higher Education Fairs

iie-logoThere was a time when IIE higher education fairs were all the rage in Vietnam, when IIE and its EducationUSA advising centers were one of the few quality games in town.  You announced the fairs, did some light publicity and, Lord, did they ever come…  in droves.  There was such an unquenchable thirst for information about StudyUSA yet not many reliable sources of information back in the day. (Speaking of quality, IIE only permitted regionally accredited institution to join its fairs although some nationally accredited schools have managed to get in in recent years, probably the result of staff oversight.)

I remember in the fall of 2008 when the HCMC fair had over 90 US colleges and universities and a couple thousand attendees in the course of a day.  It was crazy, lots of pushing, shoving, grabbing and not very many meaningful conversations and exchanges of information.  Success was measured by volume and by that measure the events were a huge success.  These fairs were also immensely profitable, thus contributing to IIE’s bottom line.

A year later, a relatively new political appointee in the US State Department, a bean-counter, decided that the US government could save money by moving EducationUSA back to the US Mission (i.e,. the Embassy in Hanoi and Consulate General in HCMC).  Kill two birds with one stone.  Save money and control the message more closely using a “back to basics” approach.  What’s not to like from a bureaucratic perspective?

The post-EducationUSA IIE continued to offer its regional US higher education fairs, including in Vietnam.  They remained an important source of income for an organization that was striving mightily to diversify its revenue base.  At one time, IIE received 2/3 of its budget from the US government (USG), mainly from the State Department for the Fulbright program.    While it was 36% in 2014, the USG is still a valued client, both financially and politically.  So when IIE decided to suspend or discontinue its regional higher education fairs some colleagues asked me why.

IIE Higher Education Fairs

Here are two likely reasons.  Choose one or both.

  1.  Don’t bite the hand that feeds you/customer is king or queen.  EducationUSA began organizing its own US higher education fairs in Vietnam and elsewhere in the region.  As a courtesy to State, IIE decided to bow out so as not to compete with one of its most important clients.
  2. The IIE fairs were becoming less relevant and less well-attended.  In a sense, IIE was living in the past, doing pretty much the same thing year after year while the market was changing and becoming much more competitive.  It reminds me of this saying, which I read in a recent IT article:  If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.

Full disclosure:  I served as country director of the Institute of International Education-Vietnam from 2005-09.  During that time, IIE offered EducationUSA advising services on behalf of the US State DepartmentThe HCMC EducationUSA advising staff were seconded to the Public Affairs Section of the US Consulate General.  I could never figure that one out.  State paid IIE for staff who worked out of a US government facility.  Go figure!  🙂


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