“Extraordinary” Educational Achievements in Viet Nam

Vietnam’s achievements in primary and secondary education over the last two decades are extraordinary. Out of 65 countries, Vietnam ranked 17th in maths and 19th in reading – surpassing both the United States and the United Kingdom – in the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the worldwide scholastic performance measure of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Here’s another headline you don’t see every day.  Congratulations to Viet Nam on its successes in the realm of education, especially math and science achievement.

rise logoThis £4.2 million ($5.4 million), six-year research project is being carried out by Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE), a project launched in 2015 “to conduct high-quality research to build a body of world-class evidence to inform education policy, and to raise learning outcomes for children in the developing world.”

Research in Vietnam, and in at least five other countries, seeks to shift emphasis away from long-standing, input-oriented goals – children’s attendance in schools – and toward output-oriented achievements – increased literacy and numeracy skills.

RISE is supported by £27.6 million  ($35.7 million) in funding from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), whose contribution has enabled RISE to add a sixth country.

Specifically, the research will “undertake a systematic evaluation of Vietnam’s education system by analysing the status and impacts of past, current and upcoming educational reforms. The aim is to understand how policy levers made Vietnam’s exceptional achievements possible, and whether and how new reforms are able to build on its achievements.”  The key questions are:

  1. What explains Vietnam’s high levels of student learning?
  2. What impact will current and planned curriculum reforms have on student educational outcomes?

I’m pleased to see this kind of research being conducted and look forward with great anticipation to the results.  Follow this link to learn more about this research project and the Viet Nam country research team, a multidisciplinary group of nine researchers from Viet Nam, the US, the UK, and the Netherlands.


June 2016 Vietnam Strategic Recruitment Retreat

I’m pleased to announce that I will lead a Strategic Recruitment Retreat (SRR) in Phan Thiết, Vietnam from 17-19 June for colleagues whose institutions have targeted Vietnam as a high recruitment priority.  The purpose of the retreat is to give them the tools they need in terms of knowledge, insights and strategy in order to increase their chances of success in recruiting Vietnamese students in what has become a highly competitive market in recent years.  Colleagues can either come after the ICEF Thailand-Vietnam Agent Roadshow or attend on a stand-alone basis.  I’m delighted to welcome Study in the USA as an event sponsor. 

Follow this link for detailed information and online registration.


“Advanced degrees not a guarantee of employment in Vietnam”

Vietnam had 10.7 million trained workers (who have short-term training certificates, finish intermediate school, junior college and have bachelor’s and master’s degrees) which accounted for 20 percent of the labor force. Of these, 4.47 million have a higher education level.

Courtesy of VietnamNet Bridge
Courtesy of VietnamNet Bridge

Like many other countries, including the US, Vietnam is afflicted with the disease of credentialism.  A bachelor’s degree or higher means more and better job opportunities, right?  According to a recent VietnamNet Bridge article, based on information from the Vietnam Labor & Social Studies Institute, unemployment is rising among those with four-year undergraduate and graduate degrees because of oversupply while it’s decreasing among graduates of junior (3-year, i.e., vocational) colleges.  Vietnam’s economy, of course, needs more workers with a quality vocational credential.  Not as much prestige, mind you, but a better chance of finding a job.

Here’s an excerpt from the article with a quote from Nguyen Tung Lam, a well-known educator and chair of the Hanoi Education Psychology Association, about the four reasons for the rising unemployment rate among workers with higher education.

  1.  University graduates did not choose the majors that match with their capabilities and interest.  As a result, they did not pay enough attention and could not obtain the necessary working skills before graduation.
  2. Schools with low training capability cannot produce qualified workers.
  3. A substandard educational system that is not at the level of “international standards.”
  4. Fourth, MoET (Ministry of Education and Training) only controls schools’ operation and training quality on paper, while it does not know what happens in reality.

Once consequence of this overproduction of university graduates is that Vietnam may have to import skilled workers, according to Van Nhu Cuong, president of Luong The Vinh High School.

One problem related to the first point is the lack of career counseling and students studying what their parents want them to study rather than what they’re good at and have an interest in.  Another is a lack of information about the relationship between their chosen field of study and future career prospects.

This also applies to overseas-educated Vietnamese, some of whom have difficulty finding a suitable position back home because they did not take full advantage of the opportunities afforded them in terms of academics, extracurricular activities, internships and language (e.g., some Vietnamese who study overseas do not benefit linguistically from an immersion experience because they live in a Vietnamese community).  An overseas is a point of departure in any job interview not a deciding factor.


Vietnam Ranks 29th in Annual EF English Proficiency Index & 5th in Asia

 Vietnam is among the top performers in the region, ahead of Japan and China. Graphic: EF
Vietnam is among the top performers in the region, ahead of Japan and China. Graphic: EF

EF logoHere’s some more good news for Vietnam and colleagues from English-speaking countries who recruit here at the secondary and postsecondary levels.  According to the results of the EF (Education First) Proficiency Index, which profiles 70 countries, including 15 in Asia, Vietnam ranks 29th with “moderate proficiency” in English.  Last year, it ranked 33rd out of 63 non-native English-speaking countries.  Among Asian countries, Vietnam ranked higher than Cambodia, China, Japan and Thailand.  This will come as no surprise to those who have visited those countries or worked with their students.  For example, when you walk into a department store in Bangkok in what has been a middle-income country for quite some time – with many more socio-economic advantages than Vietnam – the staff will usually scramble to find the one person who can communicate in passable to good English with foreign customers.

Here are a couple of interesting findings from the Vietnam survey:

  • As in most countries, women speak better English than men.
  • Adults in Hanoi are somewhat more proficient in English than those in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).

As the survey points out, research shows that better English correlates with higher income and better quality of life.  Since English is an international language, it also allows its speakers to tap into an international network of information and knowledge, as well as develop relationships with an estimated half a billion people whose native language is English or who speak it as a foreign language.

Why is Vietnam making so much progress so quickly?  The sheer number of number of young people, including children, who are studying English, the growing ability to pay for instruction at proprietary centers, combined with opportunities to practice English, the result of Vietnam’s integration into the global economy.

These impressive increases in the English proficiency of growing numbers of Vietnamese bode well for the country’s development, as well as the career prospects of those who are able to communicate in this important language.

If you want to read the “Monarch notes” version of the results, check out this article.  The original report can be found here.


“Vietnam’s Book People – A new exodus is taking place from Vietnam”

thediplomat_logoby Kris Hartley is a Visiting Lecturer in Economics at Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City, and a PhD Candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

More than two decades after the emigration of Vietnam’s “boat people” reached its apex, a new exodus is underway. Increasing numbers of university-aged Vietnamese students are pursuing degrees abroad. These new emigrants – who can perhaps be termed “Book People” – see high value in degrees from American, British, and Australian schools. Further, many remain in their host countries after graduation, attracted by high paying jobs matching their skill sets. Two factors can reverse this loss of talent: growth in domestically owned high-value-added industries and continued improvement of domestic universities. These strategies could also be a roadmap for the many countries facing similar emigration challenges.

Follow this link to read the article in its entirety.

A few points:

  • A generally useful and informative overview of recent trends related to young Vietnamese and overseas study.
  • The title, a lame attempt to draw some kind of analogy with the “boat people”of the post-war era, is a bit of a reach, IMHO.
  • The author’s view of “brain drain”, as illustrated in the statement that “a worrying portion of Vietnam’s vast and youthful creative potential continues to be lost to the West,” is a bit of an oversimplification of this complex phenomenon.
  • The author notes that “many remain in their host countries after graduation, attracted by high paying jobs matching their skill sets.”  While that’s true, many are also returning to work and quite a few to start their own businesses.  More research needs to be conducted in this area.
  • This excerpt jumped off of the screen:  Transformative economic growth will not occur until the means of production are owned and managed more by domestic firms than by foreign firms. This is not to suggest that foreign firms have no place in Vietnam. However, the increased presence and competitiveness of domestically owned firms would better circulate profit and capital back into the Vietnamese economy; the country could move away from its reliance on outsourcing and towards self-sufficiency.
  • The link between these trends and the call for “transformative economic growth” is tenuous.

MAA (I’m back! :-))

Challenge to Industry Competitors: Take Your Game to the Next Level!

Dear IEinV Followers,

I know that many of you are US and foreign higher education colleagues because of the feedback I receive.  Included among the “others” are some government friends and competitors.  The latter drop by to see what I’m up to and to see what (free) information they can glean from my posts for their own businesses.

So why do I occasionally provide information that can be classified as “market intelligence”?  The reason is simple.  It’s an opportunity to talk about two of my favorite topics, international education and Vietnam.  It’s also a chance to assist those colleagues who have a personal and/or professional interest in Vietnam by sharing information and, occasionally, commentary about such information, with them.  The others are along for the ride.  The more the merrier, in my opinion!

Innovation Over Imitation

Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando.
Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando.

To those competitors who choose imitation over innovation, and that’s a fairly long and growing list, unfortunately, I have two reading recommendations.  The first is an article I wrote last December for University World News (UWN) entitled Walking the walk – Ethical agency-based recruitment (Vietnamese translation) The second is an article to which I refer in the UWN piece, Why copycats are the best thing to happen to your company, written by Brian Wong, CEO and co-founder of Kiip, a mobile rewards network based in San Francisco.

Here’s one of the “money quotes” that I commend to you:

In Silicon Valley, the reward for trailblazing with true innovation is often a trail of “copycat” businesses following closely behind, seeking to profit from your idea. Sometimes the copycat is dead on arrival (see: too many examples to list here). Sometimes it pays to be the copycat (see: Germany’s infamous Samwer brothers). And sometimes the copycat goes to court (see: Samsung).

copy pasteAs someone who has had this happen multiple times to my company, I am no stranger to this form of “innovation.” But those experiences have helped me look at this much-maligned trend in a new light and shaped an opinion that many will likely disagree with – copycat businesses should be welcomed. Embraced, even.  After all, what is a copycat business other than evidence that you’ve created a solution that taps into and services a real need?

Take Snapchat, the Valley’s darling du jour, which has set the precedent for disposable instant messaging. In late 2012, Facebook launched Facebook Poke, a messaging app possessing an eerily similar feature to Snapchat’s signature disappearing act. A year later, after Poke didn’t pan out, came the $3 billion offer. But Facebook actually ended up being its own worst enemy here. Their cloning attempt had the opposite effect on Snapchat – instead of feeling intimidated, it increased Snapchat’s confidence in what they’d built. They now knew that their DNA wasn’t just something others could transplant and call their own.

Only time will tell if they made the right move, but it underscores the importance of concentrating on the road ahead, not who’s lurking in your rear-view mirror. Copycats have no visibility into the inner workings of your company or what you have in store. No matter what, you’ll be ahead of the curve because they can only replicate what you show them. In this sense, objects in mirror are not closer than they appear – they’re months behind you. (my bold)

Keep Your Eyes on the Road Ahead

keep-your-eyes-on-the-road-semmick-photoI’ve noticed this trend as it relates to Capstone Vietnam.  Brian’s advice and mine?  Keep your eyes firmly on the road ahead, ladies and gentlemen.  Be a leader not a follower, an innovator not an imitator.  Purge yourself of the copy/paste mentality that precludes creativity and will ultimately hold you back.  Be a worthy competitor.  Take your game to the next level – for the sake of your company, your clients, the industry and your country.  It’s the right thing to do and it’s good business in the long runAmen. 


P.S.:  Bonus –  Jack Ma’s 3 tips to building a successful business (Vanessa Tan, Tech in Asia, 6.7.15), based on the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle.

innovation steve jobs

Reflections on Five (5) Years of Capstone Vietnam, Educational Consulting in Vietnam & Overseas Study Trends: Part II

This is the English version of part II of a two-part interview series with me that recently appeared in the Vietnamese media.  Follow this link to read part I.

Tiến sỹ Mark_ A_ Ashwill(1)

Do you have any advice to guide parents and students – their children – who want to study abroad?

Knowing that most parents and students seek the assistance of an education agent rather than applying directly to a foreign institution, my advice in this crucial area is to choose carefully when looking for a suitable educational consulting company to work with. Many companies have no qualms about cheating their clients in their pursuit of short-term profit. Be sure to ask a lot of questions and use your personal network to find out as much as you can about a prospective company. Most importantly, the company should be working on your behalf and on behalf of your son or daughter not the institutions that pay commissions. The company you choose should provide accurate information and find the best possible matches for your child.

There is an encouraging trend of rising consumer expectations in Vietnam.  More and more parents and students are becoming educated consumers.  This means that there is both official (i.e., government) and grassroots (i.e., consumer) pressure for companies to become better than they are.  Competition and effective official oversight will take care of the rest.

My other piece of advice is to combine educational advising with career counseling. To parents – What is your child good at, where do his talents lie, what is her realized or untapped potential? To young people – What do you enjoy (interests), what are you good at (abilities), what do you value/find rewarding, what are your goals? Then you need to think about where you plan to enter the world of work and what kinds of employment opportunities might be available for someone with your qualities, qualifications and background.

As you embark upon this exciting process, there are two relevant quotes to keep in mind, one from an American author, poet, philosopher, and naturalist from the 19th century and the other from an American entrepreneur, marketer, and inventor, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple, Inc., who lived in the late 20th century. Both believed in the power of dreams and the vital importance of self-actualization.

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake. Henry David Thoreau

The only way to do great work is to love what you do. Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs also had these words of encouragement – in his June 2005 Commencement address at Stanford University – to young people, or anyone for that matter, who decides to take the “road not taken,” in the words of the American poet, Robert Frost.

You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever–because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.

I have one concern and some final advice. 37.5% of all Vietnamese students in the U.S. are studying Business/Management, by far the highest percentage of any place of origin. (Indonesia is a distant 2nd at 29.5%.) Why so many? My guess is that students and/or their parents believe that you have to study business in order to do business. In fact, most employers recognize and value the creative, communicative and problem-solving abilities associated with liberal arts majors as the most valuable qualities of new staff.


In a 2013 essay entitled Business and the Liberal Arts Edgar M. Bronfman, who was chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd., advised young people to get a liberal arts degree, emphasizing the value of curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking, and describing it as “the most important factor in forming individuals into interesting and interested people who can determine their own paths through the future.”

For all of the decisions young business leaders will be asked to make based on facts and figures, needs and wants, numbers and speculation, all of those choices will require one common skill: how to evaluate raw information, be it from people or a spreadsheet, and make reasoned and critical decisions. The ability to think clearly and critically — to understand what people mean rather than what they say — cannot be monetized, and in life should not be undervalued. In all the people who have worked for me over the years the ones who stood out the most were the people who were able to see beyond the facts and figures before them and understand what they mean in a larger context.

A famous and exceptional example of someone in living and working in Vietnam who pursued this path is Henry (Hoang) Nguyen, who currently serves as the Managing General Partner of IDG Ventures Vietnam. Henry graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, which he attended as a Harvard National Scholar, in 1995 with a BA in Classics. He then earned his MD and MBA from Northwestern University Medical School and the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago. His academic journey took him from studying the language, literature, history, archaeology, and other dimensions of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome to medicine to business, a true Renaissance man.

While I am not famous, I am also an example of someone with a liberal arts background at the undergraduate and graduate (MA/Ph.D.) levels, including political science, German history, intercultural communication, comparative literature, philosophy, economics, education, etc., who has been an educational entrepreneur for most of my career.

I know of many young Vietnamese who majored in the liberal arts (single or double-major, with or without business courses) and who have returned to Vietnam to pursue successful careers in the private sector either as owners or employees. Through their work they have made Vietnam a better place. Their broad education is one of their greatest strengths.

What are Capstone Vietnam’s plans for 2015 and beyond? What are your wishes for young Vietnamese as they relate to education and career opportunities now and in the future?

Our plans are to continue building capacity to meet the demand for existing and new services. While we’re aware of and have experienced the human resource challenges that are a stark reality for every employer in Vietnam, we are pleased with our team in both offices. Our excellent staff are dedicated, hardworking and knowledgeable. We have a solid foundation upon which to build.

These are our core beliefs and goals that will sustain us in the years to come in a very competitive environment. This is who we are and this is what we want for young people and all of Vietnam.

  • Innovation over imitation, substance over image, veracity over veneer.
  • Trust, respect, integrity, quality and service; these are actions not just words, words to live by.
  • Success measured not by short-term profit but by long-term customer satisfaction and loyalty.
  • Success measured by making an impact. By giving back. By leaving a legacy. By taking Vietnam to the next level.
  • Do well and do good.
  • Stay focused and keep your eyes on the prize!

Vietnam’s greatest resource is its people – hardworking, motivated, always on the move and in search of ways to enrich their lives and enhance their marketability through education and training. Every individual has enormous reserves of untapped potential and undiscovered talents. Our goal at Capstone Vietnam is to help our clients “reach new heights,” tap that potential, reveal those hidden talents and make a meaningful and lasting difference in the lives of individuals, organizations and society.

My heartfelt wish for young Vietnamese is that they study what they like and what they’re good at, all the while keeping a realistic eye on an ever-changing job market, that they live “in their dreams awake”, do the work that they love and make it great. And, finally, that they keep in mind and take to heart this quote from Randy Pausch (1960-2008), an American professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: “The key question to keep asking is, ‘Are you spending your time on the right things?’ Because time is all you have.”

Dr. Mark A. Ashwill is the Managing Director of Capstone Vietnam. From 2005 to 2009, he served as country director of the Institute of International Education in Vietnam. Prior to moving to Vietnam, Dr. Ashwill was director of the World Languages Institute, adjunct lecturer and Fulbright program adviser at the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY/Buffalo). In the mid-1990s, he was a primary researcher for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Case Study Project in Germany, Japan and the U.S., a Research Associate at the University of Michigan’s Center for Human Growth and Development (CHGD) and a visiting scholar at the University of Frankfurt and Northwestern University. In 2003, Dr. Ashwill became the first U.S. American to be awarded a Fulbright Senior Specialist Grant to Vietnam.

A 2011 Hobsons consultant’s report noted that Dr. Ashwill’s work and that of former U.S. Ambassador, Michael Michalak, “helped to promote the United States as a destination for Vietnamese students, and strengthened the ties between the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) and U.S. universities.” In June 2012, Jeff Browne wrote in his blog Vietnomics that “Much of the credit for the strengthening U.S.-Vietnam higher education link goes to Hanoi-based educator, Mark Ashwill, director of Capstone Vietnam and key adviser to student-run nonprofit VietAbroader, both of which help Vietnamese students navigate the American education culture.”