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Vietnamese students' transitions in study abroad programs.


Vietnam, like many of its Asia--Pacific neighbours, is affected by globalisation. Like countries such as China, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, it has had to adapt to the demands of a global economy by prioritising agendas that develop the nation's education system, which includes raising education standards. There is a push for people to attain educational qualifications and the skills and competencies that are developed from engaging in higher education. Vietnam has one of the fastest changing economies in the world (Hayden & Thiep, 2010). As the country has progressed, the need for a highly skilled and qualified workforce has put more pressure on the government to initiate education reforms to improve the quality of education domestically with the aim of meeting the demands of employers.

Pursuing study abroad is one way to deal with this issue. Historically, study abroad was taken in (former) socialist countries and was funded by the government (Gribble, 2011; Kelly, 2008) and was therefore limited to an elite population. Study abroad is now open to those who can afford the time and money to invest in higher education abroad. The number of self-funded individuals from Vietnam who study abroad has grown significantly in the last 25 years due to various reasons associated with the push and pull of the international labour market. The consistent and sizeable movement of students leaving and likely returning to their home country has major implications for career practitioners, especially within tertiary education.

This article reviews the literature on study abroad programs, the transition process of those participating in these programs and their return to their home country, with particular reference to Vietnam. Building on the existing literature on study abroad and return, the article explores some of the implications for career development resources and services in Vietnam.


Vietnam's Education System

The higher education system in Vietnam has expanded immensely in the last 20 years as a result of government reforms such as Doi Moi, which was put into action in 1986 (Glewwe & Patrinos, 1999; Hayden & Thiep, 2011; Kelly, 2008). During this time the government turned its attention to the education system as the key focus for social and economic development. The Higher Education Reform Agenda (HERA) 2006-2010 (Hayden & Thiep, 2011) has seen significant reform, resulting in the elimination of the former Soviet model and a move towards a more research-oriented and unified national university education system. Privatisation of the education sector allowed for semi-public and non-public institutions to emerge, meeting the demands of the growing number of students trying to attain higher education qualifications. RMIT University Vietnam is the first foreign-owned university to operate in Vietnam and is an example of how the Vietnamese Government has allowed foreign providers to participate in the education sector to help meet the needs of the growing number of people seeking higher education (Wilmoth, 2004). Even with such efforts, the number of education institutions in Vietnam will need to rise significantly.

In 2008 there were more than 1.3 million students in Vietnam studying in 230 different higher education institutions versus 160 000 students in 110 institutions in 1993 (Hayden & Thiep, 2011; Human Development Department East Asia and Pacific Region, The World Bank, 2008). Reasons attributed to the rise of enrolments and demand for higher education qualifications are linked to higher household standard demands as well as employer and industry demands for more highly educated workers. But the high rate of demand has not been met with an equally high rate of response from the government or the education system.

The Work Bank, through its Human Development Department of the East Asia and Pacific Region (2008), has predicted that Vietnam will need to develop its research capacity in science and technology if it wants to compete to become a modern, industrialised nation. As a response to the challenges, the government has put into action such programs as HERA, Socioeconomic Development Plan 2006-2010, the New Model University Project, and the Resolution on Comprehensive and Fundamental Reform of Higher Education in Vietnam 2006-2020 (Nuffic Neso Vietnam, 2009; Runckel, n.d.).

External Factors Contributing to Study Abroad

The influences for studying abroad can be defined by the development and interdependence approaches described by Cummings (1984). These approaches define the push for sending students abroad and the pull from international opportunities. First, a nation's involvement in the world economy will have a major influence in the tendency to send students abroad. The development approach considers a person's financial ability to study abroad. This is likely to have been influenced by a nation's wealth, as fewer people in poorer countries will be able to afford to send their children abroad. A nation's domestic higher education quality also influences whether students decide to study abroad or stay within their own country. As nations become more interdependent, people are looking outside their home countries to follow their career ambitions, while the changing nature of work, influenced by multinationals and international organisations (Zikic, 2006; Zikic & Hall, 2009), provides a wider landscape for opportunities in the international labour market. Lastly, developed countries, such as the USA, UK and Australia have been trying to expand their international student numbers and actively pursuing student mobility initiatives (Carpenter, Castro & Mingo, 2010; Daly, 2011; Fernandes, 2006; Kelly, 2008; Li-Hua, Wilson, Aouad & Li, 2011; US--Vietnam Education Task Force, 2009). There are economic benefits for countries in expanding their international student bodies and becoming more involved in the trade in education (Fernandes, 2006). Education is the top export for the UK (Fernandes, 2006) and is the third largest for Australia. By 2009, Australia had 631 935 international student enrolments (Access Economics, 2009).

Country Implications for Study Abroad

There are many advantages and disadvantages for studying abroad. Fry (1984) outlined the impact of study abroad on developing nations in research done primarily on Thai students. Fry (1984) speculated that some of the positive effects of study abroad include political development, development of technical skills, foreign language competencies, regional consciousness and greater sensitivity to the need for cultural democracy, international economic effects and foreign exchange remittances, enhancement of mobility opportunities and cross-cultural enrichment effects. The outcomes of these benefits from studying abroad positively affect the economic and political performance of a country.

'Brain drain' could be an issue for Vietnam, as many past overseas students have not returned to their home country (Gribble, 2011). As in the case in China, it was recorded that, in 1996, of the 270 000 people who had studied abroad, only 90 000 had returned home to China. Of the number of returnees, 66.15% were publicly funded students sent for short-term advanced studies or training. Only 2.87% were self-funded returnees. These self-funded students were enrolled in academic degrees and their experiences were much more valued by the host country (Nianqing, 1998). But the small percentage of returnees means that there is something preventing them from returning to contribute to their home country.

Research done in Turkey (Tansel & Gungor, 2002) on the issue of brain drain is applicable to Vietnam. There are major similarities between the two countries, such as the number of students studying abroad, most of whom are personally funded, and government-sponsored students as a result of the growing need to raise academia in the countries. In addition, in both countries, the growing demand for higher education schooling can not be met by the home country due to lack of space in universities, not to mention the perception that a degree from abroad is a better quality education (Lawson, 2011). Non-return is another common feature, with reasons such as political instability, lower salaries and lack of employment opportunities after graduation, a preference for the host country's living standards, lack of national research and deficiencies in the education systems (Cervantes & Guellec, 2002; Tansel & Gungor, 2002).

The Appeal of Going Overseas

China and Vietnam have similar patterns of issues in their education sectors. As in China, the Vietnamese Government has allowed the expansion of the private education sector with a focus on raising academic excellence but funding for expanding the education system and facilities has not met the demands of those wanting to gain a higher education qualification. As of 2009, there were 1.2 million potential students competing for 400 000 spaces in the highly competitive state universities in Vietnam (Nuffic Neso Vietnam, 2009). The percentage of Vietnamese under the age of 30 who are seeking tertiary education is growing rapidly (Gribble, 2011). This, combined with recent growing prosperity and expanding work opportunities, adds to the push for Vietnamese to study abroad in order to stay competitive and also to meet the demanding needs of industry. The Vietnamese Government encourages overseas studies because there is recognition of the benefits of gaining an international education.

The national education system is both a reflection of and affected by international economic changes. The Ministry of Education has made plans to send 20 000 academics abroad by 2020 to attain doctoral degrees. The scholarships are awarded to raise the level of scholarship in Vietnam's universities. In the past, many of the students studying abroad were sent abroad for postgraduate studies (Kelly, 2008); they were the political, economic and social leaders and were sent to former socialist countries.

The US--Vietnam Education Task Force (2009) was created between the two governments set up to strengthen US--Vietnamese higher education cooperation. The principal areas of focus included an increase in the number of Vietnamese studying at American universities, especially PhD students, and promoting educational programs designed to help Vietnamese students acquire the skills needed for their economy. An example of the initiatives is the Fulbright Program, which sends 25 Vietnamese students overseas for postgraduate degrees each year.

Numbers of scholarships available from universities, foundations and corporations have grown throughout the last decade for Vietnamese students. Universities have prioritised student mobility and exchange programs as a means to help students develop the cross-cultural skills much needed by industry. Companies like Intel, struggling to find skilled workers in specific fields, have had to undertake their own education efforts. The company provides scholarships to study engineering in the USA with possible employment at Intel after graduation.

Little research has been done to understand the factors influencing student mobility. Before the early 1980s, international student mobility was influenced by foreign aid rather than viewed from a trade perspective. This has changed over the years, as more students are now self-funded. Cummings's (1984) research on students from 34 Asian nations shows that students take the initiative to go abroad on their own, independent of government or institutional aid. He also noted that influences to go abroad depend on educational, economic and political situations (Cummings, 1984). These findings were supported by Altbach (cited in Li & Bray, 2007) whose research looked at the push-and-pull model for international student mobility.

According to Gribble (1984), Asian students go overseas for various reasons, such as worries about their nation's future (for example, Hong Kong), ethnic discrimination (for example, Malaysia) and cultural ties (for example, Arab nations). As in the case with Malaysia, those with a Chinese background have limited capacity for entry into national universities and therefore had to seek higher education in the UK, USA and other nations (Carnoy, cited in Cummings, 1984). As supported in Li and Bray (2007) and Zheng's (cited in Li and Bray, 2007) research, internal factors, such as students' personal motivation, play a very important role in their intentions to study abroad. Students' decision to study abroad may be highly influenced by family. Family financial support, expectations and obligations are some of these main influences (Fouad & Fitzpatrick, 2009; Fouad et al., 2008; Pimpa, 2003).

According to Choudaha and Chang (2012), the USA is the market leader for study abroad destinations, followed by Australia and then the UK. The Australian Education International website (2009) reported that, in 2009, at the peak of international student enrolments, Vietnam had 23 755 students enrolled in Australian universities making up 3.8% of the total population of international students in Australia--49.9% growth on 2008. This placed Vietnam in sixth place behind China, India, Korea, Thailand and Nepal. As of 2011, Vietnam was in fourth place as a source of foreign students in Australia. The USA had only 13 112 Vietnamese students in 2009/10 (Institute of International Education, 2010), a 2.3% increase from the previous year. Factors that influence the choice of study destination were reported by Lawson (2011) for Australian Education International, who found the opportunity to learn English and the quality of the institution to be of primary importance to international students.

The Reverse Pull for Return

Some of the long-term impacts of overseas sojourns have proved positive and influential in determining a person's global engagement (Fry, 1984; Paige, Fry, Stallman, Josie & Jon, 2009) hence having those abroad return to contribute can have huge gains for the country of origin. The Vietnamese Government should be counting on graduates returning to Vietnam, where they can take up management positions, providing the skills and knowledge needed to drive Vietnam's economic and social development.

Gribble (2011) believes that the Vietnamese Government does not show initiative or concern for non-returning students and seems almost reluctant to make use of the overseas resource at home. One reason for this might be because of the estimated $7.2 billion of overseas remittance, which makes up 8% of Vietnam's GDP in 2008 (Gribble, 2011). Another reason is that the economic structure is still in need of major improvements before the country can support international economic migration. Gribble (2011) speculated that Vietnam is not set up or ready to support an internationally trained population. This is something worthy of noting as companies are not ready or able to offer salary packages that meet the expectations of graduates who hold international degrees.

There is an absence of data and research on return rates of Vietnamese students; it is therefore difficult to assess their decisions for returning after graduation. This is important as in order for the provision of career services, information on students' reasons for return is vital. Familial obligations (such as taking over the family business and taking care of elders), for example, would affect the type of career support needed. Knowing how long students have stayed abroad is also important, as it indicates when career support might be needed.

Some factors contributing to students staying abroad after attaining qualifications may include not being able to find appropriate work upon return that makes use of their new skills and knowledge. PhD graduates have limited funding in China, for example, and find themselves abroad again to continue their research. Poor working conditions, lack of research funds, lack of jobs for those holding PhD qualifications and housing constraints are all obstacles for returning Chinese (Nianqing, 1998). Chinese PhD Candidates receive good offers to join the American science and education workforce. A 1996 survey of mainland overseas students in the USA indicated only 15% had a desire to return to China (Department of International Affairs of the Ministry of Education & the Intellectual Development Research Institute, 2003).

International Experience and Industry Perception

It is without doubt that generic skills learnt by students and transferred from university to the workplace are highly valued. Within the scope of generic competencies are cognitive skills, practical abilities and other attributes that all lead to success in finding and placement into an occupation where learning can be transferred to the workplace (Curtin, 2004; Human Development Department East Asia and Pacific Region, The World Bank, 2008; Quek, 2005). A curriculum within a university that does not foster these generic competencies leaves graduates at risk for higher unemployment, as is the case with Malaysia (Quek, 2005).

International experience is seen as a means to develop employability skills and knowledge transfer. Studying and working abroad develops an individual's ability to adapt to new cultural contexts. This ability is highly marketable and is particularly valued by organisations that are international in outlook and practice (Crossman & Clarke, 2010), thus the role that universities play in providing opportunities for cross-cultural development is important.

As a response to globalisation, universities have had to internationalise their curriculums and encourage student mobility with support from programs such as University Mobility in Asia Pacific (UMAP) (Crossman & Clarke, 2010). Research shows that employers value international experience (Paige et al., 2009; Quek, 2005). It is believed that international experience influences the development of a range of important qualities, including ways of thinking, learning, cultural sensitivity and professional self-management (Bird, 2008; Clarke, 2005; Cowen, 2007; Koskinen & Tossavainen, 2003; Osland, 2008--all cited in Crossman & Clarke, 2010).

It is worth noting that there are exceptions to the view that study abroad is a plus for graduates. For example, there is the perception of American companies and some employers that the study abroad experience is 'a perk for wealthy students at selective colleges' (Fischer, 2010, p. A2). Acceptance and understanding of international experience is somewhat limited to the experience of the employer or recruiter as well. There can be a lack of understanding of what the gained skills translate to if the interviewer has never witnessed or experienced the difficulties and learning one gains from adapting to a foreign place.

Trung and Swierczek (2009, p. 568) stated in their review of the skills demand in Asian countries that overall 'interpersonal, team work, communication, problem-solving, learning and information skills are all desired by the majority of the employers'. Research literature on returning students from study abroad programs support the notion that students return with changes in perception and attributes such as global awareness and interests in international topics, maturity, self-awareness and independence (Hadis, 2005). For those returning to university after a study abroad period, a higher awareness and interest in academic studies is noticed. It has been questioned whether the experience plays a role in academically oriented maturation (Hadis, 2005).

One area lacking research is the acceptance and use of internationally attained qualifications and also the perceptions held by domestic industries of students who have studied abroad for short or longer periods of time (Wiers-Jenssen & Try, 2005). Vietnam does not stand alone in this area of need. Although a multinational company might value similar transferable and employability skills such as adaptability, innovative thinking and teamwork, how someone with an 'advanced' or international degree would fit into the local company culture is questionable. In addition, the expectations for returning graduates might be different as it is seen that their skills are more advanced. Therein rests the dilemma for returning graduates or students who have had some experience abroad.

It would be useful to further identify what the labour market demands are for skilled candidates in Vietnam. In research done on Vietnamese academics, students and employers, Duoc and Metzger (2007) found that employers in Vietnam valued the ability to apply knowledge as their highest-ranking competency. Employers also ranked critical analysis, problem-solving skills, enthusiasm and self-motivation as skills and qualities that they favoured. Because of the strong link between graduate outcomes and work-ready skills, the ties between educational institutions and industry need to be stronger. There is currently very little if any relationship between local universities and the business sector (Duoc & Metzger, 2007).

A study done to evaluate the employment outcomes of Malaysian graduates who were educated abroad with those educated domestically found that there was no difference in employment outcomes between the two groups (Ball & Chik, 2001). Wiers-Jenssen and Try (2005) found that Norwegians who studied abroad had a lower job probability and a higher risk of over-education than domestic graduates but they earned higher wages once employed.



Students returning from abroad may face issues making the transition back to their home country, and this may be overlooked. Countries that have been dealing with returning students have identified some major readjustment issues that need to be dealt with on a government and local level. Some examples are the need for government policy and funding to support the growing number of returnees, for universities to improve their career services, for input and engagement between education and companies and for family support.

From a career exploration perspective, students who return to their home countries are faced with negative experiences resulting from mismatched or inaccurate expectations (Zikic, 2006). The alignment of hope and expectations, according to Zikic (2006), will determine a person's likelihood to explore alternative options and make more efforts to self-manage his or her career. Although the research by Zikic applies to repatriates, we can apply the same approach to returning students with unrealistic expectations of where their experiences and foreign degree will take them.

A second problem facing returning graduates is that the industries or government organisations that sponsored their studies are not able to reintegrate them. For example, those studying abroad and returning home expecting or wishing to teach may be left disappointed. They return wanting to give back to their homeland and thinking that the universities will use their skills. The irony is in the fact that they leave because of the low level education, only to return to it and be rejected again. The new-found skills are wasted on an economy and system that aren't ready for them (Overland, 2008). In theory, the overall employability of someone who has had international experience should be improved, as such a person has gained the skills needed to influence, enhance and advance an organisation undertaking global business. Research is needed on the value of international degrees to Vietnamese companies.

Another area of research that needs to be tackled is how modern career development theories (Brown & Lent, 2005) are relevant or adaptable for cultures or countries that are in rapid transformation and change. In other words, there is recognition that career theories cannot directly be imported to different countries or cultures (Tams & Arthur, 2007; Thomas & Inkson, 2007). Existing career theories have been criticised for not being cross-culturally applicable or in need of further research as many of them have not been substantially validated or marginalised for racial or ethnic minorities and in contexts external to paid work. This is an important point to note as six out of ten workers (61.5% of the total employment in Vietnam) are in the 'vulnerable employment' category, meaning they are own account (self-employed) or unpaid family workers (International Labour Organisation, 2010). That is a significant enough percentage to consider how to best adapt current theories such as boundaryless careers; we also need to take into account non-Western value systems (Pekerti, 2008).

Thorn (2009, p. 443) stated that 'regardless of whether they [foreign sojourns] are long or short term, people who undertake self-initiated foreign experiences are operating in the boundaryless career paradigm, which differs from the traditional organisational career'. This may hold true for those who are from individualistic and developed nations but may not have the same validity in Vietnam. Because of the difficulty in retaining good skilled workers, companies are forced to create clear career pathways to attract and retain employees. The notion of boundaryless careers assumes that one has to take voluntary control and self-manage one's career. As Zikic and Hall (2009, p. 182) state, 'when individuals are able to act as proactive agents in their own careers, they are often seeking to change some aspect of their current situation, and engaging in career exploration is a necessary step in this process'. Zikic and Hall (2009) acknowledged that there are certain barriers to career exploration, such as lack of opportunities and resources, social constraints and serendipity. Pekerti (2008) has argued that boundaryless career models are not universal. A closer look at the Asian or more specifically Vietnamese context is needed to understand if the boundaryless model applies to groups of students with less career direction, deeper social restrictions and obligations, and how differing religious beliefs may affect the perception of control that one has over one's career.

An understanding as to how a Vietnamese person might adapt to Australian culture can be seen in the research done by Mak and Tran (2001) that studied intercultural social self-efficacy and how the level of extraversion and openness affects adaptation to Australian culture. Career services and student counsellors can play a role in helping students understand what to expect in the host country and how to deal with the changes and frustration that go hand in hand with living abroad. Further research also needs to analyse the importance of having a family connection or community in the host country as an external factor for smoother transitions.

Part of the perceived value of studying abroad is not only in the attainment of an international degree, but that it exposes students to a Western environment and approaches to teaching and learning to develop global employability skills. But, as many students have never travelled extensively, aspects such as cross-cultural communication, culture shock and Western teaching methodology and ways of thinking can be a hindrance to learning in the host country.

As there is a host of potential problems that an international student travelling to Australia can experience (Russell, Thomson & Rosenthal, 2008), it is important that these difficulties be thought about before students leave their home countries. Universities should ensure that the transition is smoother as it is evident that better integration and acculturation to the host country can affect not only students' academic studies but also, eventually, their gaining entry into the workforce for better overall career success (Mak & Tran, 2001). Workshops and support need to go beyond recognition and acknowledgement of differences between cultures and should consider the underlying needs from the standpoints of psychology, careers and the student.

Research by Leong and Chou (1994) showed that less acculturated Asian Americans tended to choose their careers based more on family desires or needs than on their personal desires or needs, whereas students who were highly acculturated saw the strengths and weaknesses of each culture and therefore made more realistic career choices. As the research was based on Asian Americans, a question lies in whether we can assume the same outcomes for students returning to Vietnam after longer periods abroad. Other research (Tang, Fouad & Smith, 1999) examined acculturation, family socio-economic status, family involvement and their influencing on self-efficacy, which in turn results in directly influences the career decision-making of Asian American students.

Support for Returning Students

Career services in Vietnam focus primarily on job placement and study abroad opportunities. As returning students can sometimes go through a reverse culture shock upon returning to their home country (Constantinian, Guinyard, Hermosisima, Lehman & Webb, 2008) support from career services would be beneficial. Reverse culture shock can have a negative effect that may temporarily inhibit returnees' ability to reintegrate into the school system or the workplace. Zapf (1991) noted problems such as social withdrawal and interpersonal difficulties. Reverse culture shock can be more profound than culture shock because those returning can make inaccurate assumptions about their return. Stelling (as cited in Gaw, 2000) stated that returnees don't expect any difficulties and underestimate the degree of change in both themselves and their home culture. Reverse culture shock can be more distressing because the person returning is caught off-guard by these unreal expectations (Westwood, Lawrence & Paul, 1986).

Career services have to focus on dealing with adjustment factors related to reverse culture shock. Workshops on return need to identify and acknowledge that reverse culture shock can be a harsher experience than regular culture shock (Gaw, 2000). For example, helping returnees develop realistic expectations and find personal connections with others could contribute to a smoother transition. Universities with career centres can take a more educational and cognitive approach by providing workshops to deal with the expected issues concerning re-entry. It is important to remember that services provided to students in terms of adaptation should consider the whole aspect of return and not leave out the psychological aspects of the changes.

Willingness to see a counsellor upon return is an area worth mentioning as it would prove that services in fact need to be prepared to see students or encourage returning students to visit student services such as career and counselling services. Gim, Atkinson and Whiteley's (1990) findings suggest that students who were less acculturated to the host country were more likely to seek counselling upon return. Gaw's (2000) findings also showed that returnees experiencing lower levels of reverse culture shock were more likely to seek support services. He further speculated that higher levels of culture shock might be the inhibitor for accessing support services. This has important implications for career services. There need to be support services to provide programs focused on student development to help returnees manage their re-entrance more successfully. Some suggestions from Gaw (2000) included peer mentoring, social functions, support and discussion groups as well as outreach modules dealing with cultural orientation or adjustment.

Some of the difficulties that returnees experience and that services need to deal with are a combination of psychological and social-cultural adjustments, such as personal identity, interpersonal relationships and career decision confusion (Gleason, cited in Gaw, 2000). Mak and Tran (2001) stated that 'effective interactions with peers, academic faculty members and general staff members constitute an important determinate of tertiary students' mastery of academic work and their social integration and wellbeing in their educational setting'.

These suggestions for assisting returning students or graduates would have to be evaluated further to assess their effectiveness. Returning students need to manage their personal expectations both on leaving and on returning to their home country. Support can come in the form of educational or cognitive approaches via workshops, reflection and references to books to help with the adjustments. Constantinian and colleagues (2008) discussed and reminded us that dealing with the needs of returning students cannot be done without consideration of the internal developmental challenges and the understanding of and development of the sense of self. It is because of this that services provided to returning students need to include not only the practical but also the psychological aspects of return.


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<ADD> MY LINH THI NGUYEN RMIT University Vietnam </ADD>

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Author:Nguyen, My Linh Thi
Publication:Australian Journal of Career Development
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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