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Beyond English: Other options for HE internationalisation


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In November 2021, the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) issued a new circular about regulations for organising exams in the Vietnamese language for international students. This adds to a series of MOET circulars regarding the institutionalisation and standardisation of Vietnamese language education for international students in Vietnam.

While teaching Vietnamese to international students in Vietnam is not a new practice, these circulars are a management response to a booming phenomenon of programmes teaching Vietnamese to foreigners being developed in higher education institutions and private centres all over the country in the recent decade.

It has contributed to a dynamic of internationalisation of higher education in Vietnam that, compared with other phenomena like the rise of the English language in education, has been under-researched.

The same tendencies can also be seen in internationalisation of higher education in Asia, evidenced in published collections about student mobility and higher education transformations.

They include Francis Collins and K Ho’s 2018 study Discrepant Knowledge and interAsian Mobilities: Unlikely movements, uncertain futures; Phan Le Ha and Gerald Fry’s 2021 collection International Educational Mobilities and New Developments in Higher Education in Asia; and David Chapman, William Cummings and Gerard Postiglione’s book Crossing Borders in East Asian Higher Education.

On the one hand, English has proved to be a dominant language, contributing to the internationalisation of higher education in Asia, with many countries implementing policies to enhance English.

On the other hand, Asian language programmes for international students are also thriving. For example, countries like China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand, to name a few, have all developed national language entry requirements for international students pursuing higher education that use their national languages as the medium of instruction.

This trend has opened up other options for the internationalisation of higher education which are not dependent on the rise of English as the dominant medium of instruction.

Vietnamese language programmes

Vietnamese language programmes for international students have been tied to a nation-building agenda and foreign affairs since the foundation of the modern Vietnamese nation state.

When we look at the case of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s government in North Vietnam (1945 to 1975) and then the current government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (since 1976), the programmes mainly serve the foreign affairs agenda of the communist government in relation to countries like Laos, Cambodia and the Soviet Union by providing Vietnamese language education to students and others coming from those countries to Vietnam.

For example, in 1955 a Lao Viet Friendship School in Thai Nguyen enrolled 150 officials, soldiers and students from Laos on its Vietnamese language programme. The number of learners increased rapidly until the Viet-Lao Treaty of Friendship and Comprehensive Cooperation of July 1977. About 35,000 students from Laos have received Vietnamese language training at the school.

Likewise, another Friendship School in Hanoi, founded in 1980 and specialising in providing secondary education to students from Laos under a Vietnamese government scholarship scheme, has recently expanded to provide Vietnamese language training for higher education exchange students. In just one academic year, 2016-17, the school enrolled 287 Laotian and 93 Cambodian graduate students.

This system of friendship schools, as well as many training units in Vietnam’s universities, such as Vietnam National University in Hanoi (since the late 1950s) and Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City (since the 1980s), were founded to serve this training demand from the Vietnamese government.

Yet, from the introduction of the Doi Moi reforms, which opened up the country’s economic and social exchanges, language training has radically changed direction, moving beyond the short courses set up for political purposes towards the establishment of independent programmes that are responsive to globalisation and the internationalisation of Vietnamese higher education.

After Doi Moi

The last decade of the 20th century saw a rise in regional and global exchanges in all aspects of life in Vietnam, from politics to economics, which has transformed the country’s higher education system.

Increased mobility has brought waves of foreigners to Vietnam, leading to a surging demand for Vietnamese language training, from basic to advanced level, for both living and working purposes. These eager learners are active in finding training centres, flexible in their learning arrangements, and pay United States dollars for tuition.

The more open policies have also allowed higher education institutions to be active and responsive to the education market and to come up with creative ways of catching up with the opportunities such language learning provides.

For example, in Hanoi, staff at Hanoi National University of Education set up a training centre in the 1990s, another department in 2000 and finally a separate institution solely for managing international students. In Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnam National University (VNU) set up a department of Vietnamese studies in 1998 by developing its existing Vietnamese language unit founded in the 1980s.

While many higher education institutions capitalise on the demand for language teaching for those whose native language is not Vietnamese (TVSOL) and are rapidly opening up new training units and TVSOL programmes, well-established institutions with existing Vietnamese language programmes lead the market when it comes to the number of learners enrolled.

This is the case of VNU: in just 10 years since it was founded, the number of international students enrolled in the department of Vietnamese studies has grown four-fold.

The rise in demand for Vietnamese language education has led to an increase in the number of scholars and university leaders who promote Vietnamese studies, a new area of study for both Vietnamese and international students.

Since it was first launched in 1998 with a focus on defining Vietnamese studies as a science and promoting Vietnamese international affairs in academia, the International Conference on Vietnamese Studies has been held every four years, sponsored directly by the Vietnamese government.

From 2001 to 2005, some universities opened their training units and started to enrol domestic undergraduates on Vietnamese studies courses. For example, Hanoi National University of Education got its first students in 2002. The field of Vietnamese studies as a higher education training programme was officially recognised in a decision by the Ministry of Education and Training in 2005.

Up to 2007-08, Vietnamese studies was taught at 76 universities and colleges nationwide. These programmes use Vietnamese as a medium of instruction. While they target both domestic and international students, the booming of the programmes has also opened up a new development pathway for Vietnamese language education in higher education institutions.

In 2015, as a result of this rapid expansion, MOET issued its first milestone decision on a Vietnamese competence framework of six levels for speakers of other languages. In 2018, another circular was issued indicating the entry requirements in Vietnamese competence for international students studying at institutions in Vietnam.

The 2021 circular, mentioned at the beginning of this article, has helped to standardise the Vietnamese exam that is organised by authorised higher education institutions for international students.

Authorised higher education institutions, therefore, have an advantage when it comes to enrolling students, getting regular training contracts and conducting research to develop the field. One example of this is the department of Vietnamese studies at VNU in Ho Chi Minh City, where the number of international students enrolling each year fluctuates but increased sharply between 2012 and 2018.

Students in this faculty come from 95 countries and territories around the world: Asia, Europe, America, Africa and Australia. The top-sending country is South Korea with 9,363 students, followed by Japan with 1,871 students, the United States with 1,185 and France with 748. The faculty has training contracts with many organisations, including the US Consulate, the Korean Consulate and Samsung.

Students enrol not just on short language courses but also on bachelor, masters and PhD degree programmes. They use Vietnamese in their graduate research articles and theses. Although the number is still limited, it has contributed to Vietnamese knowledge production.

Through focusing on the case of Vietnam, we have sought to show how national language education programmes are developing as part of the process of internationalisation in higher education. This requires a more dynamic way of understanding the internationalisation of higher education in Asia and beyond.

Source: University World News


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