International education as a public good

Vietnam has been a significant source country for international students in the last 30 years, and there is no sign of this trend changing in the near future.

Such growth aligns with the country’s economic development since the 1990s when Vietnam transitioned to a market-based economy with strategic efforts in entering the global economy. This is certainly seen at the national level with government and bilateral scholarships as a key element in the internationalisation of higher education policy.

The growth in Vietnamese students studying abroad also reflects a societal aspiration for Western education that has deep historical roots of colonial days. It would not be inaccurate to say that every Vietnamese family wish to send their children to study in the US, France or Australia.

What does this mean in terms of social equity for Vietnam?

First, studying overseas is expensive. In my research about Vietnamese international graduates, the majority of scholarship recipients was from high socioeconomic backgrounds while those that self-financed were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. This may suggest that the provision of scholarship by the Vietnamese government, bilateral agencies, and host universities amplify the “meritocracy” notion that reproduces the privileged class by giving them access to international experiences.

In a society that is undergoing dramatic economic change and increasing level of economic inequality, international education carries equity and social justice agendas from the wider society through unequal access.

Second, if acquired international education results in differentiating local-trained graduates from international graduates that advantage the latter over the former in terms of entering the jobs market and income, then it entrenches economic disparity that produce advantage in the first place. In a high-network society like Vietnam, where material is linked with social status, this would further marginalise those that are left outside the (local or international) education system.

My research also found that the majority of graduates participated passively in community work for public benefits citing economic betterment as the main benefit of international education. While this finding is not generalisable, it highlights the moral problem of the effects of international education.

If one sides with education as a private good, then one may accept the idea of education to benefit the individual.

The equity issue, though, is about “who pays and who benefits” in sending students abroad. If students are sent overseas to study on public funds through government scholarships, a return on this public investment ought to be students’ contribution to society for the benefits of society not only for themselves.

It is not possible to separate the contribution of international education to society if the selection of students carries social inequity of the wider society, and if these students are not willing or able to contribute to public benefits and improve a fair and just society.

The moral problem of equity can be addressed by shifting the international educational paradigm as a private good to a public good. A public good is when society is seen as the final beneficiary of education while the student is the target beneficiary. The public good concept originates from the political economy contexts where human capital is the goal of education. Given that international education is in part a response to Vietnam’s economic transition, as Singapore, Japan once were, this theoretical underpinning of public good has some appeals.

However, in the context of capitalist-developing economy, there are overlapping issues of access to and effects of international education in terms of social equity. The notion of education for human capital therefore needs to go much further.

Creating pathways for international graduates to participate in community development or service learning can be some ways to balance private interest position and public benevolence. Civic opportunities need not be seen as binary to career development. They can be embedded in internship or experiential learning programs in the home countries while abroad or upon returning home.  

Some of these initiatives are already part of the learning model in some Australian universities where students take internship in developing country in NGOs or community-based organisations. Leveraging these programs and the networks society in Vietnam to cultivate citizenship could be the key to sustainability in Vietnam’s development.

If you are an international student or graduate engaging in community development in your home or host country, I would love to hear your story. Please connect with me on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Email.

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