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.


The paradox of democracy

The recent Australian federal election result reveals the paradox of democracy in a world of economic decline and social inequality.

Almost all Queenslanders voted for the Coalition government because they were promised continuation of the coal mine industry that would provide jobs – labelled as pursuit of aspiration albeit seen through the veil of economy. This was posited against the threat of the Labor Party’s stripping away the coal industry and thus a future of no jobs. This so-called choice that Queenslanders took up have been said as reasonable because they were voting for economic survival.

But here is the problem, under capitalism, the burden of survival is put upon the people whose autonomy and agency are hailed through their capacity for employment. Yet this capacity is based purely on their past experience and past or existing conditions. In order for them to continue to make good of such capacity, these conditions have to continue to exist. In other words, economic survival is about being dependent on the conditions in which those past experiences were enabled which, for the Queenslanders, is the coal industry. Thus, the Coalition’s claim of ensuring a continuation of coal industry created that perceived opportunity structure for survival – a survival that necessitates the maintenance of exiting conditions.

At the same time, those at the higher end of socioeconomic percentile – those who own capital like property – also rely on past or existing conditions in order to maintain their status, which are tax breaks through negative gearing or franking credits. These people also voted for the Coalition in order to ensure such conditions continue to exist so as to maintain their economic position, also termed as aspirational people.

Both groups, whether at the lower or higher end of the socioeconomic ladder, are caught in the structures that created the conditions that put them in their respective positions in the first place. In fact, we are all caught in these structures, but in a declining economy, those at opposing ends of socioeconomic groups perceive the needs to maintain their status quo much more than others and any claim to maintain existing conditions that address these groups would be most effective. That is why the Coalition campaign was so effective because they struck at the perceived needs of these groups.

Herein lies the paradox of democracy. Rather than creating a platform where people can address their real concerns with the government, democracy has effectively let people to “unconsciously” maintain their respective socioeconomic position without knowing that they are “subjects” of the structures that put them there and construct their choice in ways that make them think they have a choice.

It is not that democracy is not worthwhile, but democracy only works to produce its desired effect of common good when all people are on even ground to make “real” choice. The paradox of democracy is that in conditions of heighted inequality, it can be used as a tool for the State to create false perception of its regime – as Foucault terms “a regime of truth” – thereby creating conditions in which the State can maintain their political legitimacy. The creation of false perceptions is what the Australian media calls Morrison’s effective campaigning. Or it is just simply that sowing fear is easy because existing structures have conditioned people into accepting what they see as choice. In fact, this is how authoritarian states operate, for example in Singapore, China or Vietnam where economic prosperity is the conditions too appealing to forego in exchange for real democracy.

This is where Marx is wrong in proposing that capitalism is unsustainable because at some point economic inequality would lead to people’s revolt. He was basing his thoughts on the morality principle of common good whereas the reality of capitalism has seen entrenched individualism in ways that makes it incredibly difficult for any political Party to prosecute a vision of common good as opposed to individual good.