Vietnam has embarked on a pilot project with five Australian universities to offer online and blended degree courses in partnership with Vietnamese universities, under a new directive allowing foreign providers to offer online courses.
This could open a new chapter for blended learning in transnational education where foreign universities offer their own degrees or joint degrees with local universities, experts say.
Vietnam is one of the first countries in Asia to officially allow online delivery of foreign degrees to students within the country, also known as transnational education or TNE, with other countries hesitant to change their regulations, fearing a pandora’s box of unrestricted and unmonitored ‘entry’ of foreign providers using the online space.
It also points to newly emerging forms of cross-border education since the global pandemic wreaked havoc with normal teaching.
The pilot programme follows an agreement between Vietnam and the Australian government last year on cross-border online education. The Australian universities involved in the pilot are Monash University, Deakin University, Swinburne University of Technology, Griffith University and the University of Southern Queensland.
Swinburne University of Technology is providing an undergraduate degree in information and communications technology (ICT) in alliance with FPT University, a private university in Vietnam set up by FPT, the country’s largest internet service provider.
Truong Cong Duan, academic head of Swinburne University in Vietnam, said the courseware and the ICT system for delivering the courses are delivered by Swinburne, while FPT University would provide mentors and other learner support, as well as marketing the courses locally and administering admissions and enrolment.
“We now have the staff [in place] to recruit students,” Truong told University World News.
“Swinburne designed the course, but in some cases we updated the content after discussing with them the context in Vietnam. But we want to keep [their] courses because we want students to learn not just locally but also globally,” he said, noting that the courses would continue to be developed appropriately with continuous feedback from Vietnam.
Truong said the pilot online course will recruit its first intake of 20 students in Vietnam from this September, and may rise to 50 and then 100 students in subsequent semesters with three semester intakes per year.
The pilot is expected to last around five years “and then we will review it based on a report from the period from admission to when they graduate in around four years,” he said.
“The pilot programme will enable the universities to know whether the teaching is effective if delivered online outside the home campus,” he said.
“Vietnamese people prefer face to face. However, right now the internet speed in Vietnam has increased and young people are beginning to use online more than previous generations. That’s why we have opened this programme.”
New regulatory environment
The delivery of such TNE courses has been made possible by a new regulation in Vietnam approved last October known as Circular 38. It sets out the rules for allowing online and blended learning in higher education delivered by foreign partners.
“It provides the framework for TNE international providers and their local partners to deliver programmes in online and blended modes. And that’s quite interesting, because it opens up a new way of delivering these joint programmes not previously available,” said Haike Manning, founder of Lightpath , an international education consultancy in Vietnam.
“This will probably get quite a lot of attention as an alternative model to be explored,” he added.
Hiep Pham, an educator at the Hanoi-based Centre for Education Research and Development, EdLab Asia said: “Prior to 2020, some higher education providers suggested opening up blended learning or online learning-based TNE degree programmes, but the Ministry of Education and Training was reluctant to allow these new modes of education services. However, due to COVID-19, Vietnamese people became more familiar with these types of learning.”
He added: “As people have a greater degree of acceptance of these new learning modes, a new circular was eventually approved as the regulatory framework for blended and online learning-based TNE in Vietnam.”
According to Hiep: “Circular 38 has some articles relating to the quality assurance of these new modes of learning, such as the host institution in Vietnam must have a similar course to the TNE course. This may ensure the host institution will have local scholars who can be involved in managing the TNE course, [and provide] information and technology infrastructure and facilities.”
But he does not foresee uncontrolled expansion of this type of TNE in Vietnam. “The Ministry of Education and Training still controls the enrolment quotas – it’s not easy for TNE to expand rapidly in Vietnam,” he said, adding that enrolment quotas depend on the number of faculty and student quotas in place for local courses.
Manning notes that for foreign providers the new regulations provide for “a strategic partnership with a local university which gives the foreign institution the ability for them to teach multiple programmes and in some cases, entire degrees, in the [Vietnamese] market, as opposed to a branch campus which is essentially autonomous and independent from any local provider, and also distinct from a joint programme”.
“It shows a growing realisation [by the Vietnamese government] that the education system here does need to continue to be modernised. Their aspiration is to develop international-quality universities and the way they do that is to encourage international engagement.
“And a second strand is around digitisation and making higher education more accessible to a large part of the population to overcome some of the existing capacity constraints they have in their public universities,” Manning said.
According to Truong, the new online degree is aimed at students who already have some experience in ICT. Many are looking for a flexible programme to fit around work commitments and enhance their skills.
It can also be done more quickly than a normal programme, he noted, by completing the modules quickly. “Also, if the student starts and then stops and then starts again, that’s also acceptable.”
FPT University is also running a conventional degree alongside the blended learning Swinburne degree, and if students wish to apply, they can switch, Truong said. “It’s another option for them. They can apply online and if they want, they can take some courses offline.”
With fees at US$20,000 for the full programme, it is more expensive than a local degree. However, it is one-third of the tuition fee for the comparable Swinburne degree delivered in Melbourne, Australia. Truong said they expect to provide some financing and scholarships to students in Vietnam.
“There is a lot of demand for people with ICT skills in the Vietnamese market,” he noted. “And these students will have something different from others.”
Swinburne University of Technology also wants to open up further in the Vietnamese market. “Because many foreign students could not go to Australia, if they have more local students [in Vietnam] they can continue to attract students and continue to teach them. In fact, at the moment at Swinburne, 80% of students who are in Australia are learning online, and they have an ecosystem in place,” Truong said.
It also provides an alternative to expensive branch campuses in the country which require considerable capital investment and regulatory hurdles in Vietnam.
New modes of international education
Such examples of new modes of delivery would open up doors for foreign providers, particularly as thinking changed during the pandemic, said Michael Bartlett, global managing director for education at Sannam S4, an international education consultancy.
“Most universities had deliberately kept their TNE strategy and their international [student] recruitment strategies very separate. I think they feared it might cannibalise on the revenue from the inbound student market,” Bartlett told University World News.
“Ironically, the opposite tends to happen, because if you put something in-country, students know the brand more,” said Bartlett, who is based in Singapore.
He noted universities are moving more towards a joint strategy, to include both TNE and recruitment of international students.
“Universities have focused more on TNE over this pandemic period than ever before, because it is one thing that they can do when there are so many things they just can’t do at the moment. If you can do it right [online], it can be pandemic-proof [for the future],” Bartlett said.
“It won’t be the golden bullet that resolves hundreds of millions of dollars of funding gaps for universities from loss of international students, but it will help, and it will diversify and mitigate some of that risk moving forward,” said Bartlett, adding: “We will see blended learning as a mainstream solution.”