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Thinking ASEAN, Studying in ASEAN

A shorter version of this article, in Vietnamese, can be read here:


 By Uyen Diep*

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – “Passing Chulalongkorn (University) and stepping out into the big world” is how Ha Quang Man, 19, views his decision to pursue a communications degree at this well-known university in Bangkok, Thailand that is popularly known as ‘Chula’.

He started classes this August at Chulalongkorn University, after preparing for his university education while still in Vietnam. To start with, he took a one-year break from his studies at an international university in southern Can Tho city in 2018. During this one-year gap, he focused on reviewing for the qualification entrance tests SAT and IELTS, which were needed for applications to one of Thailand’s most respected universities.

“After examining Thailand’s culture and higher education, as well as talking to many Thai students when I was in exchange programs, I chose an ASEAN nation to be my destination for overseas studies to fulfill my interest in the Thai language and in majoring in communication,” Man said in an interview.

But he faced challenges before he got to Bangkok. There was pressure from his family, which was not enthusiastic about his choice of a Southeast Asian country for tertiary studies. For his relatives, the quality destinations were the United States, Britain or Japan.

But young people like Man, who are determined to try education and career paths different from the expected, or usual, are no doubt the ones who contribute to Vietnam’s ranking as first among ASEAN’s 10 member countries in terms of the number of university students going abroad as of 2017, the latest year for which such data is available.

Overseas Vietnamese Students

There are an estimated 82,160 Vietnamese students overseas, according to UNESCO’s report on the Global Flow of Tertiary-Level Students. This shows a major increase from the figure of 53,835 Vietnamese students overseas in 2012.

Man is also part of the still-small number of Vietnamese students who choose to study in an ASEAN country.

Only 3.74% of the total overseas students, or 2,003 people, were studying within ASEAN, says the ‘Mapping Student Mobility and Credit Transfer Systems in ASEAN region’ study published in 2016 by the European Union Support to Higher Education in the ASEAN Region programme (SHARE). “While Vietnam has many outbound students, it has the smallest percentage of intra-ASEAN students compared to other ASEAN countries,” the SHARE report points out.

According to this study, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Indonesia have the largest number of university students in ASEAN countries, accounting for 63.87%, 34.78%, 28.69%, and 16.83% of their total outbound students.

Where do Vietnamese students usually go? A VNExpress article in 2017 listed the top five host countries for overseas students as Japan, the United States, Australia, China and Britain.

In fact, Vietnam’s pattern of international student mobility is not too different from other countries in ASEAN, which still typically looks to the West and Japan as education destinations, as the results of the ‘State of Southeast Asia: 2019 Survey’ Report showed. To the question ‘Which would be your first choice if you (or your child) were offered a scholarship to a university?’ fewer than 10% of respondents selected the answer “an ASEAN country”.

The top three choices were the US, “a European country”, Australia, and Japan, said the findings of the survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre of the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Many Vietnamese families still think of the West as the main destinations for overseas education, but a growing number of youngsters find Southeast Asia an interesting and challenging place to gain varied experiences in life.

Moreover, only 1.6% of Vietnamese respondents chose “an ASEAN country” as an education destination for their children. The top three choices were the US (41.9%) Australia (29%) and Europe (18.6%), with Japan a far fourth (8.9%).

While going overseas has been picking up among ASEAN countries since around 2010, there is an “imbalance” in ASEAN student mobility toward non-ASEAN countries even as linkages among ASEAN countries pick up. Moreover, the SHARE report’s authors said: “Despite (intra-ASEAN) student mobility progressing each year, the numbers are still quite low compared to the EU’s student flows”.

Exchange Programs Make A Difference

There is however, a different factor that is increasingly pushing young people’s interest in studying in another ASEAN country. This is the emergence of various exchange programs, including many facilitated under the goal of deepening people-to-people ties in the ASEAN Community, that make intra-ASEAN student mobility attractive and so much easier as youngsters identify more with Southeast Asia and acquire a stronger ‘ASEAN identity’.

These exchange programs have diverse purposes and topics. Many are initiatives from universities in ASEAN that have formed a network within the mechanisms of the ASEAN Community, some are backed up by ASEAN organizations or ASEAN national governments, while others are supported by non-profit groups or corporations.

Instead of coming in as a full-time undergraduate like Quang Man, Pham Hong Thien Trang was an exchange student at Chulalongkorn University for one semester in 2017. She got a slot in the university’s scholarship program for ASEAN nationals,  under which regional students who have completed at least one semester of university at home can study one semester at Faculty of Communication Arts. Trang, 22, applied for the program in her third year in journalism and communication at University of Social Sciences and Humanities- Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City.

Thien Trang

“There are numerous reasons for me to choose and apply for the scholarship. First, Thailand is famous for its unique advertising ideas, second, my faculty is ranked one of the best institutions in Asia for communication studies, and (third) Thailand is a popular holiday destination around the globe. Those thoughts spurred me to come to Thailand to learn about its nation, culture and people,” shared Trang, who found out about the Thai scholarship from an alumnus.

The exchange program opened a new world for Thien Trang. She had to communicate and study in English, in contrast to using Vietnamese at home. The subjects were more varied, and included some unavailable in her home university, such as art appreciation, public speaking, internship, comics for communication. The Chulalongkorn University facilities, such as its studios and library, were modern. Thien Trang said: “Participating in programs in ASEAN countries not only deepened my understanding about the regional community, but helped me recognize my strengths and weaknesses”.

Southeast Asia is home to some 7,000 higher education institutions with around 12 million students, SHARE mentioned in a 2019 publication.

Currently, the region has three prominent programs enhancing student mobility: ASEAN International Mobility for Students (AIMS) under the umbrella of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO), ASEAN University Network-ASEAN Credit Transfer System (AUN-ACTS) managed by AUN Secretariat in Bangkok, and SHARE, a project of the ASEAN and the EU.

All three schemes are credit transfer-based and facilitate short-term mobility in  academic exchange, meaning they are for periods of one semester to one year. Each scheme has its own members which are mostly universities in ASEAN member nations, and provides financial aid or scholarships.


Infographic: Uyen Diep

Infographics in this feature by Uyen Diep

The SEAMEO Regional Centre for Higher Education and Development – ASEAN International Mobility for Students (RIHED-AIMS), as given at least 3,000 scholarships in nine countries with 68 universities since 2010. A total of 577 scholarships have been awarded under AUN-ACTS programs by mid-2015. SHARE, which all the newer ASEAN members Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam participate in, has contributed 400 intra-ASEAN scholarships, and 100 ASEAN-EU scholarships since 2016.

Lessons in Life as Well

Hoang Thi Minh Ha, Trang’s classmate, completed one semester as an exchange student at the National University of Singapore from January to May 2019. This was under the under the AUN-ACTS scheme, as her university is a member of ASEAN University Network. A year ago, she was one of two Vietnamese representatives in the StudyAdelaide program, which funds outstanding students to study in Adelaide, Australia for one month.

She found both learning settings favorable for education as well as for gaining valuable experiences in life. But in particular, her time in Singapore allowed her to experience a very different education environment. “Course and module information are clear from the beginning and given before every class, along with each subject’s tutorial sessions in small groups that accelerated my lesson comprehension. They helped me to put more effort and concentration on study and practice, and to understand my goal in every module that I take,” Ha reflected.

Ha’s aim used to be just to pass university entrance examination in Vietnam – until 2015, when she joined a volunteer program marking 20 years of Vietnam’s in ASEAN. This motivated her to seek out and take part in ASEAN-themed programs, including JENESYS (East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths) in Japan in 2016, the ASEAN-India Students Exchange Program (AISEP) in 2018, and the latest AUN-ACTS exchange program that brought her to Singapore. Searching with the keyword ‘ASEAN’, she recalls finding information about these programs via Facebook pages, university pages and the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union’s website.

Minh Ha at NUS Cr

Various elements drive and support youth mobility in education within the ASEAN region, such as economic growth, cost, and social as well as cultural backgrounds, as SHARE’s ‘Mapping Student Mobility and Credit Transfer Systems in ASEAN Regionreport finds. The obvious examples for similar cultural contexts driving interest in overseas education is “students from Brunei Darussalam going to Malaysia and Indonesia and students from the CLMV (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam) countries going to Thailand,” it adds. Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia are majority Muslim countries, while Thailand has long been a magnet for people from neighbouring countries.

Nevertheless, the different languages in ASEAN also pose a challenge to student mobility. In fact, it is because of the linguistic diversity in the region that the official working language of ASEAN itself is English.

Looking to a longer-term solution, countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei have implemented bilingual education systems that provide syllabi in English, an example that Vietnam can pick up from.

Youth Exchange Schemes

Lan Anh when she was in Malaysia in 2017 CrBut if some find ASEAN languages challenging, Nguyen Lan Anh sees this it as an opportunity to learn new languages. Thanks to many ASEAN youth exchange programs, 23-year-old Lan Anh can greet friends in all ASEAN languages. She was a participant in ASEAN Future Leaders Summit in Thailand and Malaysia in 2017 and 2018, an event organized by universities in Malaysia such as Universiti Sains Malaysia. Last year, she took part in the Future Youth Summit in Malaysia, which was organized by the Malaysian non-government group Commonwealth Youth Innovation Centre in partnership with the Commonwealth Youth Council, as well as the first ASEAN Future Leaders Summit of Common Purpose organization in Singapore.

“In one year, we can find a variety of programs for youth exchange in ASEAN countries which are mostly fully-funded and do not require a visa for less than 30-day visit. Hence, it is easy for me to access and apply for them When I see ASEAN as an intersection of Eastern lifestyles, economic conditions, and cultures, I feel comfortable to explore these new things,” Lan Anh explained.

She may not be an exception given greater awareness among younger Vietnamese of their belonging in ASEAN.

A total of 77% of student respondents from Vietnam said they considered themselves ASEAN citizens in a survey on awareness of ASEAN that the Jakarta-based Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) did in 2017, which was the 50th anniversary of ASEAN.  They were asked to rate how much they agreed with the statement ‘I feel that I am a citizen of ASEAN’ in the study discussed by the report called ‘Voices of ASEAN: What Does ASEAN Mean to ASEAN Peoples’.

Like Lan Anh, 22-year-old Tran Khanh An has taken part in several ASEAN-related activities in short-term cultural exchanges or volunteer social projects. In 2016, she attended the JENESYS program in Japan and the long-running Ship for Southeast Asian and Japanese Youth Program (SSEAYP). In 2017, she was a Vietnamese representative at the ASEAN University Network Students’ Week in Indonesia and at the ASEAN Foundation Model ASEAN Meeting in the Philippines. Last year, she participated in Temasek Foundation International Specialist’s Community Actions & Leadership Exchange in Singapore.

“ASEAN is a group of countries expanding operations and whose door is open for all students as well as young labour,”Khanh An said.

Khanh Anh (second from left)

While looking for these avenues require effort, she said the opportunities and procedures are accessible and relatively simple. “To illustrate, we have ASEAN University Network that facilitates universities’ connection, or the ASEAN Foundation and many non-governmental, non-profit organizations provide exchange and training programs in diverse and demanding fields,” she added.

In addition, there are well-known programs like the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative of US Mission to ASEAN (YSEALI) and the ASEAN Youth Volunteer Programme (AYVP) under the Malaysian Ministry of Youth and Sport. Khanh An listed Vietnamese organizations that have ASEAN-focused programs, such as non-government Lead The Change Community. Since 2018, the community, whose members have reached over 8,000, has been organizing one to two exchange trips each year to Singapore for Vietnamese aged 18-25, or those they define to be young leaders or have the potential to be so.

Lead The Change at Facebook Singapore Cr2

Lead The Change group at the offices of Facebook Singapore    Photo: Lead The Change 

At first, Huynh Cong Thang, founder of Lead The Change, just aimed to bring young Vietnamese to foreign countries in order to widen their horizons – to have training, learn about their neighbors, be exposed to successful entrepreneurs and experts. But his years of travelling across ASEAN as a guest speaker at startup-focused conferences impressed on him that the region possesses shared values in their economies, culture and educational systems. While his group mostly works with young Vietnamese, Thang decided to try something new in 2019. As Thailand is ASEAN Chair for the year, he organized an exchange program for young Cambodians and Thais in August together with 20 Vietnamese.

“Once I attended to 2019 ASEAN Community Leadership and Partnership Forum in Thailand and had a chance to share about Lead The Change, I received a lot of compliments from distinguished guests in the region, and I knew what I have been working on since 2016 was a part of promoting regional partnership and the development of the young generation,” Thang recalled. “It motivated me to build and train a better young generation in Vietnam and ASEAN in general.”

Vietnam’s chairmanship of ASEAN in 2020 is expected to add to the enthusiasm among young Vietnamese about discovering, and being part of, the larger ASEAN community. Among the avenues to this is Thang’s plan to organize more exchange trips to other ASEAN countries such as Malaysia.

(*This article was produced in collaboration with the ‘Reporting ASEAN’ media program and its Cambodia-Lao PDR-Myanmar-Vietnam (CLMV) Integration Series.)



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