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Stay or go?

Released at: 16:00, 18/02/2017

Stay or go?

Photo: Viet Tuan

Remaining where they are or coming home is a question all Vietnamese studying overseas must grapple with.

by Le Diem

Out of the 15 students sent overseas to study on a full scholarship after winning the “Road to Mt. Olympia’s Peak” quiz show, Vietnam’s largest knowledge contest for high school students, only one has returned to Vietnam to work after graduation in its 15 seasons. Whether to remain overseas or come back to Vietnam is a big question for all overseas students, and the facts show that the former tends to win out. 

Big dreams

The number of Vietnamese students heading overseas to study increases every year. Around 130,000 are now studying abroad, mostly in countries with leading education systems, such as the US, Australia, the UK, and Japan, according to the latest data from Vietnam International Education Development (VIED) at the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET). Of these, 90 per cent are financially self-supporting and the remainder have received scholarships or are on national programs. The number has risen 13-fold since the year 2000.

Different from previous generations, many modern parents don’t wait until their children finish high school before sending them to study overseas. They are willing to invest a large sum to support their children’s studies from a young age, parting with $30,000-40,000 annually over the course of eight to ten years. “It’s my biggest investment. I want my kids to be as prepared as possible,” said Mr. Quoc Cuong, a businessman who is financing his son and daughter’s overseas studies. “We have to work hard to support them. Sometimes when my business goes down, I have to borrow money. But it’s worth investing in a bright future for our kids.” 

Such efforts by parents such as Mr. Cuong also promise a good future for Vietnam’s labor market. According to McKinsey & Company, a worldwide management consulting firm, Vietnam will have 15 per cent fewer highly-skilled workers than required in 2020. These future overseas graduates are expected to partially fill the deficit. 

Many students head overseas with the intention of returning to Vietnam to use what they learned from developed countries for their homeland’s development. 

The second intention is to be closer to their families, community, and culture. Though a higher quality, more professional life can be found in developed countries, it is still easier for Vietnamese to live in Vietnam, according to Ms. Ngoc Dung, an overseas graduate of the Swiss Hotel Management School. 

Living far from her family, Ms. Dung made friends at the school but once their studies were completed they all headed their different ways. The friends she made while working in Switzerland weren’t that close. Living costs are expensive. She had to work hard in a highly-competitive environment just to keep up. “I worked 10-12 hours a day,” she said. “After finishing work, I just wanted to go home and sleep. I didn’t have much time to go out or travel.” 

Similarly, Mr. Ngoc Tuan, a graduate of Bordeaux University in France, said there were good job opportunities in developed countries but also strong competition. You must be very skillful and hard-working just to survive. Meanwhile, as Vietnam increasingly attracts foreign investment and joins economic agreements, good jobs become available at home, which is an attractive proposition for many overseas graduates.

Rude awakening

For many, their ambitious dreams fail to come true after graduation. According to a survey of more than 350 overseas graduates by training and recruitment consultancy Son Hung Dung (SHD), 64 per cent of students decide to stay overseas. Most explained that salaries in Vietnam fail to match the investment in studying overseas so they feel they should stay to recoup the outlay.  

In addition, 87 per cent of those who returned to Vietnam to work said they had to deal with a host of difficulties finding a job and working in the local workplace environment, particularly if they end up in State-owned organizations. This also discourages those who wish to return. 

Despite possessing an international degree, which is supposed to catch the eye of local recruiters, the opposite tends to be true. Many recruiters seem to pay more attention to applicants with local qualifications than overseas qualifications. 

Most overseas students these days are self-financed but many aren’t as skilled as the previous generation, who usually studied abroad with a scholarship, according to Ms. Van Anh, a human resources manager. Some of the younger generation have secured employment at her company but their work performance has been found wanting. After a long period living overseas, some have less understanding about Vietnamese markets than local graduates. Yet they usually seek a very high starting salary, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage. “In our view, the most important thing is not just knowledge or degree but work performance, experience and other soft skills,” she explained. “We pay employees based on their performance, not whether they hold an international degree.” 

Other recruiters are likewise hesitant when receiving applications from overseas graduates, which becomes a challenge for those educated outside of Vietnam. “Even though I don’t ask for a high salary, I’m not sure many companies even look at my CV after seeing I studied overseas,” said Ms. Dung.

It’s much more difficult to apply for a position at a government organization, regardless of the degree. In a recent project called “When the birds fly home”, on overseas students staying where they are or returning home, Professor Hoang Anh, a lecturer at the Hanoi Foreign Trade University, shared his story of coming back to Vietnam after studying in Europe. 

He believed he would quickly find a job if he put in the requisite effort, but it took him a year. “Even if your profile is good, who you are is more most important,” he said. “Which means who your father or mother is, or who your uncle is, or who else you may know. If you don’t have connections, you’ll have to wait. If you don’t want to wait, you might have to pay.”  

If overseas graduates are fortunate and find a good job, there are other difficulties to face. New and young staff find it hard to have their voices or ideas heard. “It is still common in Asian office culture for the boss to have the biggest role and for the staff be in his shadow,” Ms. Dung said. “It’s not easy for bosses to listen to staff, as the boss is always right.” 

Another issue overseas graduates must cope with is a lack of modern technology and facilities, which can often mean they have little chance to use what they learned in developed countries. Complex paperwork in Vietnam is also an uncomfortable barrier to crash through. The working environment overseas is more open and encourages individual contributions, they all agree.

But keep dreaming

Despite the challenges, people who return to Vietnam still encourage other overseas students to do likewise. There are advantages and disadvantages in either decision, according to Mr. Tuan. A talented person can adapt to any environment and develop him or herself as well as the organization, as a part of the country’s growth. “I believe that if someone has the capability and the goals, they can do it,” he said. “If you see problems, try and change it. If everyone waits until it’s ‘better’ to come back, who will make it ‘better’? We can do it together, but it will take time.”

There are indeed many enthusiastic young overseas graduates who return home and find success in startups, such those who created Vina Games (VNG), a leading game and entertainment firm with its brand Zing, Topica, one of the first online education providers in Southeast Asia, Azstack, a communications platform for mobile apps, OnOnPay, an online payment application, and CyberAgent Ventures, a venture capital firm. 

Vietnam has begun to try and encourage overseas students to return home and work by introducing preferential policies, according to Mr. Xuan Vang, Head of VIED. VIED conducts formalities in introducing overseas students to work as lecturers at local universities if they’re interested. It also introduces them to both State and private organizations seeking senior personnel. “Hundreds of enterprises contact VIED seeking staff that studied overseas,” he said. “Overseas students are now in a better position when coming home.” The Ministry of Home Affairs, he said, has proposed new projects and policies for overseas students to the Prime Minister. 

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