Higher education Down Under

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Australian school recruiters keen to tap Vietnam potential

A boy talks with a representative of Australia's Armidale School at an Australian school exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City this month. Australia has become a popular destination for Vietnamese students for the past few years. (Photo by Nghia Pham)

Businessman Vo Thanh Phuong already has an inkling of where his 12-year-old daughter will attend high school three years from now.

"Australia is a good choice," said Phuong, holding brochures he'd collected at an exhibition of Australian schools in Ho Chi Minh City this month. The large ballroom at the Legend Hotel, where the event took place, was hot and noisy as hundreds of students and parents conversed intently with recruiters.

Mani White, international students coordinator from Prince Alfred College in Adelaide, was impressed. "There are a lot of students and [enrollment] agents."

It was her first trip to Vietnam. White's school had joined the same exhibition last year in the city, but there'd been no enrolment, so she was here to try again.

"We have to work harder to penetrate the market," she said.

Many overseas educational institutions are aware of the potential the Vietnamese market presents.

Currently, 60 percent of the Vietnamese population is under 35 years old and the literacy rate is 90 percent. The traditional belief in education as the means to advancement has been bolstered by growing incomes that put overseas education within reach of increasing numbers of people.

Vietnam is Australia's fifth largest education market with more than 18,000 students as of March 2010, according to the latest data available from the Australian government. Out of the top five countries, it registered the highest year-on-year growth rate of enrollment of 25.7 percent.

"Australia is a popular destination for Vietnamese students"¦ Strong growth continues across all levels of education," said Tony Burchill, Australian Senior Trade and Investment Commissioner.

In terms of business, meanwhile, Vietnamese and other international students contribute about US$15 billion in tuition and living expenses to the Australian economy, making the education industry the country's second biggest export after resources.

As of March 2010, there were more than 432,600 international students in Australia, according to official statistics.

"All these people and their dependents are living in Australia and purchasing their food, transport, accommodation and other daily needs. The flow on effect through the economy is enormous," said Anthony Pollock, chief executive of IDP Education, an Australian enrollment service provider.

Worth the money

While the US and Singapore are other popular destinations for students in HCMC, Australia has its own strengths. Eight of the top 100 universities in the world are based Down Under, according to the 2009 QS World University Rankings.

"[The education quality] is good, though not the highest," said Tony Byrme, a recruiter who's been to Vietnam four times for education exhibition. "It's good value for the money."

Nguyen Ngoc Hanh, a teacher who got his masters in TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) in Australia, said Australian education is much better than in Vietnam in terms of encouraging students' independence.

 "Australian teachers are instructors and helpers, students are responsible for most of their study. Here, Vietnamese teachers have to do most of the study and students just copy their work," he said.

The library is the clearest example of the difference between the two education systems, he said.

While the library of a Vietnamese school can be the least significant building, the library in an Australian school is like an "upscale hotel" to facilitate students to do their own study.

Hong Le, a university student who was helping her younger brother research schools, would herself prefer studying in Singapore, but believes Australia would be a better choice to learn English.

Phuong, who's been to Australia several times on business trips, described the country as "quite peaceful, with a good environment for living and studying." Besides, "I have friends and relatives who studied and succeeded there."

He said he could afford her daughter's education in the US, but he would somehow "not feel very secure"¦ Not that I think the US is bad." Also, Australia is not as far from Vietnam as the States, he said.

Less expensive tuition fees and other expenses in Australia are also another plus, though not a strong one since the stronger Australian dollar is now not much cheaper than the greenback, Phuong said.

Even the Australian government's recently tightened immigration regulations, which may make it more difficult for students to get visas, would not be a big issue.

Sandra Smart, assistant principal at Victoria-based Rosehill Secondary College, said: "We've spoken to a lot of agents and they say they still receive a lot of parents' requests. I think it'll be okay."

For the recruiters, patience is key in this market.

"It takes determination and consistency. It's not a one day job," White said.

So, even if interest does not translate into enrollments this time, "we'll be back next year, of course."

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