Countless schools are opening across Vietnam touting an international curriculum, while Vietnamese spend more than $1 billion each year for overseas education. How do Vietnamese parents really view international education? By Chris Mueller.

American education is the best in the world, at least according to the Vietnamese parents surveyed about international education by market research company TNS Vietnam.

The recent poll also found that of the more than 1,000 randomly selected Vietnamese respondents, about one in four were willing to enroll their children in international schools in Vietnam.

But despite the demand for international education, few Vietnamese students have access to it and the ones that do have to pay the price.

International educationVietnamese families collectively spend more than $1 billion a year for their children to study abroad. In the 2011-12 academic year, Vietnam had 106,104 students studying overseas, according to statistics from the Ministry of Finance, VietnamNet reported. Vietnamese with children studying abroad spend an average of $10,000 to $15,000 a year, which means a total of between $1-1.5 billion is spent each year.

Since there are so few international universities in Vietnam, for those who can afford it, going overseas is the logical option.

Where they go, though, isn’t always up to the students, says Ralf Matthaes, the regional director of TNS Vietnam. The stereotypes parents have of foreign education, rather than where the best schools actually are, appear to be the deciding factor.

“The majority of Vietnamese are poorly educated. Educated, but poorly educated,” Matthaes says. “So the parents are living vicariously through their children. They select the US because it is what they perceive as higher education. People need to understand that perceptions aren’t necessarily the reality.”

A recent study by education firm Pearson illustrates how the assumption of a superior US education system is overblown. The study, which combined international test results and data such as graduation rates between 2006 and 2010, ranked the United States 17th out of 20.

Finland and South Korea topped the list, with the United Kingdom ranked sixth. Australia, the second most popular destination for Vietnamese students, was ranked 13th.

To Chau, who recently returned to Vietnam after studying at Austin College in Texas, says the deciding factor for her was a US State Department scholarship, but admits her preconceptions also played a role.

Vietnamese education“I thought about going to Australia, too,” the 21 year old says. “But I though the US would be better. Maybe because of the media, and because I usually check ‘best schools’ online and they are usually from the US.”

Han Hanh, 29, also says a scholarship was the overriding influence leading her to pursue her master’s degree at Temple University in Philadelphia, although advice from friends and colleagues was part of her decision.

“I though about going to Europe and Australia, but most universities there don’t give financial aid,” she says. “And the application processes weren’t as professional as in the US. The US universities are very generous.”

Despite her full ride, Hanh says her parents still had to give her more than $10,000 a year for living expenses.

“There is only a small percentage of Vietnamese who can pay any price requested for either international schools in Vietnam or overseas,” Matthaes says.

What’s also telling from the results of the TNS survey is that Vietnamese, similar to many in the developed world, don’t encourage their children to attend vocational training programs. Only about 2 percent of the respondents approved of that path.

“That’s a problem, because that’s what’s needed,” Matthaes says.

Flawed perceptions are affecting not just higher education abroad, but also the schools in-country to which Vietnamese parents are sending their children.

The TNS survey caused a stir in January on popular expat Google group An Phu Neighbours when results were posted showing less-than-favourable attitudes toward some of the city’s international schools. But most of the expats misread the data, not realising it reflected Vietnamese parents’ opinions rather than an actual ranking.

When asked which schools they thought had the best reputations, arguably two of the top international schools in the city, International School Ho Chi Minh City and British International School, came in at fourth and sixth, respectively.

The Australian International School, American International School, and American School of Vietnam were in the top three, again showing a preference for American and Australian education systems.

A quick drive around town shows that most districts have schools claiming to be ‘international’, many with ‘America’ worked into the names. But most do not have an internationally-certified curriculum, and many have western, but unqualified, teachers. Still, their lower price tags make these the most popular choices for international schools, even if their diplomas are often useless after graduation.

“There are so many of these schools operating and they absolutely dupe their clientele with poor teachers and poor curriculum,” Matthaes says.

If parents really want to send their children to quality schools, they’ll have to do a little more homework and rely a little less on their perceptions alone.