Many Vietnamese universities are struggling against the falling number of international students because of travel restrictions amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Normally, local universities admit up to thousands of foreign students each year, who come to Vietnam to take various education programs.
They are poised to create an ideal overseas study destination in competition with regional universities, but have recently encountered a hefty obstacle – COVID-19.
Every year, the faculty of Vietnamese studies of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City, receives thousands of international students who learn about the Vietnamese language and culture.
According to Assoc. Pro. Dr. Doan Le Giang, head of the faculty, although this year's new semester has started, around 50 percent of full-time students, including sophomores and juniors, have not come back.
They are mainly South Koreans, who returned home in February or March when the epidemic developed complicatedly in Southeast Asia.
Student numbers tumble
In the new school year of 2020-21, only about 45 new international students were admitted to the faculty of Vietnamese studies, dropping nearly a half in comparison with last year's number.
Most of the freshmen are residing with their families in Vietnam while there are few students from other regional countries.
The pandemic has affected not only full-time students but also those participating in the 2+2 program, which means two years in Vietnam and two years in their home countries.
"They couldn’t come to Vietnam for the second semester last year and the situation remains unchanged in this year's first semester," said Dr. Giang.
The number of exchange students, who often register for a short course from two to three weeks, has also declined sharply, which is quite different from previous years.
Dr. Nguyen Trung Hien, head of student affairs under the faculty of international studies of the Vietnam National University-Hanoi, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper it is very difficult to attract international students.
There have been only seven freshmen up to now, Dr. Hien said.
"Although Vietnam has brought the pandemic under control, many international flights have not been resumed," he added.
"As a result, many overseas students keep a wary eye on traveling to Vietnam for this semester. Some of them are not as excited as before.”
Dr. Hien's university received more than 100 students from the U.S. and Canada via student exchange programs last year. The programs, however, have been canceled this year, including study tours and summer schools.
A few international students have met trouble in visa extension, according to Dr. Hien.
In such cases, the university has helped them with entry/exit formalities as requested.
Flying students home on charter flights
In 2019, FPT University admitted about 1,000 international students, mainly via student exchange programs, mostly from Japan, Australia, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
According to Dr. Le Truong Tung, chairman of the FPT University Council, all activities of international training collaboration have come to a standstill this year because of the pandemic.
At the beginning of this year, the pandemic broke out when many international students were participating in student exchange programs at the university.
At the same time, many Vietnamese students were taking part in similar programs in Japan and Malaysia.
As the pandemic could linger for a long time, the university discussed with its partners and decided to let students return home earlier than expected.
The universities were responsible for the preparation and expenses in bringing students home.
The university chartered a flight to send nearly 100 students and lecturers back to Vietnam from Japan in April, before the restrictions of international flights took effect.
The situation of RMIT Vietnam University, however, did not go as smoothly as FPT University.
Many of RMIT's students and lecturers were stranded in Australia for months since the coronavirus outbreak.
It took the university a lot of time to organize a flight carrying 270 students and lecturers from Melbourne to Vietnam, Prof. Peter Coloe, chairman of RMIT Vietnam, told Tuoi Tre.
All the passengers had tested negative for the coronavirus from 3-7 days before boarding.
After landing at Van Don Airport in the northern Vietnamese province of Quang Ninh, they were sent to a central quarantine facility.
"RMIT University Vietnam has been in collaboration with authorities to help our students and lecturers take commercial flights transiting in Asian countries like Singapore and South Korea to come back to Vietnam since the beginning of October, before the start of the new semester," Prof. Coloe.
Ad-hoc solution: going online
Dr. Giang said his university has offered students full online courses, as only around 50 percent of its international students are living in Vietnam.
Despite some advantages, online courses are not as good as normal classes, he remarked.
Regarding teaching Vietnamese, which is believed to be hard to learn, students cannot observe the ways a teacher pronounces. This is really difficult for foreign students.
"As a result, lecturers have to send documents to learners who can use them to learn by themselves," said Giang.
Although FPT University can provide online courses for international students who fail come to Vietnam due to the pandemic, this way of teaching is not as effective as physical classes, Dr. Tung said.
Taking online classes, students will lose the opportunity to experience the Vietnamese culture and society.
Lack of foreign teachers
Many educational institutions in Vietnam have seen a severe shortage of foreign teachers given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The head of the marketing department of an English language school franchise chain in Ho Chi Minh City revealed that ten of their centers have fallen short of more than 50 foreign teachers.
If Hanoi and Da Nang are taken into account, the system is lacking in nearly 200 foreign lecturers.
Travel restrictions to prevent the pandemic have been considered as the main reason for such a dearth.