May 8, 2018

Sara Legrandjacques, PhD candidate at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, explains how student mobility in Vietnam is not a new phenomenon. Large-scale higher education, and the “mobile origins” of tertiary studies is at least a century old in the country.

For Vietnam, its historical legacy – which impacts Vietnamese higher education from the colonial period to today – has tracks that are multiple and entangled. Those now looking at higher education in the country might consider international mobility to be one of its main features. Although the number of Vietnamese students studying abroad still remains relatively small compared to those engaged in tertiary education at home, 63,703 out of more than two million students in 2016 according to UNESCO, this figure underlines a boom in international flows. The number of Vietnamese students leaving home to seek a degree saw a 680% increase between 1999 and 2016. This mobile generation of students is heading to Asia – mainly Japan and China – and to English-speaking countries also known for their prestigious universities: the USA, the UK and Australia.

On the other hand, whilst universities and higher schools have been multiplying in Vietnam in recent years, these institutions barely manage to attract international students. In 2016, the Vietnam-Europe Higher Education Forum’s attendants mentioned only 2,000 foreign students in Vietnam, mostly from neighbouring countries.

Today’s Vietnam National University, Hanoi. Photo: Sara Legrandjacques

The Birth of Vietnamese Student Mobility

Student mobility started to develop during the second half of the 19th century, following the first steps of the French conquest of Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). A minority of students from the southern part of this land – then called Cochinchina – was sent abroad by their families. These young men had to benefit from the knowledge seen as “modern” and to bring new savoir-faire to their homeland. It was a way to maintain their social and economic status under the new colonial rule at a time when the colonisers were not planning to open any higher schools in Indochina. Flows of students mainly led to imperial institutions within the metropolis or other subjugated lands. Indeed, Algeria – a colony which France administered from 1848 – welcomed several Vietnamese pupils in its secondary and higher schools as early as 1870.

“For the colonial authorities, some classes were judged unnecessary or even dangerous: law studies were often associated with the possibility of contesting colonial rule.”

Student mobility was first self-supported, very much like today, and so, limited to the wealthy youth. No scholarships were offered by welcoming institutions, but little-by-little, financial support was gained from colonial authorities: in 1887, Nguyễn Khắc Cần received an annual scholarship from the Government of Cochinchina to study medicine in Algiers. He completed his studies by taking doctoral examinations at Montpellier faculty of medicine, in France.

The following decades are characterised by the multiplication of governmental scholarships and organisations aiming to supervise student flows. In the colonisers’ mind, the latter had to lead to courses useful for colonial development. For instance, medical studies participated in improving the Vietnamese living conditions through the diffusion of Western practice. Some classes however, were judged unnecessary or even dangerous: law studies were often associated with the possibility of contesting colonial rule.

Yet the French did not succeed in limiting departures nor in orientating students towards specific classes. The foundation of higher schools from 1902, later gathered in a so-called “Indochinese university”, did not prevent the Vietnamese from studying abroad. This specific mobility reached its apex in the interwar period, with hundreds of students joining imperial or international institutions. They were mostly “free students” making an escape from official control, and this makes research on their mobility more difficult since they hardly appear in archive materials.

Dated 1920-1929, drawing and modelling the nude at the School of Fine Arts, Indochinese University Hanoi. Image: Manhhai, Flickr

A New University for Asia

Whilst studies abroad were first a way to compensate the absence of further education in colonial Indochina, the double foundation of a university in this colonial land, in 1906 and in 1917, did not put an end to that mobile tendency. Furthermore, the Indochinese university was, in its first phase, linked to student mobility. Its instigator, the Governor General for Indochina Paul Beau (1902-1908), wanted to attract Asian students to Hanoi and thus, expand French influence over Asia. This regional trend was noticeable through the foundation decree dated May 16, 1906 and mentioning “higher classes for students from the colony and the neighbouring lands” in order to “expand in the Far East, especially through the use of French language, European scientific knowledge and methods”. To see through his plan, Paul Beau sent letters to his French colleagues in Asia. French diplomats in China, Japan, Siam, India, Singapore, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Korea were asked to advertise the new institution by getting in touch with local authorities, putting posters up, giving out leaflets and selecting pupils having a good command in French.

The idea of a regional institution was not new. In 1902, the newly-created School of Medicine was already welcoming Asian students, mostly from China, and a school called “École Pavie” entirely dedicated to Chinese students opened in 1905. The enrolled students were sons of mandarins who had expressed their interest in French education by asking French diplomats to help them send their children to Indochinese schools. The success of the École Pavie was thereby considered a good omen for the forthcoming university. . . .

. . . But an interest in French education did not prevent it from becoming a quick and stinging failure; it was shuttered after only a year of operation because of a lack of funding but also, at the behest of Paul Beau’s successor, Antony Klobukowski (1908-1911). Moreover, its first-year group comprised of Vietnamese students and did not succeed in creating the “panasian” institution Paul Beau was dreaming of. The university’s reopening in 1917 and matched a more local goal: the new decree mentioned a gathering of higher schools for students from the colony, whether they were natives or Europeans. However, it did not stem students’ departures since Hanoi higher schools continued to bestow lower degrees than outbound institutions at least until the 1930s. For instance, the oldest higher school in Indochina, dedicated to medical studies, only started to attribute PhD degrees in 1933.


Dated 1920-1929, ophthalmic clinical work at the Indochinese University Hanoi. Image: Manhhai, Flickr

Beyond Imperial Mobility

In the early 20th century, the colonial metropolis was one of the main destination for Vietnamese students. However, it would be wrong to overestimate this colonial attraction which, by the way, was not necessarily a sign of loyalty towards the colonial power. Other lands attracted students, in Asia or in Europe. Between 1905 and 1908, an anticolonial movement called Đông Du was based on the sending of students to Japan. Most of them joined military schools, first founded for Chinese students, in order to learn how to struggle against the French colonisers. Others chose language or medical schools or even enrolled at Japan’s Waseda University. Even if this deeply anticolonial initiative was quickly repressed by the French with the collaboration of the Japanese government, it did not put an end to regional flows. Some former Đông Du members joined schools in China. This tendency was still topical in the interwar period which matched the development of nationalist schools in the Canton area. Vietnamese revolutionary agents recruited young men who joined Canton University or the Whampoa military academy. In September 1926, an article published in the Kouo Min Sin Wen, a newspaper related to the Chinese nationalist party – the Kuomintang – even mentioned a plan for opening an “international special school” for Vietnamese – then called “Annamites” – and Korean students.

The anti-French dimension of student mobility was reinforced by the emergence of mobility towards the USSR in the 1920s and the 1930s. In 1930, the French Security department estimated about forty Indochinese – mostly Vietnamese – students in Moscow. They could enrol at different schools including the Soviet University of the Toilers of the East, the International Lenin School, the Young Communist International School or the Sun Yat Sen school. If materials are often patchy as to these institutions, some testimonies by former students give details about the students’ daily life in the USSR.


The restaurant of Indochina University in Hanoi. Image: Manhhai, Flickr

Finally, it must be kept in mind that student mobility was influenced by external events. Indeed, WWII affected students’ trajectories because of the interruption of means of communication between Indochina and France.  Between 1940 and 1945, a growing number of students joined Hanoi University, sometimes faute de mieux (for want of a better alternative).

“The current Vietnam National University is a legacy of the French Indochinese University nationalised after the proclamation of independence by Hồ Chí Minh on September 2, 1945.”

Unlike today, English-speaking countries did not attract the Vietnamese youth in the early 20th century. Their trajectories were rather guided by anti-colonial and nationalist ideas, even though they did not all become activists. Despite these dissimilarities, a mobile tendency in the long run has to be underscored concerning higher education in Vietnam. If current circulations seem led by economic rather than political issues, it would be wrong to forget the roots of tertiary education. After all, the current Vietnam National University is a legacy of the French Indochinese University nationalised after the proclamation of independence by Hồ Chí Minh on September 2, 1945. Moreover, student flows towards France did not disappear with the decolonisation of Vietnam. In the 1970s, Vietnamese students were still choosing the former colonial metropolis as a study destination, as the statistics of the Maison des étudiants de l’Asie du Sud-Est in the Paris Cité universitaire show. Given this timeline, historians may explore connections and inheritances from the colonial period while discussing continuity and rupture in the shaping of Vietnamese higher education.

Sara Legrandjacques

The author thanks Aline Houatchanthara for her help concerning statistics.

Thanks to Manhhai on Flickr for the historical photos used in the article.

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About Sara Legrandjacques

Sara Legrandjacques is a PhD candidate and research fellow from the Centre d’histoire de l’Asie contemporaine (CHAC) at University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and affiliated to UMR Sirice. Since 2015, her research has been dealing with student mobility in colonial Asia, from 1850s to 1940s, through a comparative and crossed study of British India and French Indochina. She is interested in history of Asia during the colonial period but also modern history of education and global and connected history. She is also a tutor in Contemporary History at university Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and the author of the academic blog Voies étudiantes.

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