Planning and Decision-making for International Undergraduate Education: A Study of Vietnamese Families
Pham, Minh Le
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Every year, thousands of Vietnamese students finish high school and travel to foreign countries for tertiary education. For these teenagers, this is one of the first major decisions in their lives, as they must leave families for a number of years while living and studying alone overseas. The significance of this event requires Vietnamese families to undertake an extensive planning and decision-making process, in which possible country, university and major options are carefully evaluated with respect to available resources of the families, before the final selection is made. The existing literature on international education describes this activity as a multi-stage decision-making process, in which the protagonist is the student, treated as decision-making unit, subject to various internal and external influences, such as parental influence, as they proceed through sequential stages of a decision-making process. Existing models of the education decision-making process have limitations for the current research context of Vietnam. Firstly, little work has been undertaken to explain the university choice behaviour of international undergraduate students. Secondly, existing process models do not present all possible outcomes of the activity, thereby risking over-simplification of the complexity and dynamics of the planning and decision-making process. Lastly, none of the existing models have considered the family as the decision-making unit, which is likely to be the case in the Vietnamese context, due to the distinctive cultural values of Vietnam that emphasise collective harmony, responsibilities and achievements. This study, therefore, aims to fill the aforementioned gaps by constructing a model that reports the process of planning and later choosing international undergraduate education by Vietnamese families, with an emphasis on the role of the family. This study employs a longitudinal qualitative approach, in which 24 families recruited in Vietnam participated in two rounds of in-depth interviews over a period of ten months, while they carried out their international education decision-making. Data analysis was then undertaken using two methods: analysis of decision-making for each family unit and thematic analysis. The research results in a model (termed the PIUE model) consisting of four stages that depict the planning and decision-making processes of the 24 Vietnamese families in the sample. The four stages are Predisposition; Search, Consideration, Selection & Application; Final Choice; and Admission. The model captures the period from the moment the aspiration for international education first emerges within the family, to the time when families complete the admission process and students are ready for departure. The findings indicate that the choice of international undergraduate education is the result of a long-term process that can take years to complete. At the undergraduate level, the Vietnamese family, consisting of the parents and student, is usually the collective decision-making unit throughout the process. The research advances the relevant literature by highlighting the role of long-term goals of the family and student as the main driver for all the planning and decision-making activities. Another new concept that is introduced is resource preparation, which comprises all key resources that family members need to accumulate to enact their choice of international education. For each component decision in the process, the decision-making unit employs a range of criteria to evaluate and compare available options. Information is fed to family members from various information sources and external influences. The path that the decision-making unit undertakes to arrive at the final choice is more dynamic than previously described by the literature, as a result of facilitating and constraining factors. Besides the standard route of decision-making through four stages, facilitating factors can allow the decision-making unit to bypass specific component decisions, while constraining factors may prevent the family from reaching an agreed alternative and, in the worst circumstances, cause them to drop the international education plan altogether. The research makes a number of contributions to both theory and practice. On the theoretical side, the research challenges fundamental aspects of the existing literature on decision-making process for international education and proposes the addition of two important concepts, long-term goals and resource accumulation. On the practical side, the research provides marketing practitioners of international universities with valuable insights into the thinking and behaviours of the Vietnamese market when choosing an institution abroad for education and more importantly, recommendations on how to better approach and attract them.