Advanced aquaculture graduate employment outcomes and career advancement

The data from the interviews and the report revealed that the program added substantial value for final-year students and graduates. The academics observed that students and graduates were “recognisably dynamic, creative, and confident.” Towards the end of the program, students were observed as being able to work in teams more effectively. The improvement in their English language proficiency was the most obvious learning outcome, with all participants reporting that they could communicate fluently by the end of the course. The students also felt confident with what they acquired from the program and appeared to be ready for career advancement as they had concrete plans for the future, such as applying for a job in a well-known organisation, competing for a scholarship program, continuing with their post-graduate studies abroad, etc.

In terms of tangible outcomes, the records of the Bureau of Academic Affairs showed that, until 2016, a total of 96 students graduated from the program. Among them, 16 students were ranked as “outstanding,” 42 as “excellent,” 35 as “good,” and three as “average.” Due to the quality of the program and the foreign university certificate of completion and the graduates’ high-level English skills, reference letters from foreign teachers, international fieldwork, and internships, the career prospects of the graduates were very positive. The post-graduation survey conducted by the program coordinators showed positive employment outcomes and positive indications of career advancement for all graduates in the first three cohorts. All of them secured an employment position relevant to their expertise within one year after graduation. Regarding career advancement, 19 graduates from the first three cohorts were provided with further education by their employers or obtained a scholarship to study abroad.

The contribution of the advanced aquaculture program to graduate employability

The report and the interviews consistently indicated that the program substantially contributed to the development of graduate employability and enhanced their employment opportunities and career advancement prospects. The program’s success in enhancing the overall employability of graduates was attributed to the following features.

Human capital

The high calibre students who enrolled in the program helped increase graduate employability. Up until January 2016, the university enrolled 217 students who satisfied the demanding entry criteria as specified in the admission requirements for advanced programs (Government, 2008). Prior to commencing the program, all students had to undergo an intensive English training course to ensure their English language proficiency met the demands of the program. This preparation and their high-level academic abilities and strong motivation for pursuing the program made them more likely to succeed and to maximise the opportunity for their future careers.

In addition, the highly qualified teaching staff involved in the delivery of the program contributed to graduate employability. The program leaders have to comply with the teaching standards set by the Ministry of Education and

Training (МОЕТ) in terms of lecturer qualifications, teaching experience, and English language ability to ensure the quality of the delivery of the program.

In the first three years of its implementation, the program was delivered by lecturers from the collaborating American university, with local lecturers assisting. The report noted that up until the end of 2015 the program had invited 62 lecturers from the collaborating university and 20 lecturers from 10 other countries to со-deliver the imported program. All these lecturers had at least a PhD degree and were recognised experts in the field, an element that other local programs might not have been able to offer. Therefore, the students benefited from these lecturers’ subject matter expertise and relevant specialised skills. As one student remarked,

Enrolled in this programme, we have studied with many teachers, exposed to many enterprises, and got to know the latest technologies in the field. Then when we have acquired these technologies, we can apply them to the context of our country. (Participant 10)

Moreover, the program’s pedagogical and assessment techniques contributed to the students’ overall learning experience. The analysis of the interviews and the report revealed that instead of using traditional teaching methods, which are often seen in Vietnamese universities (Tran, Le, & Nguyen, 2014), the lecturers used a variety of student-centred teaching approaches, such as project-based and research-based teaching and field work. These techniques have been found to be conducive for the development of employability skills (Barrie et al., 2009).

The students were required to research and present their findings, which helped them explore and gain knowledge independently and increase their confidence and communication skills. The students were also taken for field trips, a form of WIL (Jackson, 2015), to understand how the theories could be applied in reality. In contrast to the conventional use of assessment for summative purposes in Vietnamese universities (Tran et ah, 2014), formative assessments were frequently used throughout the course to provide the students with feedback so they could identify knowledge and skill gaps and areas for improvement. Two students reflected on the effectiveness of the pedagogical and assessment practices used in the program:

Their teaching methods are interesting. They sent us out for field trips, then asked us to write a report of what we saw in the fieldwork. Then they pointed out what knowledge we missed and planned their lectures accordingly. (Participant 04)

Assignments of most foreign lecturers are easy to understand. They gave us many things to do and we had to apply knowledge to solving situations. Vietnamese lecturers, in contrast, focus more on rote-learning, which I do not like because after their course, I have not acquired much knowledge and skills, just memorised things to pass the exams. (Participant 02)

A special feature of this programme was that students were involved in doing research with their lecturers. As a result, upon graduation, many students had experienced doing research, including seven students publishing articles in local academic journals, and 37 students presenting their work at or attending international conferences. Two of their projects received awards at the prestigious Vietnamese Young Talents for Science 2013 and Wilmar Agro Vietnam Award 2014. During the final semester, students were required to complete a research-based thesis to graduate. English was the language of instruction throughout the four years of the program, including the thesis and the thesis defence.

Furthermore, the effectiveness of pedagogical practices and students’ development of human capital could be attributed to the learning conditions of the program. The classrooms and the laboratory were equipped with modern furniture, appropriate teaching-learning tools, and even air conditioners, which were only used for students of the advanced program. Learning materials, mostly in English, were given to students in advance so that they could have adequate time to read them prior to attending the lectures and discussing the subject matter in class. Student support services were also designed to support this group of students so that they had the best conditions for realising their academic potential. All the interviewed students were pleased with the facilities and the learning conditions.

In short, high calibre students, active pedagogical practices, the effective use of assessment for learning, an engaging learning environment, and favourable learning conditions all contributed to the development of the students’ human capital, which, in turn, contributed to their employability and career advancement.

Social capital

The program offered students many opportunities to network with experts in their field of study. Both foreign and local lecturers who they had studied with could become valuable referees with relevant industry connections. The students were also sent to work with professionals in the field, who not only helped the students understand the industry, but who were also potential employers or contacts.

In addition, this international program provided students with many opportunities to network with international students. Up until December 2015, the program had attracted 45 international students on academic exchange (participating in courses) and 82 international students who participated in cultural exchanges, workshops, and seminars. The program also sent five Vietnamese students to foreign institutions for short studies and 101 students for field work or internships in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Within this international learning environment, students recognised that they could extend their social network with people in and outside of their field of study. They developed a sense of being global citizens, were able to tolerate cultural differences, and knew how to behave appropriately across cultures.

Alter the field trip in Thailand, I often compared what I have learned with the new one, as well as recognised the importance of self-studies. Generally, [in Thailand], there was a better positive learning environment in the class. They are not afraid of asking questions, of discussing with us as Vietnamese. We learned from them how to self-study effectively and then combine it with ours to have a better study method. (Participant 01)

In short, by participating in this programme, students were offered valuable opportunities to develop a large social network with professionals and influential experts in the fields, both in Vietnam and abroad. As indicated in Fugate et al. (2004), this social capital could connect them to occupational opportunities and strengthen their career prospects.

Personal adaptability

There was evidence that the program helped the students develop their adaptability to challenging situations, which is essential for the development of employ- ability (Fugate et al., 2004). For many students, pursuing a program delivered completely in English was a significant challenge. Despite the intensive English preparation course and their prior English skills, most of the students struggled to keep pace with the lectures delivered by foreign teachers. This required significant effort and commitment by the students to improve their English, study in groups, and translate the lessons into Vietnamese to foster better understanding. This situation forced many students to improve their English, so they could survive in the learning environment.

Until the second year, when I studied some subjects with foreign lecturers, I could not understand them well due to my English proficiency. I intended to give up and transfer to another programme, but teachers and friends encouraged me to continue. [...]. I myself also invested to overcome the problem. (Participant 09)

In Vietnam, students are typically reluctant to ask questions in class due to their fear of revealing what they do not know, which is a feature of the face-saving culture (Leung & Cohen, 2011). Students are also reluctant to “challenge” teachers by asking them critical questions. Some students admitted that within the program’s active learning environment, however, they were encouraged to speak their minds and engage with their learning in a meaningful way rather than just focus on academic results. This is an improvement that many Vietnamese university programs are not capable of. A student reported how their potential was harnessed within the program:

When we studied with foreign teachers, they paid much attention to ensure that we understood the lessons and assigned more assessment tasks throughout the course [.. .]> so we had to spend a lot of time doing homework and studying in groups. Sometimes we had to stay up late until 3 or 4 am for these activities. [...] We were all stretched and forced to make great effort. (Participant 01)

This challenging learning environment may have helped students break away from their prior passive learning habits and become more autonomous in their learning, more willing to welcome challenges, and more resilient. Consequently, they become more adaptable, which benefits their employability and career development.

Career identity

All the students identified at least one career path they would like to pursue upon graduation. These included careers in research institutions, government organisations, and private enterprises. Notably, one student was inspired to pursue a career path outside the field of study after she participated in an international field trip. The report also indicated that all the graduates from the first three cohorts could secure jobs within the aquaculture industry and some of them enrolled in a PhD program within their discipline. All these outcomes provided evidence that the graduates developed a strong professional identity associated with the field of aquaculture.

As noted in the literature, career identity is a compass for students’ and graduates’ actions to achieve professional goals (Fugate et ah, 2004). In this regard, the program seemed successful as it inspired and helped students identify career paths aligned with their aptitudes, interests, and qualifications. The program also helped students re-assess their career choices and develop a willingness to explore professional pathways that might differ from their original intentions.

Challenges of implementing the imported programs

Regardless of the positive contribution of imported programs to graduate employability, they face several problems that threaten their sustainability. The two interviewed program leaders reported that to sustain the “foreign elements” of this program, it is vital to keep a balance between international and local lecturers, which requires adequate resources to pay foreign lecturers. The central government only funded the program for the first few years, however, and then the university had to seek alternative resources to maintain it. In fact, the program leaders were outsourcing and attracting international lecturers, mostly from Southeast Asian universities, to reduce staff costs. They were also planning to increase the tuition fee, but this is not yet feasible as the program has not been well-recognised in terms of return on student investment. Increasing the tuition fee would, therefore, severely reduce the number of students enrolling. How to sustain the program in the context of constrained resources is a complex puzzle for the leadership:

The МОЕТ only funded the programme for the first few years, but later the operation of the programme had to rely on tuition fees. However, the majority of students are from [that region], so their families’ income is not that high to bear a tuition fee that is almost double the normal university programme. So yes, the primary obstacle is funding and resources to maintain the programme. (Participants 11)

Another issue relates to English language proficiency. It has been difficult for program coordinators to recruit students that meet the English entry requirements and the quota allocated to the program, resulting in fluctuating student enrolment over the years. To address this, the program leaders had to advertise enrolment more than once to recruit enough students. This also caused challenges for the teaching-learning process as some students struggled to meet the demands of a program conducted in English. Two lecturers shared their views on these issues:

One of the biggest challenges was that it was difficult to deliver the lectures in English to students whose English level was low. If they have an adequate level of English, it is easy, otherwise, they became so passive. (Participant 13) At first, I delivered my lecture entirely in English, but recently I had to switch to Vietnamese when I recognised that students were confused. (Participant 14)

Yet, apart from the intensive English training at the beginning of the program, there were no recognisable measures in place to help students improve their English skills. As revealed in the interviews, the students formed groups to study or attended private English classes to resolve their learning difficulties caused by the language barrier.

The teaching schedule was another difficulty associated with the implementation of this program. Lecturers from the collaborating university or other foreign universities could only stay for a short period to deliver their subjects in intense blocks. Therefore, the students had to complete these subjects in a short time- frame, which affected the quality of their learning and their learning outcomes.

In addition, the central government’s funding cuts forced the program coordinators to replace international lecturers with local ones. This could be seen as a step backward for the program as it suggests that the university is unable to maintain academic delivery standards. A lecturer and program coordinator reflected upon the effect of reducing the number of foreign lecturers on students’ learning outcomes:

With the reduction of foreign lecturers, it is observed that students’ activeness [in learning] was also reduced. Foreign teachers may not teach better than local ones, but they know better how to guide students. Students of the first three cohorts were much more active than recent ones. It is easy for students of recent cohorts to study in English with Vietnamese lecturers, but when they have to work with foreigners, they fail to communicate in English. (Participant 11)

Looking at this issue from another angle, however, it could be seen as a step forward as the program has gradually become less dependent on external lecturers. Vietnamese lecturers participating in the program possess a relevant PhD in the field from a top university overseas and have completed their roles as teaching assistants for the American lecturers for at least three courses. Yet, the report stated that most of the Vietnamese lecturers did not possess an adequate level of English to be eligible to teach subjects in the programs, even for those who had previously completed their post-graduate studies overseas. They were not able to implement the teaching approach that their American colleagues used, possibly due to a lack of teaching experience or their own social beliefs regarding teacher-student relationships that are embedded in the Confucian educational heritage of the country (Tran et al„ 2014).

Another lecturer also observed that while work integrated learning is a relatively prominent component in the original curriculum, it is less prominent in the imported curriculum. In her view, this is because not enough time is allocated to the four-and-a-half year program and there is a lack of connection with the industry (Participant 14). Changing the deep-seated attitudes to teaching and learning will only happen over time, however, as many of these issues are associated with organisational culture and beliefs.

Conclusions and the way forward for imported programs

This chapter has reported upon the implementation of an internationalisation of curriculum and pedagogy initiative in a Vietnamese university, with a special focus on its impact on graduate employability and career advancement. The study found that the initiative positively contributed to the students’ development of human capital, social capital, personal adaptability, and career identity. Substantial growth in these components of employability can explain the success of the graduates from the first three cohorts of the program in securing employment within one year of graduation and winning prestigious scholarships to pursue post-graduate studies locally or abroad to advance their career.

The central issue now is that in the years to come, when expanding the program to meet growing student demand, the university will need to decide whether to keep its international dimensions or operate as a local program with an improved curriculum and pedagogical practices. This is a critical decision as it will have important implications for the sustainability of the program. If the former is chosen, there are several issues that need to be resolved urgently. These include the hiring of foreign lecturers, especially those from the collaborating university, reaching an agreement on how the degrees will be conferred in the future, increasing the number of inbound international students in the program, sending students outbound for international experience, and seeking alternative funding rather than relying on the government.

Alternatively, running it as a local program may result in a shortfall of enrolments, even when it is delivered in English by highly qualified Vietnamese lecturers. In addition, many international elements of the program are likely to vanish, including the English language instruction that Vietnamese lecturers and students find difficult. As a result, the students may be reluctant to pay high tuition fees if they feel they are not getting a return on their investment in the form of a superior learning experience and promising future employment prospects.

Regardless of the program’s future status of operation, there are some issues that can be resolved to help improve graduate employability. First, the current program only enrolled high achieving students, but these students found it challenging to keep pace with the program. Although these challenges create opportunities for these students to develop several qualities and attributes, this could be a serious problem if the program accepts students with varying academic and English language abilities. As English is used as the language of instruction, the program, regardless of how innovative it is, will become meaningless if the students lack the required English language proficiency. Therefore, students’ English skills should be continuously enhanced throughout the program. Likewise, students need to be prepared for different learning styles to ensure their successful transition into the program. This preparation would help reduce the students’ timidity and dependence so that they can become more proactive, creative, and critical in the active learning environment.

In addition, although the current pedagogical and assessment practices are found to enhance graduate employability, the current curriculum has reduced WIL elements. The WIL experience has been found to significantly improve graduate employability and employment outcomes (Jackson, 2015), suggesting the value in the program, including greater WIL opportunities to expose students to more authentic work settings and workplace situations. To do this, university and program leaders need to forge a larger network with professionals and organisations in the field and connect with former graduates to seek WIL arrangement for current students. WIL activities will help the students reflect upon what they are studying, apply their knowledge and skills to authentic work situations, connect with more industry-based professionals, and develop their sense of belonging to the industry by fostering their professional identity. All these will, in turn, help develop the graduate employability of the students enrolled in the program.

Note

1. Other discussions about the definition of employability can be found on pages 12, 25,25,60,62,92,117.

 
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