The bane and the shame

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Corruption culture subverts Vietnam's lofty education ambitions

Vietnamese students (L) listen to an admission officer from a US university during a US Higher Education Fair last year in Hanoi. PHOTO: AFP

Vietweek's recent article, "Vietnam Higher Education Laid Low", presents a broad and comprehensive picture of the systemic problems facing Vietnam's universities and colleges in a thorough manner. As a retired educator who has spent the past 10 years living in Vietnam I would like to add a few observations and some anecdotal examples to reinforce the thesis of this article's author.

To begin with, the problem goes much deeper than the superficial issues that the Ministry of Education and Training seems to be willing to address, even if in a misguided and ineffective manner. It is my opinion that the root of the problem is the culture of corruption in Vietnam.

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When I was an undergraduate in a prestigious teacher training program in Pennsylvania over 50 years ago, a usually boring and uninformative requirement was a course entitled "principles of teaching". However, my class was enlivened one day when a student from the coal-mining region of Eastern Pennsylvania asked: "How much is it reasonable to pay for your teaching job?" Not how much will I be paid but how much should I pay.

In his area at that time, the members of the local school boards sold teaching jobs for as much as the first year's salary. This revelation led to a lively discussion. I am reasonably confident that that is no longer the practice anywhere in the US. I have not been told of any such cases here, although I know numerous young people who have been required to pay for their jobs in other fields. So I would not be surprised to learn of people having to pay upfront for getting teaching jobs at a school here.

Unfortunately, due to the low salaries paid to teachers, other, even more egregious scams are the norm, a case in point being the ubiquitous "extra classes" in nearly all fields where the teacher informs their students that work they cannot cover during regular class time will be taught in special sessions at the teacher's home in the evenings and failure to participate will put the student at a disadvantage in their grade. I know of teachers who have built lovely large homes with spaces designed especially for such classes.

With this situation being the accepted norm at primary and secondary levels, it is an easy step for tertiary educators to seek ways to lighten their burden. One of my students, who taught at a prominent university, had three seniors in his faculty. Since all university faculty staff and administrators are supposed to be competent in English and many are not, those with limited proficiency find ways around their problem.

The easy route here was to "secretly" assign all their tasks that involved translating to my student without recognition or compensation, but with the promise he would get a good report at peer review time. Consequently, my student was doing the English work of three seniors plus his own. He no longer teaches.

It is not that the university administrators are not fully aware of these practices. They frequently are a part of the abuse. My oldest friend in Vietnam is a Canadian educator who has held contracts at universities from Hanoi to Phan Thiet to train the faculty on doing a better job of teaching English. The money for these contracts came from Canadian educational foundations, not from the school itself. Over ten years, he has invariably been thwarted from fulfilling his contract by the administrators at his schools, who ask him to teach English to undergraduates instead of teaching Vietnamese English teachers how to do a better job. As of now, he no longer does this but he may resume because he loves Vietnam and wants to help if he has a reasonable working environment.

Another related observation involves the apparent inability of too many people in management and government positions to act responsibly when faced with a request to allow another external program admission to the country even when it is well known that it is of poor quality. It is reasonable to conclude in such instances that some money must have changed hands in order to obtain the approval.

It would be interesting to know where the pressure for an internationally ranked university is coming from. Obviously the ministry is a central government unit that is run by a politician and gets pressure from other politicians. If it is anything like the government in the United States, the country will be far better served if the politicians would hire good professional educators to develop and administer a good program for the people of Vietnam and let international recognition come if it is warranted.

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By George McKenzie *

*The writer is a retired vice chancellor for government relations, Board of Governors of State Colleges and Universities of Illinois. He lives in Nha Trang.

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