Experts are questioning a government plan to build four international universities that aims to see at least one in the world's top 200 schools by 2020
Students at the Ho Chi Minh City-based Vietnam-Germany University study in class. The country's first public international university was established in 2008 but so far has faced problems in recruiting students.
Criticism is mounting over the first of four international schools that has failed to attract enough students to fill admissions quotas.
Inaugurated in March, 2008 with a total investment of US$180 million, Vietnam-Germany University (VGU) was meant to become the country's leading research university.
However, so far VGU, a cooperative project between the Vietnamese and German governments, has yet to fulfill their admissions goals.
Reasons for this include high tuition fees that put many off applying and doubts over whether the school rises to "international standards," according to experts.
In its first year, VGU aimed to admit 80 students who scored at least 21 out of 30 marks in the education ministry's university entrance exams. The school ended up only admitting 32.
In its second year, the country's first public international university halved its admission quota, and lowered the required mark to 17.
However, it still didn't meet the quota and was only able to admit 28 students.
VGU this year has admitted 39 students instead of their original target of 60. Less than 20 of the freshmen met the minimum requirement of 21 marks in the entrance exams. Others, meanwhile, got into the university based on "good" or "rather good" grades in certain subjects during high school.
VGU aimed to recruit a total of 200 students in its first three years. Their initial target was to admit 1,000 students by 2014 and 5,000 students by 2020.
The University of Science and Technology of Hanoi (USTH), another public international school established under an agreement between Vietnam and France, is experiencing the same problems.
It started admitting students early September, aiming for 40 students who scored at least 19 out of 30 in the university entrance exams.
By September 25, the end of the admissions period, the school lowered the grade requirement to 15. Vice President Nguyen Van Hung said they only received 51 applications and just over 30 of them met the entrance requirements.
"Students admitted to the school are not the best," Hung said, citing that only one of them achieved 22.5 marks in the university entrance exams. Most of the others, meanwhile, failed to get into other universities.
Cost and quality
Hung blamed some of the problems on high tuition fees of US$1,500 a year, $750 of which is paid by students and the rest is footed by the government.
These fees are 10 times higher than other public schools in Vietnam.
An official from VGU also said high tuition fees were discouraging students from applying to the school, adding that students are also required to spend from between six months to one year in Germany where monthly living expenses amount to $500.
Other reasons include a small range of disciplines on offer and a foreign language requirement, according to the official who wished to remain unnamed.
Nguyen Van Thu, vice president of Ho Chi Minh City University of Transport, said that the schools have recently opened and have yet to prove that they are at an "international level". Students do not want to risk studying at a school whose level and quality is still unknown.
In light of all the problems, experts have started to doubt the government's project to establish four universities of international standards.
Professor Tran Hong Quan, former minister of education and training, said the plan was "unreasonable," because the schools receive preferential treatment from the government. They therefore cannot be duplicated in Vietnam to enhance the country's education system as planned.
"To develop higher education in the country, Vietnam has to start with its own universities and should not depend on other countries to improve its education system," Quan said.
Professor Pham Phu of HCMC University of Technology agreed. He added that the total investment for each student per year at one of the world's leading universities is estimated at between $15,000 and $40,000. The government has to foot at least $10,000 of this amount.
If a school has 170 students, accounting for 1 percent of the Vietnamese student population, the government needs to invest some $170 million at least, Phu said.
This would account for 30 percent of the state budget assigned to higher education. In the long term, the establishment and operation of such schools is "difficult" for Vietnam, according to Phu.
Vu Thi Phuong Anh, director of the Vietnam National UniversityHCMC's Center for Educational Testing and Quality Assessment, said VGU and USTH could be good models for Vietnamese schools if they are successful.
But, at the moment it's unfair that all are considered public schools and the international ones get more financial help, she said. Only rich students can study at VGU, while poorer ones have to study at schools that have less investment, according to Anh.
She criticized the government's target to have one university listed in the world's top 200 universities by 2020, saying it was "too ambitious."
It takes a school a lot of time, and not just money and infrastructure, to get to an "international level," Anh said, adding that the world's top universities are at least 50 years old, while VGU will be less than 20 years old in 2020.