Teacher friendly policies and more effective school management are urgent imperatives, experts say
Vietnam's education sector is in a crisis, with universities not producing the educated workforce that the nation's economy and society need.
In an "opinionated analysis" titled "Vietnamese Higher Education: Crisis and Response," recently released by Havard University's Kennedy School of Governance, researchers Thomas Vallely and Ben Wilkinson say, "It does not bode well for the future that Vietnamese universities lag far behind even their undistinguished Southeast Asian neighbors."
They note that compared with lesser-acknowledged universities in Southeast Asia, like those in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, Vietnamese universities have the lowest number of publications in peer-reviewed journals.
No Vietnamese educational institution of higher learning appears in any of the widely used league tables of leading Asian countries.
The researchers say little has been done to change management of higher education network in the 22 years following introduction of the doi moi (renovation) policy.
At a conference held late last month to review the 2008-2009 academic year, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education and Training Nguyen Thien Nhan admitted there were administrative problems that contributed to the low quality of higher education in the country.
He said that the government has not yet issued proper polices to encourage and facilitate teaching careers at the college level.
A major inhibiting factor in improving the quality of teachers and teaching is the low remuneration that they receive.
After some 11 years of teaching English at the Tay Nguyen University in the Central Highlands town of Buon Ma Thuot, Nguyen Thi Tuong Nhu, MA, earns a monthly salary of about VND3 million (US$167).
She told Thanh Nien Weekly that most teachers in her university can't meet their living expenses with the salaries they receive.
In the Central Highlands region, her salary would be barely enough to live by herself, but it fell far short of what is needed for her four-member family with two school children.
Other teachers who have not been teaching for long are in more difficult situations, Nhu said.
Bui Thanh Quang of Transport College No. 3 in Ho Chi Minh City, who has a doctorate degree in political economy, said that after almost 30 years of teaching, his monthly wage is a little more than VND5 million (around $279).
Speaking to Thanh Nien Weekly, Quang said his 28-year teaching career has helped him and his family buy a small house in a suburban district in HCMC. But for his impending retirement, he said he had no savings that "could help me and my family feel secure when I retire in the next few years."
Dr. Vu Thi Phuong Anh, director of Center for Educational Testing and Quality Assessment, Vietnam National University ââ‚¬" Ho Chi Minh City (CETQA), said, "Salary is not the sole element but it is a fundamental element that affects the working quality of the people [teachers/lecturers] who create the quality of higher education.
"The quality of an educational system cannot surpass the quality of the teachers ââ‚¬" that's a statement I've heard elsewhere."
Without adequate salaries to cover living expenses, teachers cannot spend much time preparing their lectures and improving teaching quality.
Anh said most university lecturers have become "too familiar" with the low salaries as they've changed little over the years, so they've had to find other ways to make ends meet.
Lai Thi Hai Linh, a graduate of the HCMC Education University, said due to the low salaries paid by state universities, many teachers have had to teach extra hours at private schools or take classes that pay higher fees. Consequently, the amount of time and effort they spend on lectures in state universities is small.
The Harvard paper quotes surveys conducted by government-linked associations saying that as many as 50 percent of Vietnamese university graduates are unable to find jobs in their area of specialization.
For instance, when Intel corporation conducted an assessment test for around 2,000 Vietnamese IT students to recruit engineers for its manufacturing facility in HCMC, only 5 percent, or 90 students passed. Of these 90 students, only 40 were hired with adequate English language skills.
"Intel confirms that this is the worst result they have encountered in any country they've invested in," the researchers say.
In an article published last year, senior academic Professor Hoang Tuy said the reduction in quality over a long period of time, especially in higher education, has produced many graduates unqualified to meet market demands.
In fact, the implications of low quality education go even further, said Tuy.
Low intellectual standards, one obvious consequence of low-quality education, has badly affected the environment, public health and traffic security, and made these and other social problems more difficult to solve, he added.
The low remuneration has had another deleterious effects on the nation's higher education system.
Highly capable teachers in state run schools have left for other sectors with better incomes, said Luong Tat Thuy, Vice President of the National Education Union of Vietnam.
Meanwhile, in international schools, the average monthly salary of a teacher is about VND10 million, according to Anh.
Thus, the 2014 average salary of VND7.5 million envisioned in an education ministry's plan would not be sufficient to prevent a brain drain from state-run schools, she said.
Following Vietnam's accession to the World Trade Organization in early 2007, many experts have forecast an increase in the establishment of international schools to meet new education demands.
However, Anh added that the brain drain to the private sector was normal and necessary to relieve the burden on state-run schools, boosting the development of the higher education system as a whole.
Anh foresaw strong competition among universities to attract good lecturers, saying, "I strongly believe only schools with the best administrative policies, whether state-run or private, will attract the best teachers."
Nhu of the Central Highlands university said during her 11 years of teaching, she learnt that most lecturers in her school quit not because of low salaries, but because of policies that failed to enable them to devote themselves to teaching and developing professionally.
The latest financial reform plan of the Ministry of Education and Training acknowledges that current salaries are not adequate for college lecturers to cover living expenses, but its road map for increasing teachers' remuneration by 2014 falls short of practical needs.
Under the plan approved by the National Assembly late May, the average monthly salary of a teacher would be raised to VND4.46 million this year, and increased to VND7.41 million over the next five years.
Anh of CETQA said the "real" income of lecturers, including the official salary paid by the state budget and other extra earnings, "is not too bad compared with others [other occupations] in the society."
But she feels they are too low for the lecturers who are truly devoted to their teaching and too high for those she calls "teaching workers" who fail to keep themselves updated in their disciplines and invest little in improving the quality of their teaching.
Thuy of the education union said it would be difficult to fulfill Minister Nhan's target of having teachers live on their salaries alone by 2010.
The government's website late last month carried a prime ministerial instruction to reform management of educational institutions toward granting financial autonomy to universities in the future.
Currently, the state exchequer contributes up to 63.3 percent of the total expenses for higher education training at state-run universities.
The government has issued a decree giving universities the right to make decisions on their own on financial issues, allowing them to find more sources to increase teachers' salaries.
While this decree has been implemented on a pilot basis for several years at some state universities, it has not shown to be very effective.
It is difficult for the schools to raise their staff's income as "school fees, the biggest revenue, are capped by the state," Thuy of the education union said.
"Despite various difficulties private schools face [as they do not receive as much support as state-run schools], I feel "jealous" of their financial autonomy that allows them to decide their tuition fees and salaries," said Anh of CETQA.
"Though public universities receive big investments from the state, they are "tied" to many regulations that considerably reduce the effectiveness of state budget use."
Anh said financial autonomy was a strategic solution for developing Vietnamese higher education and needs to be materialized soon along with clear, consistent and transparent regulations.
The deputy head of the Education Union's Regulation and Policy Department, Le Dinh Thong, agreed with Anh.
University heads should have the right to decide how to spend their budget for improving the quality of teaching provided, he said.
Since 1987, the number of higher education students has jumped 13 times but that of teachers has lagged behind, rising just 6 times, according to the Ministry of Education and Training.
In recent years, many universities have been allowed to open more training courses, and launch cooperation and tie-ups with other schools. Besides, many new colleges and universities that have been formed over the last decade, with the current number of nearly 380 establishments more than three times the 1987 tally of 101.
There are about 1.7 million students in higher education institutions while the number of teachers is 62,000.
In 1987, the lecturer/student ratio was 1:6.6 but this has fallen to 1:28.4, according to latest MoET figures. This is higher than the average international standard of one teacher per 20 students, according to a report by the online newspaper VietNamNet. The number of teachers available now can only meet 60 percent of the demand, it said.
By Tuong Nhi (with additional reporting by Thai Thanh Van in Hanoi), Thanh Nien News