Inept education system impels brain drain

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Scandal-ridden sector has well-to-do parents opting to send kids abroad for higher studies

Staff members from Pennsylvania State University (L, side) talk with Vietnamese students during a US education fair in Hanoi.

Anxiety and tension loomed large on millions of faces in Vietnam as hundreds of thousands of students sat for the university entrance examinations this week.

However, Hoang Nhu Lam, a wealthy businessman in Ho Chi Minh City whose daughter is also attending college this year, was unperturbed by all the fuss.

Last Sunday, his daughter left for the US to study at a university in Boston. Lam said he would have to spend about US$30,000 annually to fund her six-year study there, to get a bachelor's and a Master's degree.

"It will cost my family dearly, but I think it is worth it," Lam told Vietweek. "She just cannot study here in Vietnam," he said, adding he has started to prepare to send his 10-year-old son to study abroad as well.

A rising number of the nouveau riche, as well as some middle and upper income middle class families in Vietnam, where the annual income per capita is around $1,400, are opting to send their children abroad for higher studies.

Experts say they are "escaping" an education system that is rigid, of suspect quality and riddled with scandals in recent years.

In 2010, Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer for Vietnam found that education was perceived as the second most corrupt sector.

In the latest case offering evidence that cheating happens at every level of examinations in Vietnam, six teachers and staff members of a private school in the northern province of Bac Giang were axed after videos posted on the Internet showed the use of cheat sheets with proctors' help during the national high school graduation exam that wrapped up on June 4. A student had recorded the proceedings with a camera pen.

 "How can I stop worrying if my kids study in such an environment?" asked Lam, who runs a ceramics business in the southern province of Binh Duong.

In disarray

Last May, major newspapers carried photographs of hundreds of parents shoving and jostling each other and pushing over an iron gate at a primary school in Hanoi just to get an application form.

The Thuc Nghiem Primary School had 200-odd openings and at least 600 hopefuls. Admission in the school is coveted by parents because it adopts "American-style learning" instead of the traditional knowledge-cramming method and rote learning Vietnamese schools typically offer.

A WikiLeaks cable on Vietnamese education, sent from the US embassy in January 2010, said: ""¦The Vietnamese educational system is widely regarded as being in crisis at all levels"¦ Teaching methods remain too passive, with students having little chance to interact with the teacher, discuss issues, or ask questions."

In such a situation, many better-off parents have jumped on the bandwagon of sending children to international-style private schools, and later, to colleges and universities overseas.

More than 30,000 Vietnamese were studying at foreign higher learning institutions last year, AP said in a recent report. Vietnam ranks fifth highest worldwide for its student enrollments in Australia, and eighth for enrollments in the US, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and France, the newswire added.


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Around 15,000 Vietnamese students were studying in the US last year. Vietnam was among a few countries that recorded a surging number of students in the US with an increase of 14 percent from the previous year, according to the Open Doors 2011 report commissioned by the New York-based Institute of International Education.

But the craze for "international" education has not translated into quality schools springing up in the country, experts say.

"Not much good at all," said Dennis Berg, who has worked as an educational consultant in Vietnam in the last 20 years.

"If there are standards and there is some system of monitoring and certification then the international system might be a valued part of the educational system," he told Vietweek.

"But until something is done, it is just a bunch of greedy people making money"¦ selling education as a commodity."

Colonial neglect

A 2008 report prepared by the Harvard University's Kennedy School said many problems facing Vietnam's higher education were a consequence of the country's "tragic modern history."

"The French colonial regime that ruled Vietnam from the latter half of the nineteenth century until 1945 invested very little in tertiary education, even in comparison with other colonial powers," the report said.

"As a result, Vietnam missed the wave of institutional innovation in higher education that swept across much of Asia during the early 20th century, when many the region's leading institutions of higher learning were established."

The report said Vietnamese universities were churning out an educated workforce that fell short of its economic and societal demand. Foreign companies have lamented that the poor quality of universities will hinder Vietnam's economic growth and made it difficult for them to find enough graduates in finance, management and information technology.

For instance, according to the Harvard report, Intel (the world's largest computer chipmaker) has struggled to hire qualified engineers for its manufacturing facility in Ho Chi Minh City. The report's authors said this was "the worst result" Intel has encountered in any country they have invested in.

But there has been some headway made.

Nguyen Kim Dung, deputy director of the Institute for Educational Research (a think tank at the HCMC University of Education), said private small and medium enterprises have started to complain less about the quality of undergraduates turned out by Vietnamese universities.

"These colleges have tried their best to tailor their curriculums to the needs of society," said Dung, who has researched extensively on higher education in Vietnam.

The National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, last month passed a law that would give more autonomy to universities. Schools would then be able to determine their enrollment quotas, design their own curriculums, or increase remuneration for instructors.

No looking back

The education ministry estimates that up to 70 percent of overseas students choose to stay in foreign countries after graduation to further their study or find jobs there.

"Graduates returning from overseas with new degrees often find themselves discouraged or prohibited from introducing new practices in the institutions to which they return," said Lisa Drummond, a Vietnam analyst at the York University in Canada.

Well-known Vietnamese astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan, who has won international awards for popularizing his discipline, said not having a conducive environment to do research is one of the main reasons that prevents Vietnameseborn scientists who are trained abroad from coming back and working at home.

There "must also be good material conditions for the scientist," Thuan said in a 2009 interview.

Vietnamese scientists and researchers get basic salaries of between VND3 million to VND5 million a month at national-level institutes.

Lam, the businessman whose daughter is attending college is Boston, said he would also encourage his daughter to find a job in the US after graduation.

"I'll do my best to help her achieve that goal, even at the expense of selling my house."

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