A recent World Bank report confirmed that the poor quality of Vietnam's labor force “remains a challenge” to the country's development as educational reforms flounder.
“Employers continue to report [the lack of] availability of skilled workers as a more severe binding constraint than labor market regulations or taxes,” according to the report, released on July 8 and titled Taking Stock: An Update on Vietnam’s Recent Economic Developments..
“Many employers identify hiring new workers as a particularly serious challenge due to inadequate skills, especially among those applying for technical, professional and managerial positions,” the report said.
The issue also topped the agenda of a recent meeting between Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and the Vietnam Business Forum (VBF)--a consortium of international and local business associations and chambers of commerce.
“It is urgent that Vietnam modernize and upgrade its national curriculum, particularly at the vocational and university levels,” Marc Townsend, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam, said at the meeting.
Experts say Vietnam's education system remains overly rigid and addled by scandals. The country's notoriously passive teaching methods afford students few chances to interact with teachers, participate in discussions or ask questions, they argue.
Most of the teachers in the public school system put in extremely long hours and lack the time needed to invest in their lesson plans after class. The teaching profession pays so little that top students don't normally want to be teachers. Teachers start at just VND2 million (US$95) per month and their wages only double after 20 years of work, according to the labor ministry.
Academic achievement remains a national obsession and a culture of cheating has permeated examinations at every level. Experts argue that if the society continues to pursue academic achievement at any cost and job promotions hinge on degree-based criteria, academic integrity will continue to suffer.
Educators and experts warned that without a major shakeup, the quagmire will drag down the workforce and stall Vietnam's development.
These concerns prompted the country’s top leadership to pass a resolution calling for a total educational overhaul last October.
But the reform, which sought to tackle all the core issues that have plagued the sector for years, has failed to deliver solid results, experts say.
“At the very outset, the reform glossed over the otherwise vital task of overhauling the higher education sector that determines the quality of the workforce,” said Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a retired lawmaker who once served as the vice rector of a major Hanoi-based university.
“But I haven’t seen any relevant adjustment to the reform of late,” Thuyet said.
A recent tightening of regulations on foreign workers introduced even more red tape and will likely aggravate the corporate sector's already dire human-resource problem.
A 2011 decree on foreign labor took effect last November forced employers to prove their demand for foreign workers.
The new decree also reduced the validity of work permits for a broad category of foreign workers from three to two years--a provision that could exacerbate the shortage of skilled workers plaguing both foreign and local companies, executives and analysts say.
The most glaring problem, they say, is that the decree requires work permit applicants to have both a four-year university degree with a major in their precise employment field and five years' of experience in said field.
The requirement has ruled out a large number of valuable engineering and other technical personnel from countries that offer three-year vocational training programs, experts say. Companies from South Korea, a leading foreign investor in Vietnam, was apparently hit hard by the new rule.
A survey on Vietnam's business climate released last month by the European Chamber of Commerce (EuroCham), showed that around two-thirds of foreign companies polled said the new rules on work permits would be “an issue”.
“If Vietnam wants to attract talent and retain it, it needs to allow greater mobility for foreign and domestic workers,” said Nicola Connolly, chairwoman of EuroCham Vietnam.
The 2020 deadline is just an arbitrary timeline that will be impossible to meet," -- Dennis McCornac, a professor at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore.
No end in sight?
In a country where a growing backlash against an influx of illegal foreign workers -- particularly Chinese ones -- has shown no sign of letting up, lawmakers have repeatedly urged the government to tighten controls on foreign workers.
Calls for a crackdown have only gotten stronger since territorial tensions flared following China’s deployment of a US$-1billion oil rig into Vietnamese waters in May.
Many experts see little hope that Vietnam will ease its grip on foreign labor.
Like Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia also apply strict regulations on foreign labor, but Vietnam applies almost the same requirements across the board.
Both industrial and office workers in neighboring countries apply for specific work permits that distinguish between "workers", "technicians,” "managers” and "professionals."
A woman holds an umbrella as she walks past the Hanoi University of Pharmacy in Hanoi in May 2014. The poor quality of Vietnam's labor force “remains a challenge” to its development as educational reforms flounder. Photo credit: Bloomberg
Back to the blackboard
Meanwhile, experts say efforts to reform the higher education sector lack a clear, realistic vision.
Vietnam has sought to do too many things at the same time and failed to hammer out a focused strategy to fix core problems with the sector, experts say. As such, they argue that the country is wasting a lot of time and resources that should have been spent elsewhere to revamp the system.
A VND9.4 trillion (US$443 million) government project aimed at producing a young, English-proficient workforce by 2020 was shelved indefinitely after being panned for seeking to complete a task that took Vietnam's better-off neighbors several decades to accomplish.
Another project initiated in 2010 to provide 20,000 students overseas masters and doctoral degrees by 2020 has also been criticized as impractical and a waste of resources. Perhaps at the top of the long list of unrealistic projects was a government plan, also launched in 2010, to build four international universities and pledge to push one into the world's top 200 by 2020.
These two projects were also doomed from the get-go, experts say.
“The 2020 deadline is just an arbitrary timeline that will be impossible to meet,” said Dennis McCornac, a professor at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore.
“The 2020 deadline has been cited over the past two decades in most proclamations on educational reform, but little progress has been made,” he told Thanh Nien News.
Experts say the Vietnamese public has grown disenchanted with political rhetoric and warn that if the authorities fail to deliver on their latest pledges, they risk losing public confidence for good.
“People in every country have high hopes for their own education system. There is a tendency for people from a certain country to criticize their own education sector and look to systems in other countries as role models,” said Thuyet, the retired lawmaker.
He recalled reading a piece in The Nation newspaper on a Thailand-bound flight which slammed the Thai education system and praised Vietnam’s for some significant achievements.
“But seriously, at the end of the day, we have to admit that Vietnam’s education system isn't good and still has miles to go before it can be considered that good,” Thuyet said.