A new decree on foreign investment in education has attracted heated debate over the restrictions it places on enrollment of Vietnamese students at foreign-invested schools.
Under the decree, for which the Ministry of Education and Training has recently introduced implementation guidelines, foreign kindergartens are not allowed to admit Vietnamese students.
At foreign-invested primary and secondary schools, enrollment of Vietnamese students is limited to 10 percent of the total number; this is raised to 20 percent for high schools.
The decree has been questioned by several experts as going against the objectives of having more Vietnamese students learn foreign languages, but officials say the primary aim should to be to protect the Vietnamese language and culture.
Dr. Ho Thieu Hung, former director of Ho Chi Minh City's education department, said he was "puzzled" about the purpose of the restrictions.
"Every foreign academic program in Vietnam has already been whetted, why the restrictions and bans then?"
Hung said many Vietnamese people want their children to study at foreign schools at a very young age, so the new regulations could see them sending the kids overseas, a move that could result in the draining of foreign currency from the country.
Moreover, the best time for one to start learning foreign languages is when they first learn how to read and write, thus children under five should be allowed to study in foreign shools, he said.
Speaking to online newspaper Dan Tri, Prof. Pham Tat Dong, vice chairman of a Party association that encourages learning, said it was "unreasonable" to ban children under five from foreign kindergartens, because they have a right to choose teachers, classes and schools.
It is also "illogical" to restrict the number of Vietnamese students at foreign schools, because the move goes against Vietnam's current efforts to improve cooperation with foreign investors and call for foreign investment in education, he said.
Le Van Hung, director of Overseas Studying Consultancy Center in Hanoi, agreed, saying the regulations will make it difficult for families who want to send their children to foreign schools and weaken Vietnam's efforts to promote investment in education.
A representative of the Camellia International Kindergarten in Hanoi said the new regulations are "relatively harsh," given that the current trend is train people to integrate into the international environment.
Speaking to Thanh Nien, Nguyen Thanh Huyen, deputy chief of the education ministry's International Cooperation Department, said the latest decree is "more open" than the one issued in 2000.
She said it allows Vietnamese students to study at foreign-invested primary and secondary schools instead of restricting them to high schools.
The change is aimed at meeting the demand of parents to enroll their kids at foreign schools, which exists among a vary "small" part of the Vietnamese population, Huyen said.
But the openness needs to be restricted, or a large number of local children will study foreign curricula, "wrongly changing the objectives of Vietnam's education," she said.
Explaining the kindergarten ban, she said, kindergartens with foreign investment in Vietnam are established for expats only.
If Vietnamese children study at such schools, they will very likely speak foreign languages instead of their mother tongue, she stressed.
In an interview with online newspaper Vietnamnet, Huyen dismissed the charge that the ministry's restrictions will force Vietnamese parents to send their children overseas, leading to a foreign currency draining.
She said in reality, most of Vietnamese people study overseas after graduating from local high schools or universities for postgraduate programs.
Not many K-12 students study abroad, because foreign countries have very strict requirements for people under 18 to stay and study. Moreover, not many parents want to send their kids abroad at a young age, Huyen said.
Furthermore, "if we weigh the matter of saving budget and foreign currency, and the responsibility of protecting Vietnamese language, culture and characteristics, which one is more important?"
She also said parents' freedom to choose foreign schools for their children is not really restricted, since the regulations only target schools with 100 percent foreign investment or joint ventures with foreign partners, not Vietnamese-owned international schools where most of local students are studying.
The regulations will apply to around 30 schools in Vietnam, she said.
About the argument that the ban will limit the chances of children under five to study foreign languages better, Huyen said parents can enroll theirs kids at foreign language centers if they want.
"We do not work for the demand of a small part (of the population), but to tackle the problem systematically."
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