Vietnam higher education laid low

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Unrealistic, over-ambitious plans could worsen systemic problems plaguing Vietnam's universities and colleges, experts say


Students visit the Temple of Literature, Vietnam's first national university founded in the 11th century, in Hanoi on July 2. Experts say there is no indication that Vietnam's higher education crisis, which has threatened to stunt the domestic workforce and stall the country's development, will blow over anytime soon. PHOTO: AFP

The recent drama of issuing and scrapping a nonsensical regulation granting Heroic Mothers whose children were killed in the wars and who are mostly in their eighties now extra grades if they sit for the university entrance examinations has served one useful purpose.

It has underscored the tendency to issue unrealistic policies while ignoring or glossing over major problems that have plagued the country's tertiary education system for a long time, experts say. There is no indication that Vietnam's higher education crisis, which has threatened to stunt the domestic workforce and stall the country's development, will blow over anytime soon, they add.

The experts say the major challenge for the Vietnam's higher education system is to have a clear, realistic vision and stick to it.

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"We want to do too many things at the same time but fail to hammer out a focused strategy to fix core issues with the sector," a senior Vietnamese researcher with an education think tank in Ho Chi Minh City said.

"Inevitably, we are wasting a lot of time and resources that should have been spent elsewhere to overhaul the system," she said, declining to be named due to the "sensitivity" of the issue.

A VND9.4 trillion (US$443 million) government project that looks to produce an English-proficient young workforce by 2020 has been panned for being overly ambitious, seeking to accomplish in less than a decade a task that took better-off neighbors several decades. The project was scheduled to kick off in 2008 but did not begin implementation until last year.

Another project initiated in 2010 to train 20,000 individuals at masters and doctorate levels overseas by 2020 has also been criticized as impractical and a waste of resources.

Perhaps on top of the long list of unrealistic projects is a government plan, also launched in 2010, to build four international universities with at least one entering the world's top 200 by 2020. 

Experts say it took Asian economic powers like China or South Korea almost two decades to achieve this target, and Vietnam is in no position to outpace them.

They add that Vietnam's policy to rely on foreign institutions to bridge the gap between international and domestic education systems is also misplaced.

"Foreign institutions can provide some stimulus but it is more important to put money into local institutions and then benchmark them vigorously against foreign universities in other countries to improve performance," said Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

A telling factor in the quality of the higher education sector is the poor research capabilities of Vietnamese universities, which lag far behind neighboring countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

For instance, in 2005, Vietnamese researchers produced about 2.5 peer-reviewed science and engineering articles per million people "” roughly half that of Thailand.

In the most recent action plan released last April, the education ministry stopped short of the target of having at least one university enter the world's top 200 by 2020. But it is not clear if it has been completely jettisoned.

Systemic flaws

A 2008 report prepared by Harvard University's Kennedy School said Vietnamese universities were churning out a workforce ill-equipped to tackle the nation's socio-economic challenges in a globalizing world.

The European Chamber of Commerce (EuroCham) in Vietnam said in its White Book released last December that Vietnam's education system "is facing a major crisis which is affecting the current workforce and talent being produced.

"The present curricula and teaching methods within schools and universities have created a discord between skills that enterprises require and students entering the workforce," it said.

While policymakers have repeatedly pledged measures to overhaul the system, the rhetoric has not been matched by action, experts say.

This failure can have serious consequences given that Vietnam's young and highly literate workforce is the country's best hope for riding out the global economic crisis and sustaining future growth, they add.

Vietnam is currently experiencing the rare phenomenon of a "demographic bonus," with two or more persons of working age for every person of dependent age (under 15 or 60 and over), meaning it has a large population of young people, the UN has said. The phenomenon is likely to last until 2040.

Today, young people between 10 to 24 years represent almost a third of the total population of around 90 million. Two-thirds of the country's population was born after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

But the EuroCham book said the second highest unemployment rate in Vietnam is in the 1524 years age range, blaming this chiefly on the fact that they do not have the skills that companies need.

It cited a recent education ministry survey as saying that around 60 percent of recent graduates need retraining to meet the requirements of future employers in terms of knowledge, attitudes and skills.

It said due to the lack of satisfaction with general and vocational training, nearly 40 percent of foreign companies feel the need to invest in onsite training, which is a massive burden on those seeking to invest in Vietnam.

Nicola Connolly, vice chair of EuroCham, said it usually took longer for foreign companies to train their staff in Vietnam than in neighboring countries.

"Probably [it] takes a minimum of 12 months for our staff to have a basic understanding of our internationals standards," Connolly, who is also the general director of the HCMC-based Adecco Vietnam Joint Stock Company, told Vietweek.

"There is a lot of micro-management involved. As I've been in Vietnam for nine years, I'm used to it but it requires patience and dedication as leader and manager," she said.

But experts say singling out universities for being non-responsive to the needs of the marketplace would not be fair.

"I think a key part of the problem is the system," said Khalid Muhmood, co-founder and director of British University Vietnam.

"The system is designed to provide strict quality control on all universities," Muhmood told Vietweek. "Unfortunately it ends up restricting the well-run universities from having enough autonomy to meet the needs of the corporate community."

Vietnam's higher education system has been blamed for being "overly centralized and highly politicized." Experts have said universities need greater autonomy to determine their enrollment quotas, design their own curricula, or increase remuneration for instructors.

The National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, has heeded the call, enacting last January a law that would give more autonomy to universities.

But the law lacks teeth and is unlikely to effect real change, experts say.

"Vietnam's policies on university autonomy pale in comparison even with those in neighboring countries, let alone on the world map," said Bui Tran Phuong, rector of the HCMC-based Hoa Sen (Lotus) University, which is touted as a well-run school that has been able to tailor curricula to the needs of the business community in Vietnam.

There are a total of more than four hundred colleges and universities in Vietnam with around one-fifth of them privately owned.

"˜Educational asylum'

A rising number of the nouveau riche, as well as middle and upper income families in Vietnam, where the annual per capita income was around $1,555 last year, are opting to send their children abroad for higher studies.

More than 30,000 Vietnamese students were studying at foreign institutions of higher learning last year.

Vietnam ranks fourth in the world for student enrollments in Australia, and eighth for enrollments in the US.

Most of the nearly 15,600 students who were studying in the US last year were not on scholarships to well-known schools, but attending community colleges with all expenses met by their families, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education.

Meanwhile at home, the craze for "international" education has not seen quality schools springing up in the country, experts say.

"Many training programs in tie-ups with foreign institutions have been able to pull in droves of Vietnamese students, even though their quality is very much dubious," said Vu Thi Phuong Anh, an expert who has done extensive research on Vietnam's higher education system.

"That's because the people are increasingly getting fed up with and losing their faith in the country's public universities," she said.

Hoang Nhu Lam, a wealthy businessman in HCMC, has sent his daughter to a university in Boston since last year and is preparing to send his 11-year-old son to study abroad as well.

Lam said he would not balk at doing so even at the expense of his ceramics business that has already been hit hard by the economic crisis in Europe, the major market of his products.

"We don't have the luxury of enjoying anything else but to invest in the overseas studies of our kids," Lam said.

"We simply call it educational asylum." 

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