Crunch time as Vietnam set for education shakeup, again

By An Dien, Thanh Nien News

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The country risks losing public trust forever if it fails to reform after years of rhetoric, prominent expert says

Students at Ho Chi Minh City's Le Hong Phong High School on the first day of the new school year last September. The Communist Party has passed a resolution on an across-the-board overhaul of the education sector. Experts say the key to the shakeup is to have a clear, realistic vision and stick to it and if the authorities are unable to overhaul the system this time, they risk losing the public confidence in it for good. Photo by Dao Ngoc Thach

In the most explicit gesture to shore up an education system that has been dogged by crisis at all levels, Vietnam's top leadership has passed a resolution on an across-the-board overhaul of the sector.


But will educators and experts, disenchanted with government platitudes about an education quagmire that threatens to drag down the workforce and stall the country's development, buy into this latest move in the education reform?

"It is crunch time for a shakeup," Hoang Tuy, a prominent Vietnamese educator, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper. "The leaders must decide if they want to fix the system or keep the status quo and hold back the country's development with a backward education system."

The resolution, approved November 4 by Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, looks to tackle all the core issues that have plagued the sector for years.

"Education and training is the top national priority. Investment in the [education] sector must be at the forefront of the nation's socio-economic programs and blueprints," the resolution said.

Experts say Vietnam's education system is rigid, of suspect quality and riddled with scandals in recent years. They say the sector 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.

Most of the teachers in the public school system put in extremely long hours and do not have a lot of time to invest in their lesson plans after class. The teaching profession pays so little that top students do not normally want to be teachers. A newly-graduated teacher earns just VND2 million (US$95) which only doubles after 20 years of work experience, according to the labor ministry.

In a Confucian society where academic achievement is a national obsession, a culture of cheating nurtured at the top of the system has flowed downward, permeating examinations at every level. Experts say if society continues to pursue its craze for academic achievement, and if job promotions hinge on degree-based criteria, academic honesty will continue to be a casualty.

While Vietnamese authorities have repeatedly pledged measures to tackle these issues, the rhetoric has not been matched by action. It is in that context that the forthcoming shakeup seems to be a last chance to deliver on the promise, experts say.

"If the authorities are unable to overhaul the system this time, they risk losing the public confidence [in it] for good," said Tuy, who headed a group of intellectuals that tendered a similar proposal on education reform almost a decade ago.

Live-or-die juncture

The European Chamber of Commerce (EuroCham) in Vietnam said in its White Book released this week: "Within [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], Vietnam ranks in the lower half of human resources development. Therefore, improving and upgrading the skills of its workforce is one of Vietnam's key tasks to meet the needs of a rapidly changing labor market."

With the Politburo, the Party's main decision-making body, adopting last April a resolution on international integration highlighting the role of key multilateral institutions, "an improved education system"¦will also imply that graduates will be able to better meet the employment demands of multinational companies established in Vietnam," the White Book said.

"Likewise, they will also be better equipped to join Vietnamese companies which look to implement international standards of governance and operation. This will allow Vietnamese companies to compete at a global level."

But before the education system is comprehensively overhauled, it has already had an across-the-board bearing on Vietnam's key sectors.

Foreign companies have warned that the poor quality of universities will hinder Vietnam's economic growth. It has made it difficult for them to find enough graduates in finance, management, and information technology (IT).

The government looks to have one million employees who can meet international skills and education standards in the IT sector by 2020. But this target may never materialize due to the shortage of skilled and trained labor.

Demand for a high-caliber IT workforce has continued rising in Vietnam. Of a current workforce of around 250,000 people, companies will need a total of some 411,000 in the next five years, according to the Ministry of Information and Communications.

This appears to be a tall order, given that the country is only producing 60,000 workers in the field, the English daily Viet Nam News said in July, citing the Center of Forecasting Manpower Needs and Labor Market in Ho Chi Minh City.

The problem is exacerbated as a recent survey by the National Institute of Information and Communications shows that 70 percent of IT graduates need retraining to meet firms' requirements. Among fresh graduates, only 15 percent meet company requirements, while 80 percent of fresh-graduate computer programmers need re-training, according to the survey.

Things are not better in the tourism sector, in which Vietnam is already trailing behind its neighbors, as it has been bedeviled by a dearth of well-trained staff.

The recent tightening of regulations on foreign workers, which involves even more red tape, is likely to aggravate the already dire human-resource situation facing the corporate sector, experts say.

"This is starting to affect the transfer of knowledge and experience, as Vietnam wants to move towards becoming a developed country, but is restricting the nature of how this happens," the EuroCham's White Book said. 

'Beset by hubris'

Experts say the key to Vietnam's education reform is to have a clear, realistic vision and stick to it. The sector has been notorious for issuing unrealistic policies while ignoring or glossing over major problems.

"The decay of our science and education is not due to a lack of money but to the fact that we do not know what to do or how to manage," Tuy, the prominent educator, wrote several years ago. This remains relevant today.

"Without systematic thinking and a comprehensive, strategic vision, one could easily make himself busy with trivia and a here today there tomorrow approach, endlessly "˜reforming' in a fragmentary and inconsistent way, exacting huge costs but resulting in nothing more than complicating a system that is already crippled and devoid of vitality," he wrote.

A VND9.4 trillion ($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. 

"There is a concept known as 'planning tension' that was popular under interpretations of Soviet-style planning. The idea is that it makes sense to sometimes give targets that are not really consistent with actual capacity, because that makes it more likely that people/organizations will 'stretch' their capacity to try to attain the target,"  Jim Cobbe, a Fulbright scholar who has done extensive research on Vietnam's education system, told Vietweek.

"I'm not asserting that this is the explanation, but it makes some kind of sense out of these unrealistic targets," Cobbe said. "The obvious problem is that sometimes if the target is too unrealistic and aspirational, they may become discouraged and do worse than they might have done with a realistic target."

In another high-profile article, Tuy, the Vietnamese educator, pointed out the irony in the fact that the best generation of intellectuals of Vietnam during the past 80 years appears to be those who were trained under the French colonial regime in the 1930-45 period.

"A majority of those Vietnamese intellectuals were able to imbibe the quintessence of the educational philosophy of that period to serve their own country and their people instead of the French and their government as feared," Tuy wrote.

On the contrary, the generation of intellectuals who studied in the Soviet Union and former socialist countries in the 1980s and are currently holding key posts in a wide range of Vietnamese government agencies has shown a lot of "shortcomings".

"They are technocrats who are equipped with certain knowledge in certain areas but are short of a long-term vision that can enable them to think out of the box," Tuy wrote.

"They are the most reluctant to play international rules and are easy to lag behind. But they are still beset by hubris and tend to deceive themselves and their people to run after futile achievements.

"Such [reality] needs to be analyzed and explained thoroughly when it comes to any debate on education reform."

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