The chances for graft and bribery are plenty in the education sector, but they often go unnoticed or ignored by the public and government alike.
Tran Ngoc Thuy, 46, said she had paid a school teacher in Binh Thanh District VND15 million to admit her son to a popular high school in District 1. Her boy had just failed the high school entrance exam, but the teacher promised admission to "any high school" in Ho Chi Minh City.
In another high profile case in March 2007, Nguyen Thanh Van, the director of Le Quy Don Senior High School, one of the most prestigious public schools in Ho Chi Minh City, was dismissed for admitting ineligible students and hiring unqualified teachers. Van's subordinates were also caught taking US$2,000 in bribes.
Corruption in education is not new in Vietnam but it is perhaps among the least talked-about areas of corruption, according to Elsa Hastad, deputy head of development cooperation at the Swedish Embassy in Vietnam.
The embassy wants to highlight the issue at an upcoming biannual anti-corruption dialogue this May.
"Corruption in the education sector leads to lower quality education and it leads to a much weaker society here than what you deserve in Vietnam," Hastad said.
It is estimated that the country spends about 20 percent of its national budget on education, making the education budget the single largest expenditure of state funds, said Jairo Acuna-Alfaro, Policy Advisor on Public Administration Reform and Anticorruption at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
While this should translate to performance results for teachers and students, it all too often translates to incentives for corrupt educators out to get a piece of their own.
"Corruption opportunities are everywhere," Acuna-Alfaro told Thanh Nien Weekly.
"When you are talking about the total amount of money that is invested or spent in education every year, there are many different areas, sectors and actors. Education is the key sector because through the learning experience people will identify what is honest behavior and what is not."
The invisible hand that feeds, and bites
According to a survey published by the World Bank in the Vietnam Development Report 2010, 17 percent of service users said corruption is serious or very serious in public university and college education, while that number was 14 percent in vocational training.
The number is lower compared to 36 percent who believe there is serious corruption in the court system and 28 percent in central health services.
However, unlike other sectors, corruption in education in essence is the "double jeopardy" as it affects the future generation of any nation, said Pascal Fabie, regional director in Asia and the Pacific for Transparency International (TI) in a meeting leading up to the dialogue between the Swedish Embassy, the Vietnamese government and its international donors.
Educational corruption can take various forms such as overcrowding classrooms, providing poor materials, and taking high fees or small bribes for admission, said Fabie.
"It goes all the way to very dramatic situations as we've seen for instance in China [with its poor construction of buildings] during the earthquake... to the lack of textbooks," he said.
In Vietnam, there has been very little scientific research done on corruption in education, noted Vien Nguyen, the TI representative in Vietnam.
Dennis McCornac, an associate professor of economics at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, US who first came to Vietnam in 1994 as part of a market economics training program, attributed the lack of research to the fact that "few people are willing to talk about it."
"The practice of giving gifts and envelops to professors seems to be treated the same way as handing the policeman a few hundred thousand dong to avoid a ticket," he wrote in an e-mail to Thanh Nien Weekly.
"At first glance it does not appear to be that harmful to society; however, businesses and employers are finding that too many students who have graduated from college do not have the proper education to compete in the economy."
Between 2005 and 2007, the professor conducted informal research with 150 first-year undergraduate students in his Vietnamese classes and 100 first-year students at the graduate level.
The results were later published in a paper titled "Corruption in Vietnamese Higher Education," which indicated that 95 percent of students reported they had cheated at least once in a class and all had observed situations of cheating by other students.
McCornac's research also revealed stories of corrupt practices by teachers during exams and faculty members admitted they didn't monitor exams strictly, he wrote, saying that the growing economy has been fueling competition for employment and the pressure to obtain a degree.
"˜No one is clean'
Dr. Nguyen Kim Dung, Vice Director of the HCMC's Institute for Educational Research, said bribes for admission were common because students and parents alike endorsed the practice.
But she also pointed to ineffective financial management in the sector as a cause of the problem.
"The current financial remuneration and rewards management system has done nothing but encouraged people to be dishonest," Dung said.
"But for a major shakeup, I don't think a single person would be clean."
Dung said she herself had tried to circumvent the law when implementing education projects.
Dung said that if she hired an expert to conduct a national research, she would have to pay that expert at least VND20 million while government regulations only allow payment of VND12 million at the maximum.
"I thus resort to asking my colleagues to help to write off fake invoices to authorize the added spending."
"Some of my colleagues would agree to do so pro bono and look forward to my reciprocation next time. But some others ask for kickbacks on each invoice they write," Dung said.
Spare the kids
Dung said young students should be steered clear of the unhealthy reciprocal culture in their education environments before it is too late.
"I know there are many primary school students who now believe that giving gifts to their teachers is a clever way to avoid punishment and other troubles."
Her biggest worry was that the damage has already been done.
"Many kids have begun to understand the system and they've adapted to it."