Vietnam: Modernising Education as a Means for Successful Regional Integration


Associate Professor Binh Tran-Nam

Education reform has been an ongoing issue of concern in Vietnam. In 1992, the Ministry of Education and Training in conjunction with UNDP and UNESCO published a wide-ranging and authoritative report on Vietnam's education and human resources sector. The report identified a host of weaknesses in and constraints on Vietnam's education sector. Public expenditure as a percentage of GDP then rose very significantly the next year. However, since 1993, there have been no remarkable achievements in education policy, despite the Government's official recognition (article 35 of Vietnam's current Constitution) and regular insistence of education as the top national policy.

The education reform debate has recently been intensified and publicized. This is primarily attributable to Vietnam's integration with neighbouring countries. Regional integration drives home three worrying facts: (i) Vietnam's education, especially tertiary education, is sub-standard by regional comparisons, (ii) Vietnamese university graduates are poorly equipped for employment, and (iii) Vietnamese youth lack the ability to actively participate in international integration, particularly in economic integration, due to their poor level of language proficiency, and computing and technical competency. A more domestic reason is the unhappiness of many leading professors at the unjustified conferring of the associate professor/professor titles to many university academics and the sub-standard award of masters and doctoral degrees in Vietnam. In 2003, Vietnam had over 5,000 associate professors/professors and about 14,000 doctoral graduates with a pitiful record of internationally recognized research publications.

Vietnam's education problems are in some way understandable. Unlike physical capital, human capital accumulation is a much more time-consuming process. The structural socio-economic changes in Vietnam since 1989 have been wide-ranging, profound and significant. It is therefore difficult for the education sector to keep pace with economic changes, particularly in view of the fact that the Vietnamese education system is traditionally inflexible and not receptive to reforms. Furthermore, despite the obvious excess demand for education, the government has, for a number of reasons, not consistently encouraged the participation of the private sector (including foreign suppliers) in the education market. In any case, multilateral donors (such as The World Bank, IMF and ADB) and foreign investors are more concerned with promoting the private sector rather human resource development in Vietnam.

A quick observation of the process of education reform in Vietnam reveals that, at a policy level, reform measures tend to be reactive, piecemeal and poorly targeted (for example, the target which aims to raise the percentage of university academics with doctoral qualification to 45-50 per cent by 2005, rather than to improve their actual, measurable teaching and research capacities). Presently, there is also a lack of a comprehensive, proactive and forward-looking national strategy that will serve Vietnam for the next 10 years in a globalization context. At the discussion level, too, much emphasis has been placed on the university sector while, in fact, the majority of Vietnamese students will not reach that level. Also, the debate focuses too much on education efficiency and does not pay adequate attention to equity issues.

Any reform strategy must necessarily start with a clear statement on the purposes of education. This can be approached from different perspectives but, in the present context of Vietnam, education should be primarily interpreted as a means to prepare students for a successful participation in the workforce and society. This implies that education must be modern, practical, flexible and adaptable. To keep up with regional and global developments, Vietnamese graduates should, in addition to technical skills and critical minds, be well informed about global social issues such as population control, protecting the environment, drug abuses, HIV/AIDS, etc. Such a modernization strategy will involve a gradual, but wholesale, change in curricula, textbooks, teaching and assessment methods, and teacher training. It will also involve a greater commitment of the government working together with a more controlled growth of the private sector in the education market. This is a necessary condition for Vietnam's long-term success in its regional and global integration.

WATCHPOINT: Look for further expansion of foreign-based private university activities in Vietnam.


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