Vietnam: Education Reform


Dr Binh Tran-Nam

Vietnam's literacy rate, once its proud achievement, has shown signs of worrying decline (from 88 per cent in 1988 to 83.8 per cent in 1992).. In recent years, the Vietnamese Government has been struggling to find ways to sustain reasonable rates of physical and social capital accumulation. These efforts have taken place at the expense of human capital accumulation, despite the government's continuing claims of support for the education sector. In building a foundation for long-lasting economic development, education reform must occupy the highest priority in Vietnam's national agenda. It is to be hoped that Prime Minister Khai's recent call for radical education change signifies the government's serious desire for reforming the education sector.

The high rate of return from education is beyond doubt. The new theory of growth has emphasized the role of human capital and knowledge as engines of economic growth. One simply has to look at the absolute as well as relative levels of financial remuneration enjoyed by the teaching profession, especially tertiary teachers, in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan to see how these 'miracle' economies value their education sector.

An education reform strategy for Vietnam must address several fundamental issues. The first problem is the inadequacy of public funding of education. Budgetary data suggest that education expenditure per capita in Vietnam ranks among the lowest in the world. This explains Vietnam's poor ratio of post-secondary attainment (3 per cent) which is low even by low-income country standard (4 per cent). Once Vietnam's proud achievement, the literacy rate's declining trend (from 88 per cent in 1988 to 83.8 per cent in 1992), is also a worrying sign.

The current excess of demand for education in Vietnam must be met by the private sector, especially domestic providers, and the government must be willing to allow the non-government institutions an increasing share of the student population. In this regard, the experience and expertise of religious institutions as educational deliverers should not be ignored. At the same time, rigorous regulation by government of the education system is needed to prevent the proliferation of sub-standard tertiary qualifications. By opening the senior secondary and tertiary education sector up to private providers, the government can then channel its limited resources to the primary and junior secondary education sector. In addition, a number of reform measures are needed to improve the efficiency of existing public resources.

Teaching programs at the secondary school level need to be modernized and expanded. Vocational subjects such as agriculture, business studies, computing and industrial art should be introduced as soon as practicable. The basic purpose of such a program, first introduced in Vietnam over three decades ago, is to produce knowledgeable and technically competent high school graduates who can easily adapt with a rapidly changing economic environment. Given the high level of resources required for this model of education, this comprehensive program may be initially experimented at selected schools in large cities. Overseas aid and concessional deals with international computer companies can be used to provide these model schools with the required infrastructure.

At the post-secondary level, it is important for linkages between colleges and the private sector to be fostered. In particular, it may be useful for certain sections of the vocational education system which cater for the needs of factories and small businesses to be privatised. The promotion of subjects related to physical infrastructure building will be beneficial. The idea of a new teachers' training university, proposed by Prime Minister Khai, is long overdue. However, it is difficult to see how such an institution can attract high-quality teacher trainees when the rewards (in both financial terms and social standing) to the teaching profession have been in relative decline for some time.

Finally, many Vietnamese living abroad now are far better educated than they would be otherwise. Given their high level of intellectual and technical skills, they can potentially play a very important in reforming and modernizing Vietnam. To tap into this great source of human capital, the Vietnamese government needs to demonstrate a genuine spirit of reconciliation.

WATCHPOINT: Vietnam needs to devise and implement programs to utilize the skills and talents of overseas Vietnamese academics and professionals.


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