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Troubled times for Vietnamese schools


Parents gripe about corruption, delinquency, misconduct and shoddy standards at university

Nothing irritates Vietnamese parents more than having their unflagging interests for their children’s education be exploited by the ineptitude of underpaid state teachers. Worrisome parents fume about having to fork out monthly “tips” to ensure that teachers pay adequate attention to their children.

In theory, education in nominally communist Vietnam is supposed to be at no cost; in practice it costs a bundle, especially if parents want to put their kids in one of the more reputable state schools.

Hanoi insurance agent Nguyen Lan Huong said that when she tried to place her daughter in a high school that had been recommended to her, the principal said it was not possible because the school was already full.

“I paid US$1,000 to get her in. And I still have to give her teacher presents and money on special days, like Tet and the start of the school year,” Huong said.

Not only does this chicanery drive parents mad, the bottomline is the quality of state education remains poor and way below international standards – even after substantial bribes have been paid. And this situation applies across the board, from kindergarten up to university.

An assessment last month by the Education Ministry’s Department of Educational Testing and Quality Assurance found failures and deficiencies in Vietnam’s top universities, including an inability to update course content and unacceptable faculty to student ratios.

Only eight of the 20 varsities surveyed over 2005-2008 were regarded as effective in their management and operations. None complied with all standards set for degree programmes and many still offered courses without having sufficient study or the required reference material.

Several have entered into joint teaching programmes with foreign institutions without verifying their credentials or proving their foreign degrees are worth anything.

With public discontent rising, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was obliged to address the issue last month in the National Assembly (Vietnamese parliament) in Hanoi. He admitted that his government was responsible for the poor quality of “some” schools and universities.

But he claimed that substandard cases were the exception, not the rule. “The shortcomings found at a few schools should not make us forget the achievements we’ve made in higher education,” Dung said.

Many disagree, including teachers and academics, although in authoritarian Vietnam they prefer to remain anonymous. One university professor in Ho Chi Minh City said: “There are 1.4 million university students in Vietnam, but the total staff is less than 48,000. So that’s about 29 students per faculty member, when there should be less than 20. We put in 40 teaching hours a week, which is too much.”

PM Dung conceded that poor state management has hampered the performance of several universities and said he has urged the Education Ministry to take action. But the Ministry has presented only general measures for an overhaul of the system and has failed to satisfy increasingly restive parents.

Education Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan said: “Yes, there are many unresolved issues like the need to build more classrooms and to enhance the qualifications of teachers, but the hardest problem is to increase teachers’ wages.”

Earning an average of only US$65 dollars a month, many teachers get extra cash by offering private tutoring and by taking “tips”. Children whose parents do not pay have little chance of succeeding – and teachers who do not get tips have less incentive to teach well or even maintain order.

Indeed, recent incidents of misbehaviour and criminal activity have increased at schools causing alarmed officials and parents. Le Nguyen Huong, vice director of a Hanoi high school said: “Teachers at many schools simply don’t bother to teach pupils about morality, responsibility and good behaviour.”

On the plus side, there has been a sustained effort to ensure that the quality of schooling is similar for all children in Vietnam, regardless of their socioeconomic status. As a result, gaps in school enrolment between the children of rich and poor families have narrowed.

And even in schools in poorer districts, class size is usually kept within an acceptable range. Textbooks are normally in adequate supply, and most schools have all the basic materials, including modest libraries and a reasonable range of teaching aids.

Most teachers do now have at least two years of training and are laudably assiduous in preparing their lessons – with or without the tips.

So, despite growing parental dissatisfaction and exacerbated problems, Vietnam has come a long way from dismal schooling conditions and ill-trained and frequently absentee teachers; a familiar fixture in many other developing countries.

Perhaps the report card should echo the familiar end-of-term assessment given by many teachers: Satisfactory, but could do a lot better.

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