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  Vietnam, 1-Oct-2002

Linking Education And Further Economic Growth

There is a sinking feeling among thoughtful Vietnamese that doi moi (renewal, renovation) has run out of steam: that a new wave of change is necessary if Vietnam is not to become mired in corruption, red tape, non-performing debts, state-owned enterprise inefficiencies, rural unemployment and growing discontent among those citizens, who have yet to benefit from GDP growth. Forbidden to talk openly about political transformation, Vietnamese intellectuals, academics and some officials still participate in lively debates about economic and social dilemmas. One topic on which almost every Vietnamese citizen has an opinion is education. Current primary school enrolments are impressive, yet primary teaching is quite unpopular as a career choice. Employment conditions for teachers are dismal, the curriculum is outmoded, pedagogical techniques remain highly authoritarian, and pupil dropout rates are alarming. Secondary schooling has now slipped beyond the hopes of many children and their families, who cannot afford the fees and special tutoring requirements. This contrasts with conditions several decades ago, when the state ensured that bright children from poor families made it to high school. State-financed opportunities for adult education have also declined dramatically, except in the military. Tertiary education attracts the most discussion in Vietnamĺs mass media. As the time arrives each year for nationwide high school graduation examinations, there is criticism of exam content, marking procedures and cases of alleged corruption. Students passing these exams then face additional entrance exams at favoured universities. There are very few scholarships available, special fees abound, course materials are patchy, and lecturers often divide their time between several institutions. Students who fail the exams can still enrol in a variety of private institutions if they can afford the steep tuition charges. Tertiary education institutions remain heavily concentrated in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Although many other cities now possess universities and technical schools, the level of instruction tends to be inferior, much to the irritation of both students and parents. Indeed, if Vietnamese students take to the streets in the future, it is likely to begin at provincial institutions, over educational grievances, at least in the first instance. In recent years, thousands of young Vietnamese men and women have been able to study overseas, mostly in the US, Canada, Australia, France, Singapore and Japan. As they return home, many graduates find their new knowledge ill-suited to local conditions and employers disinclined to listen to proposals for change. The favoured ones land jobs with foreign businesses or international organisations. There is an aversion to accepting any employment beyond Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, much less the countryside. Vietnamĺs leaders appreciate that the economy needs to get beyond heavy reliance on primary commodities and avoid being caught forever in the low cost labour trap. In principle, they understand the importance of education in moving up the value chain of production, not to mention improving peoplesĺ quality of life. However, in practice, education policy remains confused, and performance a welter of contradictions. In those circumstances, some local governments have acted unilaterally. Some universities have set their own goals, located funds from diverse sources, and begun to build a new Úlan among faculty and students alike. Nonetheless, the risk of top-level disapproval and crackdown is ever present.

Watchpoint: Central government reactions, negative or positive, to local education initiatives bear scrutiny as some of these initiatives may have significant economic implications.

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