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Failing on most fronts

Released at: 09:07, 22/08/2015

Failing on most fronts

Vietnam's higher education sector fails to cater to demand and graduates students without the skills necessary to help the country's socio-economic development.

Mr. Stephen GaskillDeputy General Director of PwC Vietnam
and Mr. Nguyen Luong HienAssociate Director, Deals - Strategy

In June around 900,000 students sat their high school graduation exams and university entrance exams. These are the same students who took part in the PISA 2012 international tests, which for the first time involved Vietnamese students and whose results were released last December.

A pleasant surprise 

So how did Vietnamese students perform compared to those of other countries? Fifteen to sixteen-year-old students from Vietnam ranked 17th in math, 18th in sciences, and 17th in literature (out of 65 countries), beating more developed countries like France, the UK and the US in each of these categories. Such results are quite remarkable, given the country’s current state of economic development.

This outcome should not come as a surprise, however. Several indicators show that for quite a long time now Vietnam has been performing well in the basics of education. The literacy rate is very high and was already above 90 per cent in the mid 1990s. By way of comparison, such levels were only reached by China in the early 2000s while India’s literacy rate was only 63 per cent in 2012. The combination of a population that puts a strong emphasis on education and a government that has shown a historical commitment to improving education and making it available for a larger share of the population have been the key drivers of Vietnam’s solid performance.

Expanding education in Vietnam has been a long-term objective of the central government. While still a poor country, Vietnam achieves very high enrollment rates in primary and secondary schools. In 2013 around 75 per cent of Vietnamese above 15 years old were taking their education to at least the high school level. These results are again quite impressive when compared to other countries in the region or at a comparable level of economic development. For example, in India 68 per cent of children from 15 to 17 enrolled in secondary education and in Cambodia only 38 per cent. 

The PISA did not test the quality of Vietnamese higher education, though. Results of such tests may have been much less favorable, as the major challenges regarding Vietnam’s education sector lie in higher education.

Higher education

The first issue is the enrollment rate, which remains low despite having grown quickly over the past years. As at 2013, 25 per cent of all Vietnamese of university age were enrolled in higher education. While the figures might seem honorable they are far from meeting the massive demand for higher education of the Vietnamese population. In 2013 a report released by research agencies of the Ministry of Education and Training claimed that 70 per cent of Vietnamese 12th graders said they would like to continue their studies in university. But places are very limited, as less than half of those who sat the exams in June will be accepted. Vietnam has only 400 colleges and universities for 90 million inhabitants, compared to over 4,400 in the US for 320 million inhabitants and nearly 500 in Malaysia for 30 million inhabitants. Vietnam’s higher education supply is far below the country’s massive demand, resulting in Ivy League-like selection rates for some Vietnamese universities.

Yet the supply shortage is a secondary issue compared to concerns regarding the overall quality of the teaching provided to students. Vietnam’s higher education struggles to prepare its students for the requirements of their future employers.

According to a study published by the World Bank in 2014, employers looking for workers with professional and technical skills estimated that more than 80 per cent of Vietnamese applicants were lacking the required skills to carry out the job. In particular, employers pointed out the poor technical and soft skills of university graduates. Vietnamese universities, despite their severe selection rate, are still poorly perceived by employers. This notion is reflected in the poor ranking of Vietnamese universities compared to their Southeast Asian counterparts.

In 2014 Vietnam’s own Ministry of Education and Training acknowledged the necessity to reform and improve higher education: “We estimate that only 30 per cent of our students receive the appropriate courses and graduate with the required skills to succeed in the corporate world.” Stuck with a severe supply shortage and substantial quality issues, Vietnam’s higher education system will have to adapt and transform in the future.

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