Ly Pham (2015)
(Vietnamese edition published in Tuoi Tre Cuoi Tuan 30 Dec 2015)

If we have an election to choose what recent year had the most significant changes in education in Vietnam during last decade, it is likely 2015 would be the number one candidate to vote for!

Burning issues shaking the whole society

The two most striking events are reforming of the university entrance exam and the subject of teaching History. It is in 2015 when the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) introduced an unprecedented admission procedure for the first time: merging the high school graduation exam and the university entrance exam; allowing students to take the exam first and select their university later; and a transparent filtering process in which each institution sets the number of seats they are allowed to provide and receive the number of the students in their quota, from top scores students down to the last. The problem is that no one knows what scores are accepted or not, as it depends on how many students have applied to a certain university and what scores those students have.

It is like a train with million passengers which turns around suddenly, hundreds thousand students and their families have withdrawn their applications in a university and applied to another one when the admission scores requirements changed. This caused a big mess, including feelings of insecurity and unexpected results. For example, many students applied to a program/institutions that are not of their wish, because they want to secure a spot in university anyway. However, there are a few advantages of this formulation of admission: students have more alternative options, university can select the best of the best; and competition is more equal: the better score students have better chance to be selected.

The second story that attracted attentions of the whole society, is the integrative teaching for History proposed in the Draft of National K-12 education curriculum. The intensive debate on “removal of History Courses” based on an incorrect argument:” Integration of teaching History into other courses means terminating it from the curriculum”. Therefore, several people, including academics, have been chasing a meaningless discussion on whether we should maintain the History course or terminate it. Questions should be: Is it good if we introduce integrative approach to teaching history, how we should do that (which subjects should be integrated, in what stage, by what way and for what purposes?); and are we ready for acceptance of diverse perspectives in teaching History? What are we preparing for teachers so that they are able to use the power assigned to them when introducing integrative approach? These questions are not discussed well enough.

However, we can still see some significant implications of these debates. First, it is the diversity of public opinions. There were around over 60 articles published within 2 weeks about this topic, let alone a thousand comments in social media. This is certainly a very diverse range of speakers and perspectives. Policy makers, university administrators, historians, researchers and intellectuals in general, people in country and abroad, all of them raised their voices with various arguments, even opposed each other, though History can be seen a sensitive matter. This is really new and a positive signal. There is obviously a larger space and more open for public opinions.

Second, such a controversial discussion has wakening people about the importance and true values of teaching history, a bitter issue existing for many years that everyone knows about but no one does anything to improve its situation.

Teaching History is just a part of the issue of reforming K-12 curriculum and textbooks. The Draft of National General Education was built on the idea of transforming a force-feeding and authoritarianism education into competence-based one. If we can make it happen, it would be a greatest revolution in education since 1945, as it will change completely the educational approach, from the lecturing and rote learning to the organizing learning environment for experiences and developing competencies upon individual characteristics. Abstract thinking, communication and teamwork will be survival skills for digital technology era. Therefore, those reforms are seen absolutely urgent and we must not wait any longer.

However, reforming is not easy. The first and foremost obstacle is to transform our mindset that sees education is to provide just knowledge. The opposed opinions in integrative teaching of history have reflected these arguments. But, as the Facebook founder said: “We must take risks today to learn lessons for tomorrow. We’re early in our learning and many things we try won’t work, but we’ll listen and learn and keep improving”.

Another “scandal” is professorship appointment proposed by Ton Duc Thang University, which created many controversial arguments. Beside the supportive or opposed opinions, we can see a trend, which is moving toward international recognized norms including promoting research and strengthening policies aimed at giving more incentives for excellences. Reforming focus has been moving to the institutions, and it is a good sign of increasing university autonomy.

Non-public school, financing and stratification/rankings

The policy developments in the areas of non-public education, privatization and stratification/rankings have not fully taken affect within the system. University Regulations has a large section regarding private schools, especially not for profit ones. However, there is no evidence showing that the new regulation will help solve the problems. Private schools are still facing difficulties in attracting enough students. In this context, the establishing medical program of the Hanoi University of Business and Technology has created strongly opposed reactions due to quality concerns.

It is fair to say, such concerns are based on prejudices and lack of evidence. However, there are reasons for those prejudices. It is in reality, students are vulnerable customers while the state has few mechanisms to protect them. There is a long way to go to remove such prejudice. The above reactions of the general public also raised questions regarding capacity of policy makers. Given permission to the school, then when facing opponents, the MOET has made the decision of reconsideration the permission granted. This is not a good strategic approach for school to build up their long-term vision.

Another trend becoming obvious is to increase the number of self-financed institutions, including privatization of the public institutions. It is worthy of concerns. Although increasing university autonomy granted is a necessary condition for strengthening quality, there is lack of adequate attention to accountability. Autonomy without accountability is not promising for public good, and privatization public universities in a way that having them to become private assists is risky for public good as well. There is a concern that this is backwards in terms of government’s commitment to higher education access and widening the gap between the rich and the poor in the society.

Finally, “educational refugee” is still intensive. There are almost 300 consulting agencies around Vietnam to serve students who want to study abroad. The total number of Vietnamese students studying around the world is approximately 125,000 in 47 countries. In USA, Vietnam ranked the 8th among countries having students studying there. Open Door report 2015 shows the number of Vietnamese students in USA is 17,000 spending half of a billion USD a year. This number is increasing year by year, reflecting the strong desire of the middle class toward better education for their children. It also reflects low trust onto domestic education system.

The stories above reflect a higher education system in transition and moving forward slowly. The intensive reactions of the general public to some issues show a larger space for people’s participation in educational policies. It also reflects an increasing pressure on the education reforms and the needs for strengthening policy development capacity, including establishing and maintaining quality interactions between educational stakeholders.