Education System of Vietnam
Vietnam, a tiny coastal country in peninsular Southeast Asia bordered by China, Laos, and Cambodia, is the 13th most populous country in the world with just over 90 million people. In the last century Vietnam has seen many structural political changes, and today Vietnam has one of the highest reported economic growth rates in the world. With this success has come many advancements, but growing economic inequality is bringing new challenges to sectors of society, education being one.
Vietnam has a long and proud history of defeating powers much larger than it; but this also means that Vietnam has the distinction of having the last 36 years—1979 to present day—be the longest official era of peace that the country has seen in over a millennia. After the American War (as it is called here), attempts to restructure North and South Vietnam into a unified, planned society by means of drastic collectivization plans set off an economic recession that left the country with triple digit inflation and the vast majority of families in a state of permanent deprivation. This all changed in 1986 with Doi Moi, the beginning of a period of economic reforms designed to liberalize the economy and drive growth. Since then, there have been ever-increasing changes moving towards privatization and liberalization, while maintaining the single-party socialist state. Though Vietnam is one of the five countries left in the world officially espousing communism, government policiesare becoming increasingly capitalist, and a variety of phrases such as “open-market socialism” and “ardently capitalist communists” have sprung up to describe the current state of Vietnamese politics and economic policy. This shift towards liberalization has influenced many areas of Vietnamese life, including health care and education.
Education in Vietnam is overseen by the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), and it is an extensive network of state-run schools for students from roughly four years old to college-age. The system consists of five categories: kindergarten, primary, secondary, upper-secondary (also referred to as high school), and university level, with nationally administered exit and entrance examinations between each. Though there is a growing number of private schools and partially privatized schools, these exist almost exclusively in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), and students at these schools still represent a distinct minority of applicants to colleges and universities abroad.
Among upper high schools, there are several categories of schools relevant to U.S. college and university admissions professionals: international schools, “specialized” schools, and the regular high schools. While years ago it was only at the international and specialized schools that recruiters could find students with a high level of English and the family support necessary to study overseas, this is no longer the case. International and specialized high schools still send the most students abroad, a trend directly related to the caliber of students in attendance. Thousands of students study in evening and weekend classes for the high school entrance exams that could grant them a place in Hanoi’s Foreign Language Specialized School (FLSS) or Hanoi-Amsterdam School for the Gifted (“Hanoi-Ams” for short), but only around 5 percent are chosen each year. Those who make it in receive an education with more qualified teachers, a stronger and more dynamic curriculum, and a wider array of extracurricular activities—all crucial components of a good education and factors that will have a serious impact on the next step of their education. A growing number of international schools either teach entirely in English, or are bilingual, though these schools generally attract the children of expatriates and wealthy Vietnamese. The students who do not make it into these programs often end up in specialized cohorts within the regular public schools, or in private high schools, both of which are attempts to address the growing demand for specialized programs and quality education despite limited resources.
The grading scale in Vietnamese high schools is, for the most part, out of 10 possible points, with 4 being the lowest score one can receive and still pass (equivalent to a D). A few schools—almost exclusively in Hanoi and HCMC—use a different grading system, usually because of their affiliation with another educational style. The Russian Embassy School of Hanoi, for example, scores out of 5 possible points following the Soviet system, and Lycée français Alexandre Yersin (LFAY), an international French school, follows the 20-point baccalauréat system.
One of the bigger challenges faced by Vietnamese high school students attending universities and colleges in the United States is the vast difference in the style of education received. Though the international schools follow a more western model, students at public and private high schools, even the specialized ones, receive what should really be labeled as a passive education. Emphasis is placed on knowledge acquisition via rote memorization, and students have an intense schedule of exams that take the place of the critical thinking that comes from experiential and active learning. Even students who specialize in the hard sciences spend very little time in a lab environment. Test scores determine placement, so students spend many hours outside of school in private classes on school subjects. Electives, school clubs, involvement in the arts, internships, and hobbies are all devalued in comparison with high scores in STEM fields.
In regards to higher education here in Vietnam there are a variety of options, but of college bound students, most end up in the national university system via a placement test not unlike the high school entrance exams, at a private foreign university with a local campus, or studying abroad in the United States, Canada, Australia, or Europe. Studying at top tier international universities abroad provides the greatest job security for the future; so many students are pushed from a young age to aim for these schools. Much like the extra classes taken to increase chemistry and math exam scores, students study nights and weekends for the TOEFL, IELTS, SAT, and other placement exams necessary for admission to universities around the world. With rising income inequality and unemployment among college graduates in major cities, the subsequent job insecurity means parents and students place emphasis on getting into the best possible school, regardless of the sacrifices. In this environment, a degree from a recognized school is capital, and these graduates generally have an easier time finding work and a higher starting salary than their Vietnamese educated counterparts.
Vietnam is in a transition as government policy is moving toward increased liberalization. The population of the country is quite young, and so demands on the education system will continue to grow for some time. Further integration into the world economy as Vietnam pushes toward middle-income status means a growing number of middle class and wealthy Vietnamese willing and able to spend money on higher education. All of this will mean more demands for an “international” education, either here in Vietnam at internationally accredited schools, or abroad.