Education is the backbone of any society, and Vietnam is no different. However, the heavy focus on exams and college entrance tests are leaving both students and employers with limited choices. By Lien Hoang. Photos by Fred Wissink.

There’s not much good news about the global economy. Growth is slowing to a record lull and Vietnam risks getting stuck in the middle-income trap if it doesn’t move beyond shoes and coffee. A key way out of this morass is education, especially a push for vocational and technical education that’ll prepare young people to contribute to the economy.

Vietnamese college students might not have to worry about the tuition bubble hanging over their American counterparts. But both countries do share a common realisation about education beyond high school: they have spent too many years focused on degrees of mostly nominal value, and now look to shift to a more pragmatic course. In the United States, the issue is a tradition of liberal arts colleges — the critical, holistic thinking those schools engender certainly benefits students, but that’s not enough to stave off the exodus from the humanities, as the New York Times noted in an editorial this summer titled, ‘The Decline and Fall of the English Major’.

In Vietnam, the issue is over-emphasis on exams (leading to cramming and cheating on the national university entrance test), as well as obsession with the diploma for its own sake (leading to recurring scandals of degree-buying). Employers complain that this gives them an emerging workforce that doesn’t have the skills needed for the jobs that are open. For example, a candidate could be a number-crunching wiz, but not know how to apply his abilities to the workplace. The Asian Development Bank wrote on the East Asia Forum that domestic institutions “have been unable to produce sufficient quantities of the highly qualified staff that many service industries are heavily reliant on”.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung recognises these shortcomings. In recent years he has called repeatedly to boost the nation’s training capacity. The Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs is aiming for 26 high-quality vocational schools by 2015 and 40 by 2020. “During 2016-20, Vietnam will train about 2.9 million graduates from vocational colleges and schools, of which 10 percent will meet the national, ASEAN and international standards,” Tuoi Tre reported in January.

There are already 450 vocational schools total, along with 900 training centres across the country. But getting butts in seats has been a challenge. Enrollment has come in under targets, and rivalries between traditional universities and vocational schools is hurting the students they’re supposed to serve. The latter schools, fearing a threat from their more established competitors, lobbied for a ban on universities recruiting undergrads for occupational courses. But last year the Ministry of Education and Training (emphasis on and Training) issued a stay on the ban until 2017.

With half its population under 30 years old, Vietnam has no shortage of students taking on tourism and marketing majors. But it could use more people studying to become, for instance, technicians, engineers, and computer scientists. Internet penetration is high and growing — about a third of the country, or 31 million people, are online, according to eMarketer.

Of course, there are areas in which progress is visible. Just take a walk over to Ton Duc Thang University, a public school founded with a vocational mission under the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour. Classes are brimming at Ton Duc Thang’s campus in Binh Thanh District, offering courses in science, technology, business, even labour relations. “If there’s a desire for it, we teach it,” professor Cao Van Cu says, stepping out of a class in which he was showing students, mostly young men, mathematical formulas on a chalkboard.

Cu teaches technical courses related to architecture and construction, but says his school also trains people in electrician work, bartending, air-conditioning repair, and telecommunications.

In March, Vietnamese students came in second place at the ninth annual Asean Skill Competition, which focuses on vocational training. “The performance reflected the enormous efforts to adopt a new teaching method in order to produce a contingent of young and highly-skilled workers, therefore helping meet national demand during the global integration process,” Dan Tri newspaper paraphrased Deputy Prime Minister Vu Van Ninh as saying.

Vietnamese have been known for their math and science aptitude, even impressing a Google representative on a visit this year. But translating that into useful outcomes for their country is another matter. “While competitiveness is crucial for growth and development, especially in a globalising world, productivity improvements should not be pursued through low-cost labour,” the International Labour Organisation wrote in 2010. “For a qualified and spirited labour force in the years to come, equal investment in education and technical vocational training for women and men is needed in order to achieve full and productive employment for all in Vietnam.”

Required Reading

Few students relish the thought of spending hours with their noses stuck in the pages of assigned reading. But these pieces of literature have lasting effects on a country’s culture and national consciousness. Lien Hoang gets the lowdown on what students across Vietnam are reading.

Marx, Engels, and Lenin aren’t the only game in town. If you’ve ever wondered what literature is taught in Vietnamese schools, this should offer some idea, at least when it comes to foreign authors.

Skimming through the reading list is like tracing the history of Vietnam itself. Starting from the mid-19th century, the influence of French colonialists persists today, as students continue to read translations of Guy de Maupassant, Honore de Balzac and Paul Eluard. They not only read The Miser, by Moliere, but even take on the roles of its characters in school plays.

As France made its way out in the 1950s, a deepening Cold War warmed relations between communist comrades in Vietnam and the Soviet Union. That was particularly the case from 1975, when Vietnam united under communism, and 1991, when the reverse happened in the Soviet Union. Russian writers from Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy to Alexander Pushkin and Maxim Gorky entered the canon, as did Kyrgyzstan’s Chinghiz Aitmatov. Add to these the short stories Gooseberries, by the requisite Anton Chekhov, and The Fate of a Man, by Nobel laureate Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov.

Of course all this depended not just on the linguistic skills of Vietnamese translators, but also on the constraints for publishers. Before the United States and Vietnam normalised ties in the 1990s, the literary selection was more limited. “At the time, the political situation in Vietnam was delicate, so I had to consider that,” says Nguyen Thu Huong, who heads Hoa Sen University’s English department.

He says it used to be more difficult to obtain permission to translate and publish certain works from English. But now Ernest Hemingway (Old Man and the Sea), Jack London (The Call of the Wild) and William Faulkner are quite popular.

Even more so are modern bestsellers like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which young Vietnamese like to share and discuss. Tenth grader Tran Dang Minh Triet says that’s his favourite, especially The Deathly Hallows, as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s yarns about Sherlock Holmes.

“English books, I mainly read fantasy stories,” Triet says. “They’re gripping and fun.”

Triet, who wants to be an English teacher like his mother, says the literature also teaches him about other cultures. Indeed, when countries decide which authors to add to a curriculum, they’re also making decisions about cultural lessons that shape the national consciousness. Here, that’s up to a committee at the Ministry of Education and Training, as well as its provincial and municipal counterparts.

Then there’s the private sector, though still state-controlled. When a new author becomes available in Vietnamese, people pay attention. “Recently, there’s been growing interest in American literature,” Huong says, rattling off the likes of O Henry, Edgar Allan Poe and Alice Walker

When choosing works for syllabi at the university, Huong says he considers three factors: a book’s reputation, how it reflects humanity, and whether the message suits Vietnamese. Down-and-out Vietnamese certainly can identify with the world of Charles Dickens, or Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Perhaps that’s why he’s revered in the Vietnamese religion of Cao Dai. Vietnamese certainly took note when the film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe hit theatres this year. Huong even argues that southerners can relate to the independent spirit of Mark Twain, especially in Tom Sawyer. In general, he sees northerners as resembling the conservative British, and southerners as living in a sort of American Wild West.

Then there are the classics, starting from Greek myths and Hans Christian Andersen tales for new bibliophiles. Miguel de Cervantes makes the cut for penning the first novel, Don Quixote. And no literature class would be complete without William Shakespeare; here they read Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. But that probably can be said in just about any country.