Gov't spending, loans the solution to both reduce education gap, ensure quality

August 21, 2023 | 04:50 pm PT
Nguyen Van Tuan Medical researcher
I was raised in a small village in the Mekong Delta, where, before 1975, getting admission to a university was a rare academic achievement.

Only 30% of students could pass the high school graduation exams, and of them only a handful would reach university.

My village, though situated only 20 km from the provincial capital Rach Gia, had just a few people who had graduated university.

They were the pride of the village.

Only in the late 1990s did universities really open their doors to the masses. When I visited home a few years ago, I heard many stories about young people in the neighborhood graduating from universities, some even serving as doctors in Rach Gia.

Many of them are from ethnic backgrounds and financially disadvantaged. Deep inside, I felt glad that Vietnam's education system had seen some progress, and the gap in university education between rural and urban areas and poor and rich people had narrowed.

This year things went too far in the other direction. Several students from my village, after getting admission, decided not to go to university. The main reason was the high tuition amid a tanking economy.

The tuition typically costs VND30-50 million (US$1,260-2,100) a year, and there are other expenses on top.

It is just too high an amount considering that a family farming 10,000 sq.m only manages to save around VND70 million a year on average.

How can a child dream about university with that income?

A Government decree increases the tuition at public universities by 10-15% from the previous year.

In my own stream, medicine, it rose by VND15-20 million in 2020, and is expected to rise by another VND55-60 million this year.

Understandably, universities have to hike their fees for their own survival.

According to the World Bank, the government provided 24% of Vietnamese public universities' expenditures in 2017, but the figure reduced to only 9% in 2021. Tuition accounted for 57% of schools' total income in 2017, and 77% in 2021, showing their increasing dependence on it.

This should be a growing concern for Vietnamese policymakers.

The over-reliance on tuition fees tends to cause a decrease in education quality, which happened in Australia. Universities would attempt to lower admission requirements to increase the number of students' admitted, sacrificing education quality in the process.

Increasing the fees also causes a larger education gap between the rich and the poor, which happened in Canada.

Ontario Province in that country allowed universities to raise tuition and saw a decrease in students from poorer backgrounds, while in other provinces where the fees remained steady, like Quebec and British Columbia, there was no change in the student demographics.

The Vietnamese government seems to be seized of this concern and is taking precautions. It has instructed universities not to raise their tuition. But this is a zero-sum game, in which either students or universities will suffer.

How will universities manage to survive?

The sources of income are usually diverse for many foreign universities.

Apart from education programs and partnerships, they get money from government agencies and corporations to do scientific research, donations from individuals and organizations, renting out facilities, and providing consultancy.

Theoretically, Vietnamese universities could do the same. But why did the implementation face so many hurdles?

Vietnamese universities mostly focus on education and training, with scientific research playing only a minor, complementary role.

Most lecturers and professors are too busy teaching, with only a few doing research and in not very conducive conditions.

It is no surprise that their research hardly results in practical products and actual incomes for them.

Most research work at universities fails to prove its applicability or market value or convince investors to join in.

Many of the research seems to be more motivated by promotions within the university system rather than a scientific inquiry to resolve a social or professional issue.

Western universities receive a lot of donations, but in Vietnam the practice is still in a fledgling state. There are efforts here and there to contribute to public universities, but the practice remains scant, especially when not motivated by policies.

One of the main reasons why western universities get lots of donations is that they are tax deductible.

Thus, with tuition remaining fixed and little other income, public universities find it difficult to improve education quality.

The 9% contribution by the government to universities' incomes is rather low compared to developed countries. In China, around 50% comes from the government funds, and in Australia, it was around 35% in 2020. Some 26% came from international students and 17% from local students.

To put things in context, in Australia, when I went to university 40 years ago, universities did not charge fees to enable students from lower-income families to pursue higher education.

Only in the 1990s did Australian universities start charging tuition, and the fees remained very low for years.

In Vietnam, getting student loans is an option nowadays, though the loans provided by the state-owned Vietnam Bank for Social Policies are hardly appealing in terms of either amount or quality.

The World Bank reported that the number of students who took loans decreased from 2.4 million in 2011 to 725,000 in 2017 and just 37,000 in 2021.

One straightforward way to reduce the current education gap between rural and urban areas is to provide larger loans to students and prolong the interest waiver period after graduation.

The government should allocate more funding for education. A developing country should consider education, especially higher education, as important as infrastructure.

The highly educated human resources from universities provide strong support to the country's future prosperity.

The most profitable investment a country can make is in humans.

*Nguyen Van Tuan is a professor of medicine in Australia.

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