More university students would help Vietnam thrive

September 7, 2023 | 04:00 pm PT
Lang Minh Researcher
To early millennials, such as myself, university entrance exams were life-or-death battles.

They haunted us in our sleep, with their unimaginably low selection rates from top-tier universities. Every 9 out of 10 students failed. And to fail was not an option, we thought, or it meant a gloomy future lying ahead.

Nowadays, the situation is completely reversed. According to the Department of Higher Education, out of one million students who graduated from high school in 2023, a total of 660,250 students, attended the university entrance exam, of which 610,000 passed. That's a shocking 92.7%.

Our generation cannot really make sense of this 92.7%, which defies our own previous experience. It seems to our thinking that university standards have decreased so much that anyone can pass the hurdle now.

Meanwhile, there were cases that showed a completely different picture. Two valedictorians of the exams failed to qualify for the top-tier computer science program at Hanoi University of Science and Technology, which became a controversial topic in society. The Vietnamese higher education sector now contains such controversies.

In 2001, Clark Kerr, an expert in the history of American universities, assessed that since the end of the 20th century, universities are no longer the "ivory towers" of "experts and scholars." Instead, universities continue to expand to serve social needs, such as economic development, improvements in social wellbeing, the establishment of management standards, or improvements in industrial and national security competitiveness.

The trend of universities transcending the scholar boundaries is essential and irreversible in the 21st century. From America, it spread rapidly around the globe with globalization. Upon trading with more developed countries, developing countries had to drastically reform their higher education system in a pragmatic direction to quickly generate a generation capable of adapting to new global standards in production and logistics.

In Vietnam, due to historical situations, the process came slower, but it is now ongoing with rapid changes. The "ivory towers" still stood in the early 2000s, when all universities operated on government budgets and limited their intake of students. Back then, universities were considered purely a place for academic and research advancements.

For many reasons, as government budgets for higher education decrease, the social need for privatization of higher education becomes pressing. The government also seems to have realized this with Decree 77 in 2014 and Decree 81 in 2021, which allow universities to take tuition fees more independently.

To take control of their financial situation, universities also need to satisfy the requirements for graduation. They need to meet the expectations of their "clients," including both young students who wish to thrive professionally, and the corporate world that wants an improving intake of fresh graduates.

Vietnam has the ambition to thrive internationally. With this goal, improving both in quality and quantity is necessary. Especially among the middle classes in Vietnam, which have some money to invest in future generations, the university diploma is the most bulletproof direction. As demands increase, so should the universities' ability to supply what's needed.

Additionally, universities, facing increasing pressure for ever-improving fresh graduates, need to have independence in selecting the most suitable students. For example, management and economic-focused universities should prioritize students with stronger English proficiency, who are more likely to adapt to the global economy, which heavily depends on English usage. Similarly, computer-related programs might take students with better math skills, due to the strong demand for math and systematic thinking. Having a wide variety of selection strategies and methods can attract more suitable students than the traditional testing system in Vietnam.

Vietnam's high entrance rate show that the higher education sector is moving away from "ivory towers" towards massification. With increasing demands, universities open their doors to many more students, but with a stronger focus on the quality of students coming out of the university than coming in.

We should note that the rapid changes now are unfamiliar for the older generations, who are used to the academic-focused university selection. There is a lack of media coverage and policy analysis to help society understand the changing landscape, which leads to a focus on less important topics of discussion in terms of education policy.

From my perspective, the 92.7% of students entering university should not be perceived negatively. It is a sign of an improving education system, respecting the population-wide wish to access higher education. The experience of the older generations should not impede the bright future of our successors.

*Lang Minh is a researcher and education counselor for MindX.

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