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Free university education for pre-service teachers an outmoded policy in Vietnam

Tuesday, December 26, 2017, 13:42 GMT+7

The 20-year-old and much-cherished educational policy of Vietnam which purges pre-service teachers enrolled in public universities of their tuition burden is now open to question, as it might no longer be the proper scheme.

The tuition-free policy was first enacted in 1998, when the Vietnamese government deemed it crucial to foster socio-economic advancement.

Under its guidelines, tuition fees would be waived for teachers-to-be enrolled in public universities.

The policy in fact drew a considerable number of competent students who were struggling with financial resources.

At that time, pedagogy was a trending field of study.

After 20 years in effect, however, the policy might have “done its job,” as Lai Thi Ngoc Hanh, a lecturer at Tay Nguyen University in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak, put it.

A costly fact: more teachers than needed

According to statistics published in January 2017 by the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), supply currently outweighs demand by 26,700 regarding the number of recognized teachers.

This figure was projected by MOET in a mid-2016 national conference to reach 70,000 in 2020.

In light of cost, it has made deep inroads into the national treasury.

According to data compiled by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, the money spent on compensation for lost school fees has almost doubled to VND484 billion (US$21,300) from VND250 billion ($11,000).

The financial damage done to the Vietnamese government is exacerbated due to loose legal regulations, Dr. Nguyen Kim Hong, rector of the Ho Chi Minh City University of Education (HCMUE), a major teacher training institution in southern Vietnam, said.

“Students are under no obligation [to pay back their debt] after graduation,” he added.

“Such gigantic investments are causing big losses.”

In fact, a proportion of pedagogical graduates choose not to become institutionalized teachers, contrary to what the policy is expected to achieve.

Tuition will deter the poor? Not really

The tuition-free policy was originally aimed at raising the country’s educational standards, firstly by drawing outstanding individuals to enter the teaching profession.

Now that Vietnam’s socio-economic conditions have experienced positive shifts, free schooling might not be the right motive behind students’ choice of majors.

During a symposium on the effect of the policy co-hosted by MOET and HCMUE, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Huynh Van Son, vice-rector of the teacher training university, stressed that there is a lack of statistical bases.

“With the policy running for the last two decades, there is, however, no rigorous study regarding its impact on pre-service teachers’ choice of majors,” he explained.

If it is the fee that actually deters less financially able students from going to teacher training colleges, student loans may well rush to the aid, Dr. Son said.

Dr. Do Hong Cuong, vice-rector of Hanoi Metropolitan University, advocates a no-interest student loan policy with certain strings attached.

Students work in groups at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Education. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Students work in groups at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Education. Photo: Tuoi Tre

“If there is a loan, students will be under an obligation to pay it back. The only thing the government should make free is the interest rate,” he said.

Dr. Hong, the rector of HCMUE, seconded this opinion.

“Those who take out the loans will enter a contract which legally binds them to work at a public school for five years after graduation,” he elaborated.

However, he emphasized that the reduced expenditure is only 1/4 the total expenses that a student at his school has to cover.

“The tuition basically does not have a say in students’ choices,” he added.

In other words, even free education may not be appealing enough.

Bottom line: easy way in, stifling way out

“What counts is being able to find a job and make a living upon graduation,” Hanh, the Tay Nguyen University lecturer, said.

With so many surplus teachers out there, it is a tough fight, sometimes a wild goose chase, trying to seek employment at public schools.

Dr. Le Viet Khuyen, deputy director of the Department of Tertiary Education, MOET, agreed that the longstanding policy is “clearly no longer attractive” to students.

“Students, especially those high achievers, are shying away from teacher training colleges not because they don’t want to become teachers, but due to the fact that employment is elusive,” he further commented.

The story of Bui Thi Ha, one of the top 100 college graduates honored in August 2016 at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, sheds extra light on this well-grounded concern.

Ha has been helping her mother out in her hometown of Ha Giang, a province in northern Vietnam, bordering China, for the last one year.

She has been keeping pigs, planting vegetables and selling fruits at the local market.

An obvious asset to her province, she has not been institutionalized at any public schools simply because there is no vacancy.

To complicate the matter, the basic monthly salary for fresh graduates within their first five years at work is relatively low.

MOET data until 2016 revealed that this figure varied from VND3,264,300 ($143) to VND3,954,600 ($174) based on levels of education, from kindergarten to high school, while Vietnam’s GDP per capita in the same year was recorded by the World Bank at $2,185.69, which translates to $182 a month. 

The pay will be raised to VND9,183,720 - 10,876,320 ($405 - 497) after more than a quarter of a century at work.

Such a low remuneration is coupled with the ‘money under table’ sometimes tacitly required to ‘get a job.’ 

Stories gathered by Tuoi Tre tell that it might take VND150 million ($6,615) for a graduate in pre-school teaching to sign an employment contract.

Calculated against the basic salary as mentioned above, it will take decades to break even.

With a future path so narrow and bumpy, students are rethinking their choice of entering the educational system as practitioners.

If it is not about the money, then the tuition-free policy will no longer accomplish what it was meant to.

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