SCMP Sunday, October 8, 2000

Education system fails miserably


Penned during nine years of confinement in Hong Kong's Whitehead Detention Centre, the poetry and dairies of Hong Phuong reveal an exceptional flair for expression. Indeed, the pages reflect an obvious and impressive intellect, recognised by her tutors at Whitehead who reassured Ms Hong she was capable of achieving anything she desired.
But since her family returned voluntarily to Vietnam in 1997, the 24-year-old has experienced only frustration in the face of what might best be described as an institutional malice which has thwarted her every attempt to further her education.
"The Government told my family to come back and that our wish to live in another country would be forgotten. But officials tell me that I cannot attend university because I didn't go to high school in Vietnam," she said.
"One said that a certificate could be arranged for US$200 [about HK$1,590], but as refugees we lost all our money and the Government confiscated my family's property. I can't afford to pay the US$200 - the whole family has to work hard just to make ends meet."
Ms Hong's case stands in contrast to that of the son of a senior education bureaucrat who was recently the subject of an article in a local newspaper. Young People pulled no punches in alleging corruption was an obvious factor in the boy's high school finals average of 97 per cent - a remarkable result compared with his previously mediocre academic performance and one which allowed him to skip university entrance exams.
Extreme perhaps, but the comparison does highlight the fears of academics that the spiralling costs of education, and the apparently increasing abuse of privilege, is depriving Vietnam of the intellectual talent it requires to join the post-industrial world.
At 92 per cent, the country has an extremely high adult literacy rate, and a good education has traditionally earned society's respect. But quality education has become affordable only to the relatively wealthy. In a country where the average annual income is only US$350, families wanting to send just one child to university must shell out an average of US$200 per annum.
According to Professor Pham Dung, a lecturer at Hanoi's University of Culture, corruption of the education system has been accelerated by an increasing number of jobless graduates and the change from a merit-based to a user-pays philosophy which has accompanied 15 years of economic reform.
"Education has become a kind of commodity. Good jobs require high grades and impressive qualifications. There is a growing feeling among both students and teachers that because people are paying, they have a right to pass. The more intense the competition, the more there is a temptation to cheat."
And there is plenty of evidence of cheating. One in 10 degrees reviewed earlier this year by the Ministry of Education were found to have been forged.
Scrutiny of the high-school qualifications of first year students at one university resulted in 62 expulsions, and diplomats awarding coveted overseas scholarships are becoming concerned at what they say is the increasing role of graft and nepotism in the initial rounds of selection.
Students in the flourishing private-education sector openly admit that high marks can easily be bought, and Hanoi police recently arrested one counterfeiter who had 62 fake university seals in his possession and who admitted to selling 200 forged degrees for US$200 each.
But corruption is not the only problem confronting the quality of education in Vietnam. Educators complain that rewards for honest teachers are inadequate, that teaching methods are arcane and that outmoded curricula no longer meet the changing needs of a developing country.
"We have got to review the whole system," said Professor Pham. "It's like a layer of concrete that prevents our brightest flowers from blooming. And that is why our very best students try so hard to study overseas where eventually they live, and where their talent can be put to constructive use."
Huw Watkin ( ) is the Post's Hanoi correspondent.