Private Schools in Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, December, 2006 - At a beautifully-kept French colonial villa in Vietnam, uniformed school students take classes based on an Australian curriculum. To relax, they jump into the pristine swimming pool nearby.
Classrooms are not overcrowded, and the building is in top condition.
This is not your average Vietnamese high school.
Vietnam is the fastest-growing economy in Asia after China, but the communist state has been hard-pressed to improve its education system at the pace needed to propel its development.
So for ambitious parents, private institutions like the Australian International School (AIS), which opened in September in southern Ho Chi Minh City, are the only sensible option.
"There is no way my son will ever go back to a public school. Education there is not good enough," says Pham Thai Cam Ha, a 40-something mother and office worker whose son attends AIS.
Although many students at AIS and other private schools are the children of expatriates, the vast majority of them are Vietnamese.
Here, as in many countries across Asia, academic excellence is an obsession for parents, who teach their toddlers English and force their teens to take night classes in an effort to see them earn a place at a top university.
Vietnam has won the literacy battle, notching a 91 percent success rate by putting a school in every village across the country.
Authorities in Hanoi also have raised the education budget from three percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 1994 to five percent of GDP last year -- a higher rate than in some of Vietnam's neighbors, according to a study published in June by the Melbourne Development Institute.
But it's not enough in a country where two-thirds of the 84-million-strong population is under the age of 30, while global economic integration creates a constant stream of new, highly specialized jobs.
"To create a workforce capable of supporting a different type of economy, improving the education system is absolutely necessary," notes Jeffrey Waite, an education specialist at the World Bank.
Vietnamese Education Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan recently admitted there were still "many unresolved issues: building more classrooms, enhancing professional qualifications for schoolteachers", to name a few.
"The hardest problem is to increase the salary for teachers," he said. Earning just 60 dollars a month, which is the average salary in Vietnam, many teachers get extra cash by offering private tutoring. Those who don't take the extra lessons have little chance of succeeding.
The state-run system also suffers from a lack of innovation.
"Teachers don't encourage any creativity. The teacher speaks and the student must listen without saying a word, without thinking by himself," says one corporate executive and father of a 13-year-old boy, who asked not to be named.
In the worst-case scenario, some university-level degrees can be bought on the black market or "negotiated" for with the school.
The result, according to state media, is that 60 percent of Vietnamese with university diplomas must have further on-the-job training courses in order to be useful in the workplace.
Faced with such a dire situation, the communist state has been forced to surrender its monopoly on forming the minds of young Vietnamese and appeal to both domestic and foreign private investors to help save the country's schools.
The Melbourne Development Institute estimates that by 2015, private middle schools will handle 3.5 percent of students, up from 1.8 percent, while four in 10 high schools will be privately run.
RMIT International University Vietnam, created in 2001 by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, now has 3,600 students and aspires one day to welcome 10,000 of them on campus.
School president Michael Mann says it is "one of the only, and maybe the only 100-percent foreign-invested university in Southeast Asia. The other countries have not allowed their education sectors to open up so much yet."
"The authorities want RMIT to be a catalyst which creates a competition with Vietnamese universities," he adds.
A quality education does not come cheap in Vietnam. The British International School charges between 9,200 and 12,600 dollars for a year's tuition. An RMIT diploma costs from 4,600 to 18,000 dollars.
For some, only an American university education will do, but private schools in Vietnam offer an academic -- and financial -- compromise.
"RMIT provides an international education at about one third the cost of studying overseas," says Tuyen Nguyen, an investment officer at the International Finance Corporation, the investment arm of the World Bank that partly funds RMIT.
But for the vast majority of Vietnamese students, private schools remain outside their reach.
"As in any country with a private sector, there is a risk of building a two-speed education system," says Waite.
"It is important for the Vietnamese government to take steps that will allow all young people to get a quality education."
Several options are possible, he said. But above all, "they need to develop a quality public school system."
* * * * *