The Conviction On Sept. 22, 2016, the Hanoi People’s Court held a first-instance trial  for Vu Van Binh,
The Problem with Praising Vietnam’s Education System Through a Twisted Looking Glass
Vietnam’s education: How good it actually is, for what, and for whom?
A recent article in The Economist analyzing Vietnam’s education system has created quite a sensation among Vietnamese readers.
While the title “Why are Vietnam’s schools so good?” seems at first a sarcastic joke that many people in Vietnam are no stranger to, the content is anything but.
The article insists that Vietnam has “one of the best schooling systems in the world,” as proven by “stellar performance” of its students, high teaching quality by the teachers, and supporting policy from the ruling Communist Party. Thus, “Vietnam’s people can have few complaints” regarding the country’s education.
In reality, it is a very different situation.
A system mired in widespread unsolved problems
“Degraded education” (giáo dục xuống cấp) has been one of the most used phrases in any discussion about the state of Vietnam’s education for the last couple of decades. Googling the phrase brings out no less than 40 million results.
A vast majority of graduated students are considered unfit for the market and have to be thoroughly retrained, a fact that has been continuously pointed out since at least 20 years ago. A 2011 article reported a survey of 500 companies in Ho Chi Minh City which stated that 94% of the newly graduated had to be retrained to meet the jobs’ requirement. In 2019, another survey of dozens of Japanese manufacturing companies in Vietnam showed that 100% of graduated engineers had to be retrained for one to two years before taking up the jobs.
The quantity and quality of teachers are other big issues. There have been concerns about both the shortage and low standard of the teaching staff. Not only in the rural and remote areas, even schools in big cities have been struggling to find teachers. On the other hand, some pedagogical universities have raised alarms over the years by setting very low entry bars for future teachers. In 2017, Hue University of Education made headlines by accepting students who only needed to get a grade of 12.75 out of 30 (a passing grade of 42.5%).
Fraud is another chronic disease. In a 2012 survey, 84.6% of the students admitted either committing or witnessing cheating in exams. After the 2018 National High School Examination, more than 30 people, including police and senior officers of the Department of Education and Training in three provinces, were prosecuted for taking bribes and manipulating results in the exam. Many people believe those cases are just tip of the iceberg.
In a 2019 conference, in response to the Ministry of Education and Training’s claim that Vietnam was considered one of the 10 countries which have the best education systems in the world (based on a report by the World Bank at the time),  Professor Tran Ngoc Them said that it would make more sense to report that Vietnam was in the bottom 10 rather than the top 10.
The problem with the country’s education system, according to Them and many others, is that it is built to follow orders and pursue fake results.
A system that turns everyone into racing rats
There’s a flip and dark side to the “stellar performance” that Vietnam’s students often exhibit in international events. It is true that students from Vietnam have achieved very impressive results over the years. In 2022, Vietnam was in the top 10 in all International Olympiad competitions (mathematics, chemists, physics, biology and informatics). However, how those results reflect the true quality of the country’s students is a matter of debate.
Take mathematics. Before 2020, the average score of mathematics in the National High School Examination was around 5 on a scale of 10 (5.02 in 2016, 5.19 in 2017, 4.85 in 2018 and 5.64 in 2019)., , , . In 2020, in a change that was set out in the 2019 Education Law,  the Ministry of Education and Training re-organized the event into a National High School Graduation Examination to validate the students’ graduation instead of the dual purposes of validating graduation and applying the scores for university entrance.  In other words, the exams in 2020 were much easier than those in previous years. As a result, the average score of mathematics in 2020 jumped to 6.68, and there were 273 students who scored 10/10 (while in 2019 only 12 students achieved such perfect scores). 
The same situation applies to other disciplines. The first-class results of the few students on the international stage simply don’t reflect the true picture of how average students in Vietnam perform.
One factor that leads to the stellar performance of the chosen few is the practice of “cock training” (literally “luyện gà” in Vietnamese), a term that refers to the infamous tradition of cock fighting in the country. The students are chosen and trained to specifically fight to get the best results.
Even the impressive PISA score that was mentioned in The Economist article has been questioned by many Vietnamese as a result of “cock training.” In 2016, the director of the Center of Education Quality Assessment, under the Ministry of Education and Training, admitted the PISA materials had been translated and delivered to teachers and students to “get used to the questions” but denied that it was a cock training strategy. 
The obvious consequence of such a practice is that the students are trained with only one mission: to fight, or get the best outcomes from the exams. This mindset is not only implanted in good “fighters.” Most, if not all, students are trained with the focus of getting through exams instead of improving themselves or applying what they learn to solve real life problems. The teachers try their best to make sure the students learn by heart and know all the correct answers, which then leads to the final scoreboard that makes everyone happy.
The culprits for this spiraling down rat-racing environment are not the students nor the teachers. It’s the system that is designed to control everything, from what the students can learn, what the teachers can teach to how they all are assessed.
An education system that serves everyone but the students
Education, in the very literal sense of the word, means teaching and learning. A well educated person can be understood as someone who has learned exactly what she or he has been taught. If it’s just that, Vietnam can no doubt be rated as one of the best-in-class.
But obviously, that can not be the ultimate aim of education, especially in this modern age.
The true purpose of education, as so many people around the world have pointed out, is to create an environment where learners can become better versions of their own choices.
This can not be achieved in Vietnam under the current system.
It is impossible to assess the country’s education without putting it in the context of the political, social and economic system.
In an authoritarian country where freedom of expression is literally a crime, how can one expect teachers to create an environment that nurtures creativity, diversity and critical thinking?
In a country where censorship is the default tool to stop people from accessing “wrong” information, how can students practice their right to learn and explore the world?
And in a country where everything from textbooks and curriculums to the salaries of teachers are strictly controlled by a few bureaucratic bodies, how can one survive without turning into a tool of the system?
When referring to the sparkling PISA scores of Vietnam, very few people mention other results from the surveys. One particularly telling finding is that Vietnam was among the few countries whose students had the lowest sense of belonging at schools (2018 report). 
Combined with all the chronic problems in the country’s education system, it should surprise no one that students from Vietnam constitute some of the largest groups of overseas students in many countries. In 2022, the country formed the fifth largest group of foreign students in the United States.
According to data from the Ministry of Education and Training, there were approximately 190,000 Vietnamese studying abroad in the 2019-2020 academic year. Meanwhile, the country attracts around 4,000-6,000 foreign students every year, with nearly 80% arriving from the two neighboring countries Laos and Cambodia.
One article in 2022 cites figures from the Business Association of Overseas Vietnamese which said Vietnam spends US $1.4 billion annually sending 100,000 students abroad and most of them refuse to return to their home country.
Before debating how good Vietnam’s education is, it probably makes more sense to ask the students first if they think this system is built for them.
Unless they are forced to describe the situation by looking through a twisted looking glass, the answer is crystal clear.
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