A major factor contributing to Vietnam's economic success in recent years is its commitment to education and human resource development. Vietnam differs from its Asean neighbours in many ways.
In fact, Vietnam, with its strong Confucian influences, is sometimes culturally grouped with countries such as China, Korea and Japan. Like Japan and Korea it suffered from devastating war experiences.
To understand Vietnam and its current economic dynamism and related education system, it is imperative to understand its rich history.
There are four key themes of Vietnamese history that are important to understand. First, Vietnam spent over 1,000 years under the direct influence of China. Second, Vietnam frequently has to confront many natural disasters such as floods and typhoons. This forced them to develop innovative responses such as the huge dykes that protect Hanoi from the Red River floods. Third, Vietnam faced serious threats from external invaders such as the Mongols, the Chinese, the French, and finally the Americans. To defeat these invaders, the Vietnamese showed great ingenuity and cleverness. Fourth, the heart of Vietnamese culture is the village, where education and teaching were highly valued.
Diverse international influences have also shaped Vietnamese education today. Over 1,000 years under Chinese rule left Vietnam with profound Confucian traditions which place great emphasis on the value of learning, reverence for teachers, and a strong motivation to learn.
As a colony of France, there was one huge educational influence. The French replaced the Vietnamese and Chinese character system with a romanised Vietnamese writing system, which contributed to a dramatic increase in literacy and the growth of a local publishing industry.
Then, North Vietnam was influenced by Soviet education. This contributed positively to Vietnamese education, primarily in areas such as science, mathematics, medicine and language pedagogy.
Then there was the American influence in the south contributing to, for example, the development of community colleges and the promotion of a much more practical kind of education and training.
Vietnam’s national hero and leader, Ho Chi Minh, was also deeply committed to education. In his September 3, 1945, speech declaring Vietnam’s independence he stressed that the future of Vietnam depended on the education of its children.
Ho was an internationalist who knew many languages. He even spent time in Isaan, Siam, hiding from the French colonial police and learned considerable Thai. There is a village in Nakhon Phanom named after him, Baan Ho Chi Minh.
Particularly in the period since doi moi (economic renovation) was announced in 1986, there has been a dramatic expansion in Vietnamese education with basically universal primary, high levels of secondary enrolment, and rapidly growing enrolments in higher education. For a country at its level of economic development and with a young population, Vietnam has achieved nearly universal basic education (primary and lower secondary) except for certain remote areas with diverse ethnic groups.
To confront the problem of providing education to remote disadvantaged communities, Vietnam pays teachers much more if they are willing to serve in such areas.
Between 19982008, 198 new universities/colleges and community colleges were created with the private sector allowed to play a major role in this expansion. In Hanoi alone, there are now 62 universities. Literacy is an impressive 94 percent.
Vietnamese students have shown impressive success in international academic competitions. For example, in the 2009 International Mathematics Olympiad, a Vietnamese girl of Nung ethnicity from Central Vietnam won the gold medal.
In the 2007 International Mathematics Olympiad, Vietnam finished third out of 93 nations, making Vietnam a genuine “outlier”.
With a bettereducated work force, Vietnam has achieved considerable success in attracting international investments. I have numerous entrepreneur friends in East Asian countries such as Japan and Korea who have expressed considerable satisfaction with their Vietnamese workers. I would argue that Vietnam probably has the best quality (relative to cost) workforce in the world.
Another strong positive force is the internationalisation of Vietnamese higher education, particularly at the university level, and the growth in the number of Vietnamese able to study abroad in diverse locales.
Despite these successes, Vietnam has serious educational problems, namely quality issues across all levels of the system, an inefficient management system, inadequate autonomy for many universities, and university teachers needing to moonlight because of poor salaries (adversely affecting their research productivity).
Despite these serious problems, Vietnam has a bright economic and educational future primarily based on its strong Confucian traditions reflected in the following ideal: “devotion to the idea that selfcultivation through the disciplined pursuit of knowledge is the path to human perfection”. (Thomas Rohlen, Stanford University)
Gerald W Fry
Professor, Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy, and Development
University of Minnesota