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Vietnam Index


Village medical clinic
Courtesy United Nations


Agronomy students in a college near Can Tho
Courtesy United Nations

The Vietnamese inherited a high respect for learning. Under Confucianism, education was essential for admission to the ruling class of scholar-officials, the mandarinate. Under French rule, even though Vietnamese were excluded from the colonial power elite, education was a requisite for employment in the colonial civil service and for other white-collar, high-status jobs. In divided Vietnam, education continued to be a channel for social mobility in both the North and the South.

Before the 1950s, poverty was a major impediment to learning, and secondary and higher education were beyond the reach of all but a small number of upper class people. Subsequently, however, rival regimes in Hanoi and Saigon broadened educational opportunities. Both governments accomplished this despite the shortage of teachers, textbooks, equipment, and classrooms and despite the disruptions of war in the 1960s and early 1970s. The school system was originally patterned after the French model, but the curriculum was revised to give more emphasis to Vietnamese history, language, and literature and, in Hanoi, to the teaching of revolutionary ethics and Marxism-Leninism.

In the years after 1975, all public and private schools in the South were taken over by the state as a first step toward integration into a unified socialist school system. Thousands of teachers were sent from the North to direct and supervise the process of transition, and former teachers under the Saigon regime were allowed to continue their work only after they had completed "special courses" designed to expose "the ideological and cultural poisoning of which they had been victims for twenty years."

The educational system in 1987 was based on reforms announced in January 1979 that were designed to make education more relevant to the nation's economic and social needs. These reforms combined theory with practical application and emphasized the training of skilled workers, technicians, and managers. The reforms also stressed the need to develop the country's scientific and technological levels of achievement until they were comparable to international levels in order to assist Vietnam in expanding its technical cooperation with foreign countries in general and socialist countries in particular.

The 1979 reforms were implemented in stages beginning in the 1981-82 school year (September to August). By 1985 the northern and southern schools had been integrated into one system, new textbooks had been distributed throughout the country, and the curriculum had been made uniform for the first time. The government also tried to make the first nine years of general education compulsory, despite the continuing shortage of teachers, school buildings, and equipment, particularly modern equipment for teaching applied sciences. The low morale of underpaid teachers with low job status complicated these attempts.

The perennial shortage of money presented another stumbling block in education. In order to address the problem, the 1979 reforms called on agricultural cooperatives and even "private citizens" to make contributions to local schools and to participate in "a movement for self-supply of teaching aids." In an apparent effort to utilize local resources for educational development, the government assigned "people's educational councils," set up at the grass-roots level, to undertake the task. Composed of representatives of the school, parents, local administration, and various mass organizations, these councils were designed to promote more productive relations between the school and the local community.

Education continued to be structured in a traditional manner, including preschool, vocational and professional schools, supplementary courses, and higher education. "General" education, however, was extended from ten to twelve years. The first nine years of general education formed the compulsory level, corresponding to primary and junior high schools; the last three years constituted the secondary level. Graduates of secondary schools were considered to have completed training in "general culture" and to be ready for employment requiring skilled labor. They were also eligible to apply to colleges or advanced vocational and professional schools. The general education category also covered the schooling of gifted and handicapped children. As part of the effort to foster "love and respect" for manual labor, students spent 15 percent of school time at the primary level and 17 percent at the secondary level in manual work.

Vocational schools at the secondary and college levels served to train technicians and skilled workers. Graduates of professional specialized schools at the college level primarily filled mid-level cadre positions in the technical, economic, educational, cultural, and medical fields. Senior cadres in these fields as well as members of the upper bureaucracy usually had graduated from regular universities. The 1979 educational reforms gave high priority to vocational and professional training in order to absorb a large number of general education students who were unable to proceed to colleges and secondary-level vocational schools. In 1980, for example, 70 percent of primary school students and 85 percent of secondary school students failed to matriculate either because of bleak prospects for employment after graduation or because the country's ninety-three institutions of higher learning could admit only 10 percent of all applicants.

Vocational schools continued to struggle to attract students. In a study of mass education in Vietnam, a Western scholar observed that "Vietnamese students aggressively avoided vocational schools and the specialized middle schools favored by the government." He also noted: The reason for the imbalance between the technical schools and the general middle schools was only too clear. The former were thought to foreclose entry to high-status occupations. The latter were thought to be an indispensable part of the ideal educational odyssey through university and into the upper bureaucracy--the modern equivalent of the old Vietnamese Confucian quest to become a metropolitan examination graduate...or imperial tribute student . . . as Vo Nguyen Giap bitterly acknowledged in January 1982.

Supplementary, or complementary, education served adults who had not completed a basic and secondary general education and who needed additional training in their specialties. Open to those under forty-five, supplementary courses were offered through correspondence, at worksites, or at special schools. Officials expected that participants in these courses could raise their "cultural level" to the equivalent of students who had completed ninth or twelfth grade.

The number of students in institutions of higher learning increased rapidly from about 50,000 (29,000 in the North and 20,834 in the South) in 1964 to 150,000 in 1980. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City served as the two major centers for universities and colleges; major provincial capitals were the sites of regional colleges; and the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Interior sponsored an unspecified number of colleges. Of the 150,000 college students in 1980, approximately 23 percent were female.

In the mid-1980s, some Vietnamese observers believed that the college system needed reform to make it more diverse and flexible. They promoted change in order to accommodate more secondary school applicants and to improve the quality of college education. Students were perceived as spending too much time trying to earn diplomas and not enough time "in practical, creative activities."

Vietnam took part in international student exchange and cooperation programs in the fields of education and technical training, principally with the Soviet Union and with other communist countries (excluding China). Nhan Dan reported in 1983 that Vietnamese and Soviet linguists had compiled textbooks for Vietnamese secondary general education schools and that they had also begun a similar project in Russian for use in Vietnamese colleges. The Soviets also assisted the Vietnamese in publishing scientific and technical dictionaries. In 1984 a Soviet source reported that, under the Soviet program of educational assistance that had begun in 1959, about 60,000 Vietnamese specialists and skilled workers had been trained in addition to 18,000 vocational students at the college and secondary school levels. As of mid-1986, Vietnam had "cooperative ties" with 15 Soviet universities.

In 1986 the reforms initiated in 1979 remained in the trial and error stage, but the educational system was considerably improved. Illiteracy was declining, and about 2.5 million children were being admitted to school annually. The Vietnamese report that in 1986 there were 3 million children enrolled in child-care centers and kindergartens, close to 12 million students in general education schools, and more than 300,000 students in vocational and professional schools and colleges. Scientific and technical cadres numbered more than 1 million. Nhan Dan reported in September 1986 that schools were shifting from literary education to literary, ethical, and vocational education, in accordance with the goals established by the 1979 reforms. The quality of education, however, remained low. Material and technical support for education were far from adequate, student absenteeism and the dropout rate were high, teachers continued to face difficult personal economic circumstances, and students and teachers in general failed to embrace the socialist ideals and practices the regime encouraged.

In April 1986, Reform Commission head Hoang Xuan Tuy related that two-thirds of preschool aged children had not yet enrolled in school, that elementary and junior-high-school education in the highlands and in the Mekong River Delta was inadequate; that instruction in general was still oriented toward purely academic subjects and theory divorced from practical application. The majority of general education students, he added, were preoccupied with college entrance; and vocational schools, professional schools, and colleges had yet to restructure their curricula and training programs or to formulate plans for scientific research and experimentation. In Hoang's assessment, such shortcomings were symptomatic of a very low level of financial and human resource investment in education that was derived from the party and the government's failure to recognize the importance of "the human factor" and the fundamental role of education in socioeconomic development.

Data as of December 1987

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