VIETNAM: Non-formal sector faces quality crisis

Hong Loan, a teacher of English at a high school in Hanoi, holds an associate bachelor degree. Every afternoon she travels 20 kilometres by motorbike to an adult education class at the University of Foreign Languages and International Studies. "This equips me with more knowledge, but more importantly, a bachelor degree will help upgrade my salary," she said.

In Vietnam, people with higher degrees receive higher salaries. A degree is also a prerequisite for managerial positions in most state organisations.

According to the country's education laws, part-time, in-service and all other types of 'non-formal' degrees must be treated the same as formal university qualifications.

But last December, the People's Committee (municipal government) of Danang, Vietnam's third largest city, promulgated a decision refusing candidates with in-service bachelor degrees to register for work in the public sector. It ignited heated debates in the media on the value of non-formal degrees.

Danang city's decision was seen as illegal under Vietnam's education laws and the move to bar informal degrees was subsequently reversed. However, the controversy highlighted the quality crisis in non-formal higher education.

Expansion of the non-formal sector

Before 1989, higher education in Vietnam was only for an elite 5% of university-age people. Along with the economic reform from central planning to a market-oriented economy, the sector has grown rapidly in the past two decades.

Since the first non-formal undergraduate programmes were launched in the early 1990s, the non-formal sector has expanded from some 217,000 students in 1999 (24% of all tertiary students) to just under 600,000 in 2006 (39% of the total).

While previously it consisted only of public institutions, now there is diverse ownership including private, cross-border, people-founded and foreign-invested institutions.

Education delivery has also expanded into different non-formal routes, including continuing education, distance learning and open learning. In response to demand, new programmes are mostly in applied and vocational subjects such as business, economics, management, law, education, engineering and IT, rather than disciplines such as maths, physics or history.

Nguyen Quang is currently chief executive of a private information and communication enterprise. He has a bachelor degree in engineering and will begin a continuing programme in law next month.

"The job demands that I equip myself with a background in law and I hope the programme will help me to operate better in my company," Nguyen said.

In recent years, non-formal education has also attracted more young people, including school-leavers. Previously the regulations of the Ministry of Education did not allow those with less than two years of work experience to apply to non-formal programmes. Now students can be accepted straight after high school.

Hang Nhung, 18, failed the national university entrance examinations in July and has decided to apply for a continuing programme in November. "It's better than staying at home. In the evening she will go to class and in the daytime, she will revise the knowledge for next July's [national university] entrance exam," said her mother.

Quality issues

The quality of students, especially, but also the overall quality of continuing education programmes in Vietnam is regarded as problematic.

"Students [in non-formal education] have to cover all operating fees. Classrooms are often rented. The attitude of both lecturers and learners is not serious enough," said Long Vu, an academic administrator at the University of Economics in Hanoi.

"It's understandable that Danang refused those who have non-formal degrees. Not only Danang but also other recruiters, including in both the public and private sectors, are not willing to receive these types of people."

While Vietnam's education law stipulates that non-formal programmes should qualify for recognition as well as formal ones, in practice there are differences.

"It's time to redefine and rethink what is the real quality of a non-formal programme," said Minh Huyen, a lecturer at the University of Languages and International Studies in Hanoi, who has teaching experience in both the formal and non-formal sectors.

"What we do now is simply duplicate the syllabi and curriculum from the formal ones, and we do the teaching without evaluation."

He pointed out that even though the university English phonetics and pronunciation syllabus is used for in-service programmes, many in-service students cannot say a complete sentence with more than 10 words in English.

With low quality, depreciated degrees and lack of interest from both lecturers and learners, the graduation failure rate in non-formal programmes is high.

According to the Ministry of Education and Training, the failure rate was nearly 50% among the 153 higher education institutions in 2007. Notably the failure rate at the University of Information Technology in Ho Chi Minh City was around 80%, and at Hanoi University it was 93%.

A funding stream for universities

Although aware of the quality issues, many universities in Vietnam have to maintain non-formal programmes to raise additional funds.

Tuition fees paid by continuing students are two to three times higher than those of students enrolled in formal university programmes. In addition, university rectors have more autonomy over how this money is spent.

Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan, who is in charge of education and science, has acknowledged that the main income source for higher education institutions is non-formal education and has said the government is aware of the problem of training quality. But he has indicated that tightening the rules could affect teachers' incomes.

With state investment per formal student only US$400 per year and tuition fees only US$100, income received by universities is low. Meanwhile, funding from research and knowledge transfer is still limited in Vietnam, with only 14% of lecturers holding PhD degrees.

"The research and development capacity of Vietnam's higher education system is quite weak," commented Long Vu of the University of Economics.

Maintaining non-formal education programmes is a way for universities to enhance the incomes of academic and non-academic staff.

Reducing dependence on non-formal education

Recently, leading universities such as Vietnam National University and the University of Technology declared that they would reduce the amount of non-formal education they offered as part of their long-term strategies.

Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a former member of parliament and former vice-rector of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, said students in both formal and non-formal programmes should attend different classes but could write the same exams. But even if this happened, it would "be only one level of quality", Thuyet argued.

Reorganising the curriculum according to the category of learning is another solution, proposed by Professor Nguyen Minh Hac, a former minister of education and training. "People without work experience should not apply to non-formal education as has been the case before," Hac said.

If so, young people like Hang Nhung would not be eligible to apply for non-formal courses. However, even if the she passes university entrance exams the second time around, there are no guarantees she will complete a degree.

Still, she said: "Ultimately, in Vietnam, a formal degree will always be appreciated, I will re-try once again next year."