University entrance exam system costly and needs reform

Vietnamese school-leavers will sit national university entrance examinations that start on 4 July and last for almost a week, as they compete for places at some 58 universities and colleges, amid ongoing discussion that the exam system needs reform.

The nationwide exam is known as the ‘three commons’. All candidates tackle the same exam questions on the same dates and receive the results on the same date. According to the Ministry of Education and Training, 604,281 students will sit the exam this year.

But the overall number of higher education applications is down by 7.7% compared to last year – students on average make three to four applications to hedge their bets based on universities’ cut-off marks.

Hanoi, with the highest number of applications in the country at 164,000, is down 2,000 compared to 2011. In Thanh Hoa province the number of applications, 79,130 this year, has dropped by 11,000. In 2010 the overall number of applications fell by 12%, from 2.13 million to 1.87 million.

Under the current system, candidates submit several applications to universities in April and then wait for the cut-off marks for each university to be announced while they are preparing for the exam. Students only make the final decision, just before the exam date, about which university to have their entrance exam marked at.

Costly system

But allowing multiple registrations can be costly for universities.

Pham Thai Son, head of the education and training department of the University of Food Industry in Ho Chi Minh City, said the institution had to rent an extra 500 examination rooms to accommodate 22,000 students registered to take the exam. But not all of them would actually take the exam there.

“We will lose about VND600 million (US$28,680) this session, and this doesn't include the fees we must pay for the people who mark the exams. At the end of this session we expect the losses to reach into the billions [of dong],” he told official media in June.

The fee for taking exams is only VND67,000 (US$3.20) per student, and universities and colleges are reluctant to raise the fees to help cover their additional costs for fear that they will lose promising students, officials said.

In the past, universities have called on the ministry to provide additional resources for the exam season. This year both the ministry and provincial governments said they had improved guidance and support programmes for candidates to help them choose universities and reduce the number of speculative applications.

At the other end of the scale, some universities have said they cannot attract enough enrolments because, prior to the exam, candidates tend to apply to the trusted top public universities, which also have lower tuition fees.

Some newly established or private universities receive very low numbers of applications.

Some experts have warned that more education institutions could go bankrupt unless the system is changed.

To counter this, students who fail to gain their first choice have been allowed since 2005 to apply to other universities in a second round organised by the ministry in September or early October or even, in some years, a third round in November.

New rules mooted

From 2020, when a new university law comes into effect, university entrance exams will only be held at top universities, allowing other universities and colleges to select students based on school records.

This was first made public last year when Bui Van Ga, the vice-minister of education, said during a press conference in Hanoi that by 2020, when the higher education system has the capacity to provide about four million places, the ministry-administered exam may be removed, except for some elite programmes.

The ministry would “only monitor the outcome through a quality assurance system”, Ga said.

Under an interim proposal released in February, the ‘three commons’ will continue until 2015 and key universities will be asked to submit new enrolment plans to the ministry for approval before that date.

During the past academic year, the ministry also encouraged several top universities to pilot a separate exam. But according to some university leaders, the government still appears reluctant to provide all universities with the autonomy needed to set up their own admissions schemes.

Prior to 2002, Vietnamese higher education institutions had full responsibility for entrance examinations. But the downside was more cheating and red tape during the selection process, which led to the ministry stepping in to set up the current system.

Bui Ngoc Son, vice-rector of Foreign Trade University, said the ‘three commons’ provided a “balanced solution” in terms of both the quality and cost of the exam.

A meeting of 400 university rectors, organised by the ministry in February, supported the removal of the ‘three commons’ but only in the long run. Many are still sceptical, saying it is not the first time that the ministry has proposed a timetable for change, but later cancelled it.

Others said making proposals for reform without proper consultations merely makes students and their families anxious.