Overhaul of university entrance exam is put to the test

In a radical revamp of its much criticised university entrance examination system, Vietnam is holding its first combined school leaving exam and college entrance exam next month, with students sitting a single examination for the first time instead of two separate high-stakes examinations.

The government has also granted more room for higher education institutions to decide their own assessment method to select would-be students in addition to the new combined exam, which is designed for the entire high school cohort, rather than a select group aiming for top universities.

New regulations governing the nationwide university entrance examination approved by the Ministry of Education and Training earlier this year have significantly reshaped the school matriculation and university entrance system, with many school leavers, students and university lecturers welcoming the new scheme. But others, especially those working in ‘shadow’ education or the cramming industry are not so happy.

According to the old scheme, named the ‘three commons’ examination, all candidates took the same exam on the same dates during the first or second week of July. Prior to the ‘three commons’, students sat another exhausting Baccalaureate test in late May, so the ‘three commons’ was criticised as being unnecessarily stressful for students and encouraged the proliferation of cram schools and private tuition.

In a radical change announced in February, the Ministry of Education and Training merged the two into one exam to be held for the first time in July. More than a million students will sit the exam this year. According to official statistics some 132,552 students who want to change their current institutions or failed the ‘three commons’ last year will be included.

In the past, students who sat both the Baccalaureate and the ‘three commons’ studied for exams in four to seven subjects, sometimes at several different test locations. The new combined exams mean most will sit four subjects at one test centre.

The results will be part of the high school completion certificate evaluation and candidates can use the result to register in up to four university admission applications. The new scheme also allows universities and colleges to add further assessments and criteria to select would-be-students, such as additional tests, performance records, essays or interviews.

Additional entrance tests

While most institutions prefer to base admission on high school performance records or an interview as an additional assessment method, Vietnam National University, Hanoi, or VNU-Hanoi, and FPT University are among a few institutions opting to set additional tests.

The two universities will hold their own entrance examinations, one to be held from late May to early June and another to be held from late July to early August, with VNU-Hanoi piloting an online multiple choice test.

Nguyen Kim Son, vice-president in charge of academic affairs at VNU-Hanoi, told local media that “there has been serious preparation for this test since 2012, including facilities, methodology and a test item bank”.

Last week, Thu Ha, a student at Hanoi’s Le Quy Don high school, along with 45,000 other school leavers sat the separate exam for around 6,000 places at VNU-Hanoi.

“My performance in the VNU test was not as I expected, but I still feel relaxed as I will have other opportunities ahead,” Thu Ha told University World News. Ha and her peers will have at least five chances to get into university compared to just two under the old system when admissions were based on the ‘three commons’ alone, which allowed them to apply to one or two universities according to their scores.

“The good point of the new scheme is that there are new procedures but no change in the content of the test as people previously feared,” Ha said, adding that she had been preparing for the exam for three years, and along with others, had at first been worried when the changes were first mooted in 2014.

The Ministry of Education and Training released sample test papers in November to give students a clearer idea of the exam. According to cram school owner Binh Nguyen, “it seems to be less difficult” than the ‘three commons’.

Hong Nguyen, a lecturer in English who has just served as an examination supervisor at VNU-Hanoi, said the new VNU entrance examination and new nationwide university admission scheme gave candidates more flexibility to select appropriate courses of study.

This could lead to fewer candidates applying for courses they did not really want, which is expensive for universities – particularly the most prestigious ones – who have to accommodate many test-takers.

Under the new scheme they select the courses they want to apply for after taking the exam.

Provincial centres

While holding the exams in provincial centres – some 38 centres have been approved by the ministry – has been welcomed by many, there are others who see downsides to this change.

According to Phu Phung, a high school teacher in Hanoi, “the new scheme may lead to inequality of opportunities among candidates”.

With experience of teaching in several provinces in Vietnam, Phu fears the ‘credentialism’ culture which has taken root in Vietnamese society will mean that, unlike the old more centralised exam, local provinces might be more likely to ignore cheating or exam misconduct.

The Ministry of Education and Training has measures in place to combat this. Speaking at the government’s monthly press conference in March, Deputy Minister of Education and Training Nguyen Vinh Hien said there would be an emphasis on inspections this year. In mid-May, Hien signed a special guideline for inspectors involved in the ‘two in one’ examination.

The main losers under the new system appear to be the cram schools, which will be losing much of their provincial clientele. Local media have reported that cram schools surrounding one major university in Hanoi had very few students this year.

One benefit of the new system, with local provinces hosting the new baccalaureate or university entrance exam often on school premises, is that candidates will not have to travel to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and find temporary accommodation before taking the exam as in previous years.

This put a financial burden on many families in rural areas and was recognised as being stressful for students, many of whom had not been away from home before.