Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese students Friday sat university entrance exams, kicking off a nail-biting season when family nerves are frayed and police are deployed to ferret out cheats.
All week students have flocked to Hanoi’s ancient Temple of Literature, where mandarins were once trained in the Confucian classics, to pray for luck and burn incense at the country’s oldest university.
“Last year I failed the exam, so I spent the whole year studying,” said 18-year-old Tran Van Lam of northern Thai Binh province, who said he wants to study engineering at the Hanoi Polytechnic University.
“I really hope I’m luckier this time. If not, I’ll try again next year.”
More than 500,000 students are due to sit maths, physics and chemistry exams on Friday and Saturday assembled in 24,000 rooms throughout 974 examination centres, competing for places at 92 universities, institutes and colleges.
Learning is highly valued in Vietnamese society, yet many complain about a tertiary education system constrained by funding shortages and a less-than-open academic environment.
Communist Vietnam, where two thirds of people are under the age of 30, is struggling to cope with surging demand for higher education, and several foreign universities now offer degree programmes to fill the gap.
Foreign education experts often complain of too much knowledge-cramming and a culture where the idea of students questioning their teachers is still sometimes frowned upon as a sign of disrespect.
Overseas Vietnamese have a reputation as academic high achievers, yet many are reluctant to come home to teach in a system where faculty staff typically earn 150 dollars a month and work at several institutions.
Many feel stifled by a system where classes on Marxism-Leninism and Ho Chi Minh Thought are mandatory and many political topics remain taboo.
Professor Jim Cobbe, a Fulbright Scholar teaching economics at the University of Da Nang, said that while academic standards vary widely, many universities lack adequate teaching materials and equipment.
Another problem, he said, is that “the incentive structure for academic staff is highly counterproductive because it encourages them to teach as many hours as possible because that’s how they raise their income.”
Foreign business groups have complained that the often poor quality of universities will stifle Vietnam’s economic growth and say they can’t find enough graduates in finance, management and information technology.
The European Chamber of Commerce here has recommended Vietnam lift restrictions on setting up foreign-invested educational establishments.
This year, the Ministry of Education and Training has launched an ambitious programme to produce 20,000 PhDs by 2020, many of them foreign-trained, and there are plans to set up “international-standard universities.”
Despite the current limitations, competition is fierce for university places and has often fuelled rampant cheating and graft.
In recent years police raided photocopy shops mass-producing tiny cheat-sheets and arrested a ring that used bluetooth mobile phone earsets hidden under wigs to feed answers to people sitting the exams.
This year the Ministry of Education in an urgent message warned exam organisers that the papers are “top secret” and urged them to “ensure maximum security in printing, management and distribution.”
At the largest exam halls at Hanoi’s University of Natural Science, 50 police will keep an eye on 17,500 students taking exams—and even the officers will be barred from carrying mobile telephones.