Why do they come here? University choice among Vietnamese students
By David DeBrot, LSU
Historically in Vietnam, there is often sighted the legend of a Confucian scholar studying late into the wee hours while his suffering wife takes care of domesticity so that he may focus on his important provincial and national exams. The scholar is successful, and upon receiving his high marks, he is honored with a celebration for all to see and titled ‘trang nguyen’ – ‘highest scholar’. His title ensures that he will receive a privileged policy making position in government and the favor of those in power. His hard work and his wife’s patience is rewarded. They ride off into the sunset.
This captures the traditional view of education in Vietnam. Education is the key to success. The family supports the student. The student’s ultimate goal is social and financial recognition, and high-exam results are the gateway to this success.
The historic reality matches this. Exam results have been the be-all and end-all in the system here, determining which middle school, high school, and subsequently which university a student can attend. Focus really has thus been set on these results over content and skills development. Parents have sacrificed to ensure their children a good education, and educational achievement continues to be held in high regard.
As in other countries, Vietnamese students choose their university based on the perceived value of the outcome, either being an increase in earning power or status. In contrast to most other countries, these perceptions of how to get earning power and status and the relative importance of these two goals have historically been influenced by a Confucian paradigm of education.
But is this changing? Why do today’s students go to university in Vietnam? How do they choose which university to attend?
Speaking with students here about these questions, both earning power and status seem to be in play. Initially, social perceptions of the choice of where to attend university may trump other practical factors, but as options are narrowed down their families do actively calculate the value of their university experience.
However, my discussions with these students have led me to believe that this legend and the importance of exam marks in choosing a university may be losing steam here.
All of the students I have interviewed agreed that the purpose of university is primarily to get the skills and qualification (degree) to get a job with a high salary (‘high’ being 300-450 USD gross per month). They reported that nearly all of their high school teachers, friends, family and neighbors said the same. This would appear to be in line with prospective students worldwide – they want to see the value of their investment on the horizon, and often this is financial.
Whatis more surprising is how students in Vietnam must balance the social pressure of their decision with the pragmatism of the work and consumer world – and in rapidly-developing Vietnam, the allure of a salary high enough to access this world is, to many, huge. One way that this is played out is in deciding between a university with high perceived quality and reputation and another, with a lower perceived quality and reputation, which they feel is a better personal fit. (Notice I don’t use ‘ranking’ – there are no formal rankings of universities in Vietnam). In a university system where each university has a particular discipline focus, this personal fit is not a trivial matter. If they chose a university based on their interests rather than reputation, they pay a social penalty among peers, family and neighbors. Their family and friends, who all know they have gained high enough marks to get into the ‘better’ universities – remember the Confucian scholar’s party? – say they were throwing away their chances.
The presence of international and transnational universities in Vietnam complicates many students’ choice. Students are increasingly choosing to study at international and transnational institutions because of the influence of friends’ positive experience, word of mouth, and perceptions that a qualification from such a university is likely to land a better salary and position than attending a national university. Perceptions of international and transnational universities are varied. They are sometimes seen as an easy choice. When I pressed these students on the perceptions of these types of universities among their friends, family and neighbors, they acknowledge that there is some social stigma. This arises because international and transnational universities are private and do not require the national University Entrance Exam scores, which are the only determining factor of national university admission, and instead rely on high school GPA.
At the same time, the prospects for developing skills and applying them in a future career are recognized as being quite strong. The balance between social considerations and practical career requirements are skewing towards the latter in determining which university to attend, a marked change from the educational traditions in Vietnam.