I was recently invited to speak at a conference in Hanoi organized by the Vietnam Scholar Network (VSN), the Vietnam Centre for Economic and Policy Research (VEPR) and the University of Education, and sponsored by the British Embassy Hanoi. The conference, which was kicked off with remarks from Prof. Dr. Nguyen Huu Duc, Vice President, Vietnam National University(VNU)-Hanoi, Dr. Nguyen Duc Thanh, Executive Director, Vietnam Scholar Network, Dr. Antony Stokes, British Ambassador to Vietnam and Assoc. Prof. Le Kim Long, Principal, University of Education, VNU-Hanoi, included Vietnamese and foreign scholars and practitioners. The themes were:
- Rethinking Universities
- Universities in a Changing World
- University Research and Teaching
- Drivers for Innovations in Universities
My talk, entitled Higher Education Admission Reform in Vietnam: The Next Generation, focused on the pressing need to reform a system that no longer meets the needs of Vietnam’s rapidly expanding higher education system and developing society. It included a brief look at the redesigned SAT and U.S. higher education admission as a negative and positive role model.
Now & Then
Vietnam’s is undergoing a transition from an elite to a mass higher education system. In 1987, there were only 101 colleges and universities; there are now 419. The number of students jumped from 133,000 students in 1987 to over 2 million in 2013.
So what is a “good university” as it relates to admission? One that…
- is able to accommodate and channel demand for higher education (this includes postsecondary vocational programs)
- selects students whose qualifications meet or exceed admission requirements and academic standards
- admits students who will succeed
The Time for Reform – on Many Fronts – is Now
With a median age of 29.2 Vietnam is currently enjoying a “demographic bonus,” defined as 2 or more persons of working age for every person of dependent age (under 15 or 60+). Experts say this is likely to last until 2040, when the country look like the U.S. and Canada do today, demographically speaking. (At that time, the U.S. and Canada will look like Germany and Japan, both of which have a median age of 46.1 years.) With the gradual graying of the population, this window of opportunity will begin to close, which means that Vietnam has to do everything in its power to improve the quality of education and training for its young people, as well as the quantity and quality of employment opportunities. (It’s estimated that 50% of all unemployed Vietnamese are between the ages of 15 and 24.)
The Annual Rite of Passage
If it’s July, it must be exam time. Every summer, the media is filled with inspirational stories about young people from the countryside who travel long distances at great expense to take and pass an exam that will allow them to gain admission to a university, presumably, a ticket to a better life. This is a one-shot deal, a make-or-break scenario for those who have neither the time nor the means to retake this annual exam, should they not receive a satisfactory score.
In a nutshell, what’s wrong with the current university entrance exam?
- Costly and inefficient for families and the government
- Stressful for students, parents, teachers
- Emphasis on rote memorization, i.e., lower-order cognitive skills
- Inequitable: urban students spend 2X what rural students spend on exam preparation (i.e., extra lessons)
The Next Generation
The current exam will be replaced with a standardized exam that was inspired by the SAT, administered by the College Board, a U.S. nonprofit. As I understand it, the “VSAT” will be administered four times a year at locations throughout Vietnam, and offer Subject Tests (11). This score, along with high school grades, will comprise the admission criteria for most students in the coming years. In the future, others can be considered, depending upon the level of selectivity of each institution, including a required and/or optional writing component on the VSAT, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose (SOP), and an interview.
In an attempt to be more useful, relevant, focused and, frankly, to compete more effectively with the other U.S. higher education “entrance exam,” the ACT, a redesigned SAT will be launched in April 2016. Descriptions of the “new SAT” pay a lot of lip service to college and career readiness. Significantly, there is a SAT-optional movement that was initiated 30 years ago by Bates College, a highly selective liberal arts college in Maine that is referred to as one of the “Little Ivies.” There are currently 800 test-optional colleges & universities out of about 2,800 four-year institutions. (The remainder of the nearly 4,000 regionally accredited higher education institutions are comprised of community colleges, which are open admission.)
Last month, the results of a three-year study entitled Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies and University Admissions were released by NACAC. One of the key findings, relevant for Vietnam, is contained in this quote on p. 3:
Students with strong HSGPAs generally perform well in college, despite modest or low testing. In contrast, students with weak HSGPAs earn lower college Cum GPAs and graduate at lower rates, even with markedly stronger testing. A clear message: hard work and good grades in high school matter, and they matter a lot.
Obviously, one research priority, as Vietnam rolls out a new university entrance exam is to look at high school GPAs as a predictor of academic success and higher education academic performance over an extended period of time to see what the correlation is. Something else to consider is whether the current upper secondary school completion exam should be retained, phased out or used a national benchmark.
Other Suggestions and Possibilities
Given the high level of Internet penetration in Vietnam (about 40%), especially among young people, why not create localized versions of the following tools and resources?
- The Common Application
- Entity/Website similar to The College Board that includes information about college planning, college search and online registration for the VSAT
- Advanced Placement (AP) Courses
- Free VSAT Preparation similar to that being offered by The College Board in partnership with the Khan Academy
Reform of the way in which students are selected and admitted to colleges and universities will save time, money and reduce stress for students and other stakeholders in the education system. I know that my Vietnamese colleagues working in this area have looked at many countries and systems around the world, yet another example of how outward-looking and flexible Vietnam can be and a textbook example of one use of comparative education.