Higher Education Admission Reform in Vietnam: The Next Generation

vnu-hn logoBelow is the English version of an article of mine that was published on the Vietnam National University-Hanoi website earlier this month.  Follow this link to read the Vietnamese translation:  ĐHQGHN đi đầu trong đổi mới căn bản và sâu sắc hệ thống tuyển sinh ĐH của Việt Nam.

Just as Vietnam revealed its practical side by making the fateful decision to change socioeconomic course in 1986 with the renovation reforms (Đổi Mới) that set in motion the “market economy with socialist orientation” that we see today, Vietnam National University-Hanoi is leading the way in the much-needed reform of the country’s university admission system. This step forward is a testament to growing recognition that the current system no longer meets the needs of Vietnamese society, as well as to the determination of the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) to replace it with something more workable and more equitable.

Every summer, poignant and inspirational stories abound about young people who make great sacrifices in their quest to gain admission to one of Vietnam’s 419 institutions of higher education. They do so by participating in the annual rite of passage that is the university entrance examination. I remember one story about a young woman last summer who traveled 38 hours by bus with her father, a farmer who didn’t want his daughter to become a farmer. She and nearly 2 million other high school graduates took a handwritten exam consisting of three (3) subjects and lasting 90 or 180 minutes, depending upon the subject required to enter the postsecondary institution of their dreams.

Vietnamese parents are looking anxiously for their children at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology on July 4, 2013. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Vietnamese parents are looking anxiously for their children at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology on July 4, 2013. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Two grueling days and exams in three subjects based largely on rote memorization. A month later, students and parents find out the results, which determine which university they will attend and, some say, the rest of a student’s life. This is especially problematic for lower-income students who need a credential from a reputable university that will help them rise in the socioeconomic ranks and who don’t have the luxury of retaking the exam the following year, should the result be unacceptable.

The cost is significant for those traveling great distances to take the exam, plus room and board for a few days. There is also the prohibitive cost of supplementary education, which includes cramming for the exam. It is estimated that urban students spend about twice as much time as rural students in extra lessons at all levels of schooling, which reflects the urban/rural income gap. Finally, there is the expense of grading the exams (and the cost is borne by the government), a labor intensive process involving a legion of teachers and lecturers.

All test takers and the country as a whole pay a steep price as measured in high levels of stress and inefficiency. In a higher education system that is rapidly evolving from elite to mass, a process that once worked no longer makes sense. Society has changed; so, too, must the ways in which young people are evaluated for higher education admission.

In the tradition of comparative education that Vietnam has used to great effect in a variety of fields, colleagues from VNU-Hanoi, including the Institute for Education Quality Assurance (INFEQA), have looked far and wide for models that could possibly be adapted for the Vietnamese context. This includes the United States, whose higher education system has much to offer Vietnam and other countries as both positive and negative role models.

Post-workshop group photo with Dr. Nguyễn Kim Sơn, Vice President, VNU-Hanoi (to my left), and other VNU colleagues.
Post-workshop group photo with Dr. Nguyễn Kim Sơn, Vice President, VNU-Hanoi (to my left), and other VNU colleagues.

Last October, I spoke to a group of admissions colleagues from VNU-Hanoi in a workshop entitled “Dossier Evaluation and Interviews in Competence-Based University Admissions,” organized by INFEQA in Kim Boi, Hoa Binh. During two morning sessions, I discussed some distinguishing features of U.S. higher education, including size and diversity, enrollments, cost, transferability of credits & portability of credentials, the admissions process as both art and science, the Common Application, national college admission exams (e.g., SAT and ACT), different definitions of selectivity, and rankings methodology.

The bulk of the presentation, however, focused on seven schools that fall on a continuum of selectivity, their requirements and the differing ways in which they screen and evaluate applications. They ranged from open admission (e.g., a community college) and ”minimally difficult” to ”moderately difficult”, “very difficult” and “most difficult,” (e.g., Harvard), plus two nationally-ranked graduate programs in computer science and business (i.e., MIT and Northwestern University).

In December 2013, I was invited to a policy meeting convened by President Phùng Xuân Nhạ to receive additional feedback about the proposal from various experts, including former university and MoET officials, to reform the university admission process.

Rather than just relying on the entrance exam score to determine which institutions a student is admitted to in a once a year “make or break” scenario, the proposed new system includes a Vietnamese SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test or VSAT), plus subject tests in the following subjects: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Literature, History and Foreign Languages.  The VSAT will be administered by computer four (4) times a year in February, March, November and December at six (6) difference test centers throughout Vietnam, which will reduce the cost of travel. Test reports will be sent to the institutions to which students have applied. In addition to the VSAT score, the admission process will take into consideration high school grade point average (GPA).

Once the system has been tested and tweaked, other admission criteria such as letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose (SOP) and an admission interview can be added for certain institutions and programs. The most logical step is to then adopt this system for use by all colleges and universities in accordance with their level of selectivity. In an era of growing demand and rapid expansion of the nation’s higher education system, the current entrance exam, which may have served its purpose in the past, is costly, inefficient and a major source of stress among students and parents.

I am impressed by the prudent and measured approach to an issue that will positively influence the lives of millions of young people in the coming years and, ultimately, contribute to the modernization of the nation’s secondary and higher education systems. It’s gratifying to see Vietnam taking the necessary steps to reform its university admissions process by replacing the traditional university entrance exam with one that is more efficient, more objective and that assesses higher-order cognitive skills.

Mark A. Ashwill is the Managing Director of Capstone Vietnam, a human resource development company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).  From 2005-09, Dr. Ashwill served as country director of the Institute of International Education-Vietnam.

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