So goes the title of a recent article about international textile companies operating in Viet Nam. The first thought that always pops into my head whenever I read about rising labor costs is how much by local standards and how much is enough in terms of net profit? Why not pay your employees a living wage and stop exploiting them in the name of a fatter bottom line?
That, of course, is one of the fundamental problems with global capitalism. Low labor costs used to be a major selling point for Viet Nam. There’s nothing wrong with low labor costs by international standards if the local wage is more than enough to live on.
As the article notes, Vietnam raised its minimum wage by an average of 5.3% last January to VND 4.18 million ($181). I can assure you that $181 a month for a back-breaking job is not very much, not in 2019.
Here’s an example that illustrates just how large the profit margin is in the clothing industry. You can go to a market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia that sells Dockers pants, among many other products, and get a pair for $12, bargained down from $16. The seller probably still makes 100% profit for slacks that sell for $50 or $60 in the US. I mentioned that to a saleswoman in the men’s section of a Macy’s in the US and she just gave me a blank stare. Minus source and destination country overhead and shipping costs, that’s still a huge profit.
The silver lining in this rather dark and ominous cloud is that these greedy companies will eventually run out of countries and workers to exploit. Maybe not in my lifetime but it will happen. People over profit!
Here’s my latest article, this time on LinkedIn. This introduction might whet your appetite for more (or not):
As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?
-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
This prescient observation by Alexis de Tocqueville is a reference to the US as a “nation of hustlers,” a theme that various historians and social critics, including Morris Berman and Walter McDougall, have embraced and explored in their work. Not surprisingly, this mercenary mindset has also infected the field of international education in the US, including its non-profit wing.
For those US colleagues who recruit in Viet Nam, there is some good news in challenging times. According to the latest SEVIS by the Numbers update from March 2019, there are 30,684 Vietnamese students studying in the US at all levels, an increase of 3% over August 2018.
Here is my latest update about US-bound Vietnamese students, published on 29 May 2019 by The PIE Blog.
NAFSA can do better, much better, than Albright and Powell, tired old US military and political establishment figures who disgraced themselves by lying in the service of their country and who have the blood of innocents on their hands for what they said, did, or failed to say or do.
Follow this link to read an article I wrote about Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, who were invited by NAFSA: Association of International Educators to speak at its annual conference next week in Washington, D.C.
Below is an edited English version of a Vietnamese article of mine that was published last month by Zing.vn. A Vietnamese translation of an article by Professor Peter Gray, from which I quote, was subsequently published by Zing, which ranks 7th in Viet Nam, 353 in the world, and 62 in the “news and media” category.
Success without integrity is failure. -Unattributed
While this US college cheating scandal may come as a shock to many Vietnamese, who believe that the US system is merit-based, it is just one of a number of examples of corruption in the education system and elsewhere in society. And while most of these activities are not illegal, many are unethical and unfair in a country that pays lip service to equity and fairness.
What’s probably most shocking from a US perspective is that these people got caught, along with their co-conspirators at various elite public and private institutions. Wealthy parents, some famous, most not, paid Rick Singer, CEO of a company called Edge College & Career Network LLC and a nonprofit called the Key Worldwide Foundation, from $200,000 to $6.5 million to bribe coaches, fabricate admissions documents, such as athletic achievements (this included taking staged photos of playing various sports), and help their children cheat on their SAT and ACT exams.
In one case, a San Francisco winemaker allegedly paid $50,000 for a proctor to be flown to a test center in West Hollywood to correct his daughter’s SAT answers after she took the test, which she had been allowed to take over a number of days because of a psychologist’s note. The father complained that his daughter’s score of 1360 out of 1600 was not high enough and subsequently agreed to pay $200,000 to get her into USC as a water polo recruit even though she no experience in the sport.
Some of the universities touched and tainted by this scandal, including a few that are familiar to Vietnamese, are Georgetown University, Harvard University. Stanford University, the University of San Diego, the University of Texas at Austin, UC Berkeley, UCLA, USC, Wake Forest University, and Yale University.
When Your University Admission Letter is Accompanied by a Receipt
One widely publicized example of how money buys access to education in the US is how Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, gained admission to Harvard University. In 2005, Daniel Golden, a Boston-based senior editor at ProPublica, wrote a book entitled The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges–and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates in which he exposed the corrupt admissions practices that favor the wealthy, the powerful, and the famous.
As he wrote in a 2016 article published shortly after the election of Donald Trump, “My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations.”
Golden reached out to administrators at Kushner’s private high school, The Frisch School, in New Jersey. As one former official put it, “There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard. His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”
Jared Kushner’s father, Charles, a New Jersey real estate developer and New York University (NYU) alumnus, had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University not long before his son, a mediocre private school student, was admitted. As US comedian, Bill Maher, quipped in a sketch about Jared Kushner, “One clue your enrollment may not entirely based be merit-based: When your acceptance letter comes with a receipt.”
Another way that wealthy US Americans ensure their children’s admission to Ivy League and comparable US institutions is legacy admissions, also known as “affirmative action for the rich,” a preference that most top 100 colleges and universities give to students who have a familial relationship to alumni of that institution, i.e., a mother or father who has a degree from the school in question. Legacy students comprise about 14% of Harvard’s undergraduate student body and are accepted at five times the rate of their nonlegacy peers. This translates into a nearly 34% acceptance rate vs. under 6% for those without the same connections.
It Doesn’t Matter What College Your Kids Attend (in the USA)
In a recent article entitled Back Off: It Doesn’t Matter What College Your Kids Attend, Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College (MA, USA), referred to high school students as “the most stressed-out people in America, 83% of them attribute their stress to school.” This also applies to children from upper class families in which pressure to achieve is especially high. So why are some parents willing to do anything, including breaking the law, to “help” to guarantee that their sons and daughters will get admitted to prestigious institutions? Because they believe that is the only key to success, however they define it? For the bragging rights that accrue? So that their children will follow in their academic footsteps? Does it really make a difference in terms of future income and happiness?
In two large-scale studies conducted by Stacy Dale, a mathematician, and Alan Krueger, an economist, of students who entered college in 1976 and another group in 1989, their research question was this: If people have the same socioeconomic background, academic ability and motivation, will those who attend an elite institution of higher education make more money later in life than those who go to a non-elite school? “Other things being equal, attending an elite school resulted in no income advantage over attending a less elite school, neither in the short term nor in the long term.”
Gray also referenced a 2014 survey by Gallup and Purdue University that assessed the extent to which 30,000 higher education graduates were, according to them, enthusiastic and committed to their work and thriving in their personal lives. The key finding was that there were no significant relationships between their feedback and the type of college or university they attended, large or small, public or private, highly selective or less selective.
The good news for parents and students, at least in the US, is that it isn’t the type of school young people attend but what they do while they’re there that makes a difference in their lives. What’s important is the nature and quality of their experiences in and outside of the classroom. Professor Gray’s advice to parents was simple: “Ease up. Reassure your kids rather than stress them. For happiness and meaning, they may need to spend less time grubbing for grades and more time pursuing their own interests.”
In other words, one of the primary goals of young people, with understanding and support from their parents, teachers, and others, should be to find their ikigai, an existential sweet spot that is the intersection of that which you love, that which are good at, that which the world needs, and that for which you can be paid. That is how success should be defined in any country.
Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is the co-founder and managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and HCMC. Ashwill served as country director of the Institute of International Education (IIE)-Vietnam from 2005-09.