In 2006, Nguyen Hong Nhung graduated from a programme for talented students at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in HCM City, majoring in Vietnamese literature.
by Thu Huong Le
Now, working as a public relations officer, Nhung says she does not use much of the material covered during her four years of intensive studies – a sentiment shared by several graduates from the same class.
Programmes in Viet Nam target those who attain high scores in national university entrance exams, and are selected following further examinations held at individual colleges.
The students are subjected to longer hours of lectures and studies, with much heavier workloads and expectations. In seminars, they can also benefit from smaller class sizes and leading lecturers and professors.
"It was free so I thought that accepting a place on the programme would make me look good," Nhung says. "For those who only want to get a university degree so they can find a decent job, it isn't critically necessary."
The Viet Nam National University-HCM City recently announced it would stop recruiting students for its programmes at member universities, citing budget shortages and the need to reassess the quality of graduates.
The decision, while only affecting VNU-HCM City member universities, again raises questions about the quality of higher education and whether it can cultivate and provide the talented workforce so critically needed for the country's industrialisation goal.
VNU-HCM City estimates that it would need an additional VND97 billion (US$4.6 million) to run the programmes in its member universities from 2012-15. Funding is usually provided by the State budget, the university's budget and outside sources.
The graduates are expected to ease quality labour shortages in key socio-economic sectors and supply staff for research institutes, universities and colleges.
However, very often the students find themselves struggling to apply what they have learnt on the training programmes after graduation due to an overemphasis on theory and research.
Some say the curricula are more suitable to those who want to pursue master's degrees or set out on teaching careers, questioning the level of practicality between the programmes and those for the general students.
Many of the graduates, expected to continue either in research or working in fields related to their studies, have switched to sectors unrelated to their formal studies.
Those who want to continue scientific research are under pressure to find higher-paid jobs. The rest either choose to study abroad or work for foreign-owned companies.
Tran Tien Luc, a senior student on one such mechanical engineering programme at the University of Science and Technology in Ha Noi, says he and his peers do not spend more time studying practical applications. "It's pretty much the same," he says, but recognising higher expectations from professors and better access to study facilities.
Huynh Ngoc Minh, another student who's also on the same programme, says most of the seminars are theory-based and expects he would need retraining in order to get a job.
Doan Le Giang, head of the literature and languages department at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, a member of VNU-HCM City, suggests the need for educators to scrutinise the "output" markets they want to target for the graduates on their programmes.
While leaders of VNU-HCM City have not decided on any solutions, I believe excellence in higher education does not lie in the title of the programmes but the quality that ties with the freedom to discuss, innovative teaching methods and a system that identifies the unique "talent" in each student, not to balance out their potential.
It's unfortunate that while speaking of educational reforms, even in programmes designed for the potential top-notch students, the reforms remain average at best. After graduation, where do these talents go? A question the system must answer.
"We need to find a way that we can work with localities, perhaps providing better working conditions, that will encourage students to return to their hometowns and make a contribution," Giang says.
A former university lecturer at one of VNU-HCM City member universities asks: "Are we overusing the word ‘talent'?" Talent cannot only be measured by scores. It must be encouraged and cultivated.
Yes, Viet Nam's got the talent, but whether the country can maximise and benefit from it is another matter. — VNS