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Pragmatic steps for more practical education

Update: July, 09/2015 - 10:34

by Mai Khuyen

Just a few days ago, the nation saw and enjoyed the tension and excitement of millions of young people chasing their dreams of a college education. It was difficult not to get caught up in that atmosphere.

We know that next comes the part where most students cram and work hard to pass out with high marks. This is followed by the elation of throwing graduation caps in the air after collecting their certificates. Excitement is in the air, and optimism is high.

Sadly, for many students, what comes next is not heart-warming stuff.

While the country is enjoying a higher-education boom with a rapid increase in the number of universities and colleges, both State-run and private, a recent report from the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs said that last year alone, about 172,000 graduates were unemployed, double the number in 2010.

To this sobering fact, the Ministry of Education and Training has added a figure based on reports from more than 100 universities, colleges and vocational schools: at least 40 per cent of their graduates could not find a job in the first three months after finishing their studies.

There are predictions that this year's figures could end up much higher.

There is no doubt, then, that Viet Nam faces a serious challenge in reforming university education so that it is a more opportune endeavour for all graduates.

For many years now, experts and officials, at home and abroad, have bemoaned the fact that education in Viet Nam focuses more on theory and less on providing students with knowledge and skills relevant to marketplace needs.

So far, the specifics of how this can be done have not been mentioned, at least so far as I have heard and read.

Everyone is concerned about unemployment, but measures to increase the quality of education, as opposed to opportunities for education via a significant increase in the number of higher education institutions, have been noticeably absent.

In just three years, between 2010 and 2012, the number of new universities and colleges increased by 43, taking the nation-wide total to 419. With so many choices, it has become easier for a young person to get a college education, even if she/he does not do well in the university entrance examinations. Of course, the parents have to be able to afford it.

What happens next?

A student who completed a four-year degree from the University of Civil Engineering sent applications to more than 10 construction companies, both foreign and Vietnamese. He got just two replies, offering unacceptably low salaries.

Instead of taking up a job, he became an amateur investor in the stock market. After more than two years of doing this, he decided to drop completely his dream of becoming a civil engineer, helping build buildings.

The paucity of jobs for civil engineers can be blamed on the frozen real estate market, but graduate accountants and administrators are also in the same boat, struggling to find jobs in a highly competitive market.

Since joining the WTO, Viet Nam has become a candidate-driven market and remains so, despite the sluggish growth of the last few years. It has been estimated that Viet Nam needs to create one million jobs a year to maintain a low unemployment rate.

In this context, getting a low-income job following graduation is common and can turn out to be rewarding, but it is difficult for recent grads not to feel disheartened.

So many conferences and public meetings have been held to find out ways to make our education more relevant and useful for our youth, but prescriptions suggested are almost always too general and academic in nature.

I think that we should keep the big picture in mind, but start with very small steps that give students valuable insights into what it takes to succeed in the outside world.

A colleague I talked to spoke about the differences he has seen in the education system here and abroad, especially in developed countries like the US.

He said he does not hear of people successful in real life, in business and in other fields, coming to talk to students at Vietnamese universities on a regular basis. Interacting with such people often can inspire students to be more creative and take more risks, he said.

We have read enough reports of enterprise leaders complaining that graduates have to be trained from scratch, that they prefer people with experience. I think students who show confidence and a proper attitude will have a much better chance of landing good jobs, so our institutions of higher learning should work harder to instill these attributes.

One way to do this would be to increase internship opportunities for students in all fields. This means increased collaboration between the educational institutions and enterprises, something that experts and officials have been saying, but not doing, for a long time. Other countries have been doing this very effectively, and it is time for Viet Nam to follow suit.

The Government can help with policy incentives that will encourage both sides to offer students the opportunity to experience a real working environment and its demands even before they actually enter the job market. This can equip the youth with both hard and soft skills they need to succeed in the marketplace and in life. — VNS

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