by Chi Lan
Most Vietnamese, even students, don’t usually give a second thought to what they sometimes hear on the news or read in the paper: public university’s financial autonomy. The idea is somewhat vague, distant at a macro-level and generally holds no direct link to common folk. It was not until the prominent National Economics University (NEU) last month introduced a tuition hike of up to 30 per cent for the upcoming academic year did it dawn on people what financial autonomy really means.
The fee increase was and will never be pleasant for students, just like how we complain every time electricity or petrol prices shoot up. Despite our complaints, they are unlikely to go down.
Many potential NEU freshmen discarded the university as a school choice as soon as the news hit, while a number of current university students threatened to drop out when the tuition fees rise far beyond their means.
Vietnamese undergraduates in public schools have enjoyed relatively low tuition fees for decades, with the exception of the teaching profession’s students who were spared all fees.
Public college students only had to pay between VNĐ7.4 million and VNĐ8.7 million (US$328-386) for the 2016-2017 year. The costs for higher education were rather affordable when looking at the gross domestic product per capita last year, which reached about VNĐ45 million.
The Government might have tried to keep college tuition low in order to encourage the young to study at higher levels and later contribute bigger values to the country’s development. Or perhaps it wanted to realise its educational manifesto, of which everyone should be granted equal opportunity to take on college study regardless of their socio-economic status.
The third possibility, the least noble of them all, could simply be that the Government intentionally controlled public universities via financial ties. Costs to run public universities were disproportionately allocated from the national budget, which was rather limited, and the majority of colleges were not allowed to receive any other kind of financial support, other than the collection of tuition fees.
It might be either reason, or all three combined, or possibly even something else behind the scenes that I was yet to spot. Regardless of which is the case, the low tuition policy, which sounded so beneficial for the masses, turned out to be more than met the eyes.
In a 2012 World Bank regional report on undergraduates’ skills in seven countries in East Asia, Vietnamese employees were deemed to have sub par creative thinking and lacked various skills in information technology, leadership and problem solving.
English proficiency was another Achilles’ heel for Vietnamese undergraduates, with most finding it difficult to use the global language at work, especially listening and speaking skills.
Such skill disadvantages might go some way to explaining why undergraduates accounted for the highest proportion of unemployed of late. The number of unemployed undergraduates reached an average of 190,000 last year, or roughly 49 per cent of the average 386,000 unemployed workers who had a post-high school education background.
Low tuition fees in tandem with the blooming of universities in recent years resulted in a mass flow of around 400,000 undergraduates to the labour market each year, but their quality is rather questionable.
Yet it may have been too much for us to look forward to a generation of highly-skilled employees who also excel at language and soft skills when the input resource, the money in particular, failed to accommodate any ambitious universities in the realisation of their educational goals. They could not afford to pay for highly-qualified professors, have courses with satisfactory outcomes, equip themselves with the proper infrastructure for the students or fund their own research projects.
After the NEU pulled the trigger and became a harbinger for a wave of other public universities raising their tuition fees, many criticised the decision and cited Germany or Finland as quintessentially successful nations in keeping their educational quality world-class while having students pay little to nothing for it.
I personally find this comparison to miss out on some context, as they leave out the big gap in taxes between the countries, which is the key to pulling off such a beneficial educational policy. The personal income tax in Germany averages around 42 per cent, let alone many other taxes. Finland also rests at the top of high-tax countries with various kinds of taxes the residents have to pay besides income tax. The amount of taxes collected in a developed nation can help its government subsidise not only the educational system but other social security services.
There are some other countries which also have high-tax policy like the UK and the Netherlands, but they refuse to subsidise the higher education system. Yet those two are also famous for outstanding educational quality in prestigious universities which are private and autonomous in their finances. That means they can run the university as a business with the students as customers. They charge high fees, to some outrageous extent, but also offer high quality classes lectured by prominent professors, a privileged studying environment and guarantee that the students will walk out of the gates ready for their future careers.
Not every well-funded college is a great one, but there is no great college without the green back.
Viet Nam is unlikely to follow the high-tax policy like Germany or Finland but it has started to push for the latter option. The Government last year granted full financial autonomy for 14 top universities and colleges, one of which is the NEU.
I have reason to believe that the tuition increase in those educational institutions will be quick and sharp in a few years, as government funding is completely withdrawn. They have to consider tuition as their main source of income, before other funding resources, from the business sector for example, start to flow in.
Students of course have their own reasons to protest the increased tuition. Many of them come from farming families in rural areas, and struggle all year around just to stay fed. The low tuitions used to open doors for them to access a university degree and offer a life-changing chance for them and their families.
Yet I wonder, what is the point of spending four years on a degree if you remain unemployed because the quality of your education is too poor for a proper job that brings home the bacon? – VNS