Frustration with Public Education in Vietnam Grows

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HANOI — Dao Quoc Huy and his wife joined other anxious parents camped outside Thuc Nghiem primary school at 3 a.m. When the sun came up, the crowd crushed against the metal entrance gate until it fell — hurdling bushes and losing flip-flops in a frenzied sprint to nab coveted application forms.

The school is one of Viet Nam’s only public institutions emphasizing American-style learning instead of rote memorization. Roughly 600 kindergartners from around the capital were vying for the 200-odd spots available this fall.

“It’s like playing the lottery,” said Huy, 35, who hoped his daughter would be among the chosen. “We need luck.”

The recent stampede, which resulted in a few minor bruises but no arrests, underscores a problem experts say weighs heavily on Viet Nam’s graying communist leadership: Nearly four decades after the Viet Nam War, the country’s education system remains so corrupt and backward it’s impeding economic growth. And the rising middle class is now desperate for alternatives.

In this nation where education is a national obsession, schools at all levels are hampered by cheating, bribery and a lack of world-renowned programs and researchers. The result is a surging number of Vietnamese students are attending international-style private schools and later overseas colleges and universities.

Although average income here is just $1,400, more than 30,000 Vietnamese were studying at foreign higher learning institutions last year. Viet Nam ranks fifth-highest worldwide for its student enrollments in Australia, and eighth for enrollments in the U.S., placing it above Mexico, Brazil and France.

The number of Vietnamese studying in the U.S. has increased sevenfold from about 2,000 over the past decade. Most of the nearly 15,000 who were studying in the U.S. last year were not on scholarships to well-known schools, but instead attending community colleges paid by their families, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education.

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