The Stresses of Vietnam's Exam Season

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Hoang Dinh Nam / AFP / Getty

Students use computers at a multimedia room at RMIT International University Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City.

A visitor to Hanoi University this month might be forgiven for thinking the tree-shaded campus was preparing for a riot. Moments after a school bell rings out, there is a grating sound as a tall, metal barricade is rolled into place. Dozens of police and uniformed security officials assume positions guarding the entrances to the campus, and students are searched for mobile phones and other forbidden objects as they enter classroom.

The reason for this heightened security on campus? It's exam time, and the authorities are taking extraordinary measures to guard against cheating on high-stakes university-entrance exams. When the testing concludes July 16, a total of 1.8 million would-be scholars will have taken the entry exam in the hope of landing one of only 300,000 spots in colleges nationwide. That pressure gives students an incentive to seek any edge they can. Hanoi's 940-year-old Temple of Literature has been jammed this month with exam-takers burning incense for good luck. Some students eat "lucky meals" of green beans for breakfast on the big day. (The word for bean also means "passing" in Vietnamese.)

Other students, though, seek help from more than green beans: In recent years, entrance-exam fraud has been highly publicized in local media. Last year, two dozen students were caught being fed answers through Bluetooth headsets concealed under wigs. Earlier this month, police busted a ring issuing fake IDs to university students who were to take the test for struggling prospective scholars. The price? $2,500 — more than twice Vietnam's average annual wage. In response to concerns over cheating, authorities have beefed up security, calling in local police and even the Public Security ministry to guard exam sites.

The lengths to which some students have gone to cheat their way into college reflect a wider crisis in Vietnam's higher education system, which hasn't grown fast enough to meet demand from students eager to get ahead in Asia's second-fastest-growing economy.

Nguyen Thu Phuong, 18, has been studying for more than a year for the exams, and was poring over a few last-minute math equations on a bench shortly before testing began. Her mother, anxiously fanning the girl as she studied, once fought for the communist side in the Vietnam War and had recently retired from a state-run factory, but she dreams her daughter can someday work in banking or finance. "It's not like the old days," she said. "If children don't have a university degree, it's really difficult to get a good job."

But relatively few Vietnamese can fulfill the dream of a higher education, which is bad news for its economy. Vietnam currently attracts foreign investment at a rate of nearly $1 billion per month, with investors looking to take advantage both of its low-wage levels and its young and highly literate population. But only 10% of Vietnamese college-aged youths are enrolled in higher education, lagging behind India and China, and less than a quarter of the figure for Thailand. Those numbers don't bode well for Vietnam's ambitions to move into higher-end electronics and outsourcing.

Tom Vallely, director of the Vietnam program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, says the country's universities aren't churning out enough qualified engineers, IT workers and managers. "You are already seeing a skilled-worker shortage," he says.

Even the elite who make it into university find that the centrally controlled curriculum is steeped in "Ho Chi Minh Thought," and lags far behind other schools in Asia. The reforms that have seen a mushrooming of private enterprise in the communist-controlled society have yet to reach its more than 300 universities. Professors' pay and promotion is based on seniority, not merit, and they rarely publish in international journals.

"Vietnam drastically needs education reform," says Adam Sitkoff, director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam. "If you want to compete in the IT sector and you want to attract high-wage, high-growth jobs, you need to have a smart, well-educated workforce."

Vallely, who was recently part of a delegation of U.S. educators that met with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Trietalong to promote reform, says Vietnam needs a world-class flagship school — the equivalent of India's Institutes of Technology or Tsinghua University in China. Existing schools, he says, need autonomy to build their own curriculum and compete for students. "These kids who do make the cut and go to school are very smart," Vallely says. "They're just not getting much of an education when they get there." And if that doesn't change, Vietnam may only be cheating itself.