Vietnam: Where free education isn’t so free

Communist Southeast Asian state promises schooling free of charge, but often falls far short of its pledge.

Vietnam school
Costs for textbooks and uniforms often keep poor children from attending school in Vietnam [Lien Hoang/Al Jazeera]

Hanoi, Vietnam – Education in this Southeast Asian country is meant to be free. But still some families can’t afford it.

At a park outside the Opera House in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, six-year-old Trang spends the day fiddling with sticks and playing alone, or joining her father as he drives customers on his motorbike. Trang isn’t in class because her father doesn’t have the money to pay for it.

Situations such as this are common across Vietnam. Rather than hit the books, school-age children bus tables, work at convenience stores, or wander the streets peddling gum and lottery tickets from their satchels.

Vietnam’s constitution pledges, “Primary education is compulsory and tuition-free.” But other costs, such as for textbooks and uniforms, keep poor children out. The cost is higher in secondary school and beyond, where institutions can and nearly always do charge tuition.

This socialist country has yet to socialise education entirely, as the wide range of fees means school is already out of reach for many.

Public schools can’t charge tuition until the secondary level, so they require students to pay fees for sanitation, traffic guards, gardeners, pens, notebooks, and even to have the buildings repainted. The practise was seen as so abusive that in 2011, the Ministry of Education and Training ordered schools to stop overcharging parents.

Now, rather than expand access to schooling, policy-makers are signalling yet another step away from universal education. A new draft amendment to the constitution deletes the reference to free education, supplanting it with a much vaguer Article 42: “Citizens have a right and obligation to study.”

“The spirit of building a learned society in which everyone can study, and everyone supports others in studying, is not shown in the revised draft.”

– Dr Ho Thieu Hung

The proposal has sparked confusion and concern that it could open the path to more academic fees.

“This is going to be too generic and too broad, and it goes with risks that the free elements of primary education will be probably diluted,” Mitsue Uemura, chief of Unicef Vietnam’s education section, said in an interview.


The UN body is lobbying Vietnamese lawmakers to preserve the original guarantee of free education in Article 59. Its efforts were part of the government’s move to collect public feedback through the end of March ahead of a big overhaul of the 1992 constitution. This summer the National Assembly will take up the revisions – which could have far-ranging effects on issues from human rights to electoral oversight – and then vote on them by year’s end.

The Assembly’s website has invited people to submit opinions. There, University of Chicago Professor Dam Thanh Son sent a letter warning that “by abandoning many of the provisions in Article 59”, the state could jeopardise its commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 28 of the convention reads, “All children have the right to a primary education, which should be free.”

Drafters have suggested their proposed change could broaden state policy beyond grades one through five, to require and fund higher levels of learning. But observers say if that’s the intention, the new law doesn’t reflect it.

“The spirit of building a learned society in which everyone can study, and everyone supports others in studying, is not shown in the revised draft,” Dr Ho Thieu Hung, former director of the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Education and Training, said by email.

Whatever the outcome of the constitutional debate, it has helped highlight flaws in how Vietnam pays for education. Most families must foot at least part of the bill for grade school, a somewhat counterintuitive concept in a socialist system. Even the most free-market countries have tended to nationalise this rudimentary component of a welfare state.

Katarina Tomasevski, former UN Special Rapporteur on education, has argued that Vietnam partly “privatised” schooling by shifting some of the financial load to parents. “The parental ‘willingness to pay’ for education has obliterated the notion of education as a public responsibility, and the previous model of education as a free public service,” she wrote in “Free or Fee”, a 2006 global report on education.

Vo Thi Diem, now 18, said that to help her get through primary school, friends loaned her used textbooks, and a teacher gave her the white button-up blouse required to enter a classroom. “I was afraid I might have to drop out,” she said. According to the General Statistics Office, 15.5 percent of students age 5-18 leave school early.

“Are they really making any difference, especially for those who are disadvantaged, those who are left behind?”

– Mitsue Uemura, chief of Unicef Vietnam’s education section

Diem didn’t have to because a teacher introduced her to Saigon Children’s Charity, whose mantra is “eliminating poverty through education”.

Director Paul Finnis said school costs go far beyond tuition.

“As any parent will know, there’s always things, money [needed] for school uniforms, shoes,” Finnis said. “One of our kids for instance we met the other day had no shoes on his feet. And when we asked him about that, he said he has one pair of shoes, one pair of flip flops, but he saves them for Tet, saves them for New Year’s.”

Rising literacy

By several measures, Vietnam has made wide inroads into education in the past two decades or so. The overall dropout rate was 22 percent in 1989. The same year, literacy among those age 15 and older was 87.3 percent, compared with 93.5 percent in 2009. In that 20-year spread, the percent of people 15 and older with at least a junior college education jumped to 4.4, from 1.7.

Vietnam, which has a long scholarly tradition, seems on track to meet its UN Millennium Development Goals, particularly for universal primary education.

The government certainly is making the investment. It spent 19.8 percent of the state budget on education in 2010, compared with the average of 13.7 percent across East Asia, according to Unesco.

But Uemura from Unicef said Vietnam must look into the most efficient ways to spend its education funds. “Are they really making any difference, especially for those who are disadvantaged, those who are left behind?” Uemura asked.

Those left behind include 22.7 percent of the Vietnamese population five and older who haven’t finished primary school. Although 95.5 percent of children now enroll in primary school at the appropriate age, just 88.2 percent see it all the way through.

The number drops another nine percentage points when moving into remote areas, where primary school teacher Tran Thi Thanh Phong says families are much less likely to afford education.

“For them, money just to survive is a problem,” she says. “So if they have to pay for school, then how will they manage to live?”

Source: Al Jazeera