University entrance exams are a pass

University entrance exams are a pass

For my generation born in the 1980s, the university entrance exam was like a “survival battle” full of haunting high competition rates at top schools.

Failing public university entrance exams meant a risk of a failed future ahead. Folk exaggerate this ruthless screening into the number 90% in the modified folk verse: “The towering gate of the university / Ten people climb up, nine people fall”.

By 2023, the rate seems to have reversed. According to the Department of Higher Education, more than one million high school graduates, only about 660,250 registered for university admission, of which 610,000 were admitted in round 1 (92.7%), as of August 28.

Carrying heavy memories from previous exams, many people in my generation are surprised at the number 92.7%, hastily judging that university standards have been lowered so almost anyone who takes the exam passes. This rate and the story of two valedictorians of block A00 failing their first choice to Hanoi University of Science and Technology became a controversial topic, hiding certain concerns about higher education in Vietnam today.

In 2001, Clark Kerr, a leading expert on American University History looked back over the 19th and 20th centuries and affirmed: starting from the end of the 20th century, universities will no longer be “ivory towers” of “masters and scholars”. Universities will increasingly become a common part of society to serve national goals: economic growth, improving living standards, establishing management standards, asserting industrial and military superiority.

The process of higher education escaping from academic walls is inevitable and irreversible in the 21st century. Starting from America, it spread quickly around the world with the steps of globalization. When trading with developed countries, developing countries are forced to restructure their university system to be practical: quickly training generations that can meet global production and supply methods.

In Vietnam, due to historical peculiarities, this process came later but took place at a dizzying speed. The situation of “ivory tower” still exists in the early years of the 21st century because universities still operate mostly with state budget, having to strictly limit input quotas (budget allocation according to student quantity).

This mechanism leads to harsh screening above. Entrance exams are evaluated entirely academically based on how they are divided (A, B, C, D), leading to both public opinion and policymakers considering universities as purely academic development places.

For a variety of reasons, state budgets for higher education are increasingly being reduced, making university autonomy a necessity. Vietnam has just started showing signs of moving away from the ivory tower when the Government issued Resolution 77/NQ-CP in 2014 and most recently Decree 81 (2021) on tuition fees, in correlation with the level of autonomy of the school.

To be autonomous, especially financially (increasing tuition fees), universities must meet the general expectations of society and the expectations of input customers – parents – and output customers – businesses.

In ambitious “dragon” countries like Vietnam, the development process both in quality and quantity of the new middle class leads to a strong demand for monetary investment for the next generation to advance with knowledge (convenient, sustainable and promising than the direction of advancing with heavy physical labor). A university degree is the most feasible stepping stone for this orientation, so schools open their doors to most candidates, meeting the legitimate needs of the people.

Furthermore, schools – under pressure from businesses’ increasing human resource needs – are forced to autonomously create admission plans that are most suitable. For example, business economics schools will prioritize IELTS scores because English is a measure of global economic integration capability. Similarly, programming majors will require high coefficient entrance scores for Math, as this field requires good algorithmic thinking. The first proposals have been made to make Computer Science a high coefficient scoring subject for engineering majors. Diversifying admission options both attracts many students capable of paying high tuition fees and filters for convenient output results, instead of rigid streaming options in the past.

In summary, two prominent stories of the 2023 university admissions round mark that Vietnamese higher education has deeply entered the massification stage instead of the ivory tower situation. Universities expand admission quotas in proportion to people’s demand to access knowledge economy opportunities. From here on, the trend towards output (instead of input) will become increasingly clear.

However, this massification process happens too quickly leading to certain difficulties in the acceptance state of generations accustomed to competitive exams in the past. The absence of communication and policy analysis has led to off-topic arguments, causing a loss of focus on more core issues, such as the role of the Ministry of Education & Training in the context of rapid changes in higher education (where admissions are just the tip of this process).

I rate the figure 92.7% as a sign for a humanistic higher education system, respecting people’s desire to access higher education. I don’t want my generation’s complex to repeat when my university ticket could mean closing someone else’s door.

Lang Minh

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University entrance exams are a pass

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