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New 'upscale' public schools too expensive for public to afford

A classroom at Cau Giay Secondary School in Hanoi. The school will soon be "upgraded." Photo by Le Dang Ngoc

In rural and mountainous Vietnam, children often attend schools without doors, roofs or even blackboards.

Even in Hanoi, many families have trouble finding enough money to send their kids to public schools, which still charge tuition fees.

And even more families will soon be struggling as the capital city plans to "upgrade" a series of its public schools, where tuitions will be 30 times more expensive than the normal rate.

While all parents welcome better schools and improvements to the city's out-of-date educational infrastructure, many won't be able to afford the new tuition prices.

A Hanoian mother who spoke on condition of anonymity said she would probably move her child to a new school once the current school is made "high quality."

"The meaning of 'high quality' is high cost," she said, adding that high fees are not what she expect from a public school.

"With government worker wages for both me and my husband, I'm totally happy with the conditions of the school right now. But if it shifts to a high-quality model and charges VND3 million a month, I'm forced to move my child to a more common school."

Many like-minded parents and educators are opposing the municipal government's plan. They said the high-cost model goes against the principal that everyone has the right to schooling.

Schools for who?

The Hanoi government announced in June a plan to transform 35 local public schools into "high-quality" schools by 2015. Along with the announcement came a list of criteria the new schools will meet.

Those who meet the criteria will be allowed to charge a maximum of VND3 million (US$145) per student a month, 30 times higher than normal public school tuition.

Critics of the plan said the government is misperforming its duties by representing the elites instead of the country's poorer majority, especially given that rural schools will continue to lack vital facilities, even toilets in many cases.

Vu The Khoi, a former lecturer at Hanoi University, said it was pointless to talk of "upscale' education when the country's average school is still understaffed, underfunded and struggling to provide for students' basic needs.

"The government's task is to take care of national education, so it first needs to guarantee a system where every child is educated properly without paying extra.

"We have not really solved the problems of common education, so what is the point of talking about high quality quality?" Khoi said.

Professor Phung Ho Hai from Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, also said using the state budget to transform some schools into elite institutions while leaving working-class school to fend for themselves was an "unnecessary" use of funds.

Nguyen Loc, deputy head of the Vietnam Institute of Education Sciences, said the plan is likely to "twist" the function of public schools.

Loc said the model will sending poor children to remote locations while leaving the rich to still enjoy high-end public schools at a still-cheaper price than private schools.

He called this a kind of "embezzlement of state budget."

Van Nhu Cuong, principal of Luong The Vinh, a famous high school in Hanoi, expressed suspicions about the government's plan to raise overall tuitions at these places.

"It is starting with 35 schools, then 60, 100 and half of public schools. Finally they will turn the education system into a high-cost one."

Ugly truth

The high-quality model has been applied to public high schools in Ho Chi Minh City since 2006, but experts say there has been no clear increase in quality.

Nguyen Du and Nguyen Hien high schools are charging VND900,000 per student per month.

Huynh Cong Minh, former director of the HCMC Department of Education and Training and designer of the new model, said high quality classes will have 30 students instead of 45 to 50 and are equipped with modern facilities including a computer, internet, a projector, a screen, a printer and two air-conditioners.

Do Thi Bich Duyen, principal of Le Quy Don High School, which was the first school in the city to try the model, said the tuition includes extra classes including those preparing students for college entrance exams.

Duyen said the tuition also translates to higher payments to teachers, and thus keeps them more devoted to their job.

But Thanh Nien reporters found those are the only differences between "high quality" schools and others.

Many students from the schools are still paying for outside classes in order to prepare for the college exam.

The schools also had to lower their benchmark as many good students from poorer families have stopped enrolling.

Nguyen Hien's average entrance score has dropped from 33 to 27.5 this year and Le Quy Don often ranks lower than cheap public schools on a list of government rankings for graduation and college matriculation rates.

Teachers said the model creates unfairness not only between students, but also among public schools, as the "high quality" schools are given more funds and allowed to charge higher tuitions. They are also able to shift their overcrowding problems to other schools.

Nguyen Vinh Hien, vice minister of Education and Training, said the ministry is on board with the model as he says it will benefit both the education sector as a whole, as well as the rich families whose children will enroll.

"It raises funds from social sources and meets the demand of a part of the population that has the condition to join and join voluntarily."

Hien said those families otherwise would send their children to international schools or to study aboard at much higher prices.

But professor Nguyen Tien Dung from the University of Toulouse, France, said that statement just confirms further that the plan is a commercialization of public schools.

"It distorts the meaning of public school, and is a completely false investment of state budget, that is to serve a group of rich people instead of the entire society," he said.

Dung said given that education quality in on average very poor in Vietnam, the state budget should focus on the most effective plan.

"Puplic schools don't even have enough playgrounds, the classes are overcrowded," he said.

"An effective plan should be building more schools, and hiring more teachers."

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