Exploring the relationship between higher education and inequality in Vietnam: socio-cultural foundations and future directions

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While education is often understood as a means to improve the social mobility of individuals and decrease the measure of inequality that may be present in any modern society, this direct line of causality starting with access to education towards improved social outcomes is not always a clear case. In this article the author explores the interrelationship between social inequalities and higher education in Vietnam by presenting a survey of existing research which indicates that increased access to the education does not immediately address issues of inequality. As such, this article will look at the socio-cultural foundations of inequality of Vietnam, look at the relationship between Neoliberalism and higher education, and evaluate data on local inequalities and higher education. The author argues that a concerted approach to providing higher education access, participation, and attainment, by engaging with the socio-cultural dynamics of rural localities will better ensure that higher education can adequately meet the needs of the constituents it is meant to serve. In understanding issues related to higher education in Vietnam, a broad view of policy and practice must be complimented by a closer focus on how persons navigate the social worlds they inhabit and the ways in which their social identity is negotiated in relation to this.

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Introduction The interrelationship between social inequality and educational access and attainment at all levels in Vietnam have been documented for several years by local and international scholars across disciplines [London 2021; Nghia, et al. 2020], in addition to several global indexes from the 2010s [Dutta, Lanvin & Wunsch-Vincent 2020; The World Bank 2020]. Data from a 2021 longitudinal study on social inequality and higher education access across four lower-middle income countries, including Vietnam, revealed that education access and participation are adjacent to issues of socio-economic status and subsequent educational attainment [Ilie, Rose & Vignoles 2020]. While a major implication of this study and others like it highlight the value of higher education as it enables persons to contribute to the wider social context they inhabit in addition to increased social mobility, less is known about the social production of persons at the intersection of their socio-economic backgrounds and higher education ecosystems. This article surveys issues in Vietnamese higher education concerning increased access, participation, attainment and its consequential relationship to social inequalities experienced within this context. Examining the scholarship produced by both Vietnamese and foreign scholars alike, foregrounds a gap in higher education research as it pertains to the entanglements which shape the social worlds of those to whom higher education is directed, in addition to how they negotiate and navigate these social worlds which includes the higher education ecosystem. The author argues that in understanding issues related to higher education in Vietnam, a broad view of policy and practice must be complimented by a closer focus on how persons navigate the social worlds they inhabit and the ways in which their social identity is negotiated in relation to this. A specific emphasis will be placed on issues related to the expansion of the higher education sector, the broadening of access and its relationship to social inequalities. The sociological foundations of inequality in Vietnam will be given attention, as well as the role of Neoliberalism in causing an expansion of the higher education sector locally, without significantly minimising social inequalities. A critical review of key sources on this topic will be put forward, with possible directions for sociological research and theorising for future studies. Within the context of this article, societal or social inequality, may be understood as the lived experiences of individuals and groups that operated within a defined socio-historical context having dissimilar or disproportionate access to opportunities, rights, and privileges which have a direct or indirect impact on their social and material realities [Abrutyn 2016; Berger & Pfadenhauer 2019]. Though greater access higher education can and does improve societies in a broad sense, the complexities involved in addressing issues of social inequality and the promotion social mobility are influenced by several factors, as can be seen in the Vietnamese context for example. Socio-cultural foundations of inequality in Vietnam Beginning this review, the work of Pham [2019] serves as a suitable starting point as the cultural foundations of inequality are explored in an attempt to understand how this is related to the higher education ecosystem in Vietnam. Pham [2019] readily observes that social inequalities are a culturally encoded feature of Vietnamese societies, by citing the influence of Confucianism and the guiding values of lý (moral reason), nghĩa (social conformity) and xuân mạng (ying and yang) [pp. 81,100-102]. As such, Pham (2019) notes that social inequality was a means to reproduce and maintain the rigid social hierarchy which is characteristic of Confucian Heritage Cultures in Vietnam and other parts of Asia [Ho 2020; Marginson 2011; Nguyen 2016; Weiming 2014]. Furthermore, the social stratification of Vietnamese society is also influenced by the presence of Marxist-Leninist-oriented Socialism [Phan and Doan 2020], and the various ways by which Vietnamese have historically been able to be pragmatic regarding their adaptation of foreign ideas to suit their purposes, as with the case of Neoliberalism as argued by some scholars [Tran et al. 2017]. Higher education in Vietnam has garnered scholarly attention both locally and internationally, particularly for the past two decades from the time of this writing, given the impact of the Doi Moi reforms in the mid-1980s [Phan and Doan 2020]. However, the importance of this area of research also pertains to the current direction and future trajectory of the nation, in terms of its not only addressing issues with its human capital, but also addressing corresponding issues of inequality within local society. A 2020 report by The World Bank drawing on over two decades worth of data stated: ‘even though Vietnam’s general education system is renowned worldwide for its strong performance, the tertiary system, including universities and technical and vocational institutions, suffers from structural deficiencies. [...] The education system needs to move toward expanding equitable access to tertiary education while making the system more relevant to the job market and the country’s human capital needs. As of 2016, the vast majority of the labour force in Vietnam was still locked in unskilled job sectors’ [Kataoka, Le, Kitchlu, & Inoue, 2020, p. 49]. What is evident in understanding Pham’s claims are the ideological roots of inequality in Vietnam, which presents this state of affairs as normative. Furthermore, given the nation’s long history with and ongoing engagement with Confucian ideals, the culturally accepted notion of inequality as a means of achieving a sense of ‘social balance’, further underscores the notion that the increased availability of something does not in any way mean an automatic state of equality is achieved. This is very much the case with higher education: increased access does not lead to a decrease in social inequality. With Neoliberalism identified by Pham [2019] and several scholars as one of the key drivers of the expansion of higher education in Vietnam and across Asia [Elyas and Picard 2013; Ngo 2020], this expansion has not led to a significant decrease in social inequality. In some instances, Neoliberalism has been proven to restrict access to higher education by the creations of paywalls, or through the commodification of higher education with little attention given to matters of quality assurance. By drawing on a combination of the key ideas from the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and synthesis of the Sen-Bourdieu analytical framework, the scholarship presented by Pham [2019] is sociologically-oriented in this respect, in addition to discussing ways in which international higher education is related to matters of ethical development and social mobility. This work as a whole is in large part a tracer study on Vietnamese students who study overseas and return home, who hold the potential to make significant contributions to the local society in identifying key areas of value and impact [Pham 2019]. Even in this critical work and similar kinds of scholarship, there is no straight line which can be drawn between a lessening of societal inequalities through increased higher education opportunity. Moreover, the socio-cultural entanglements at work in the social production of human agents and the corresponding forms of capital they are able to generate in relation to higher education makes a study of social identity at this intersection even more pertinent. While researchers have noted that both economic and psycho-social considerations often negate the potential of higher education access, participation and attainment [Ilie, Rose & Vignoles 2020], an argument can be made for a closer look at how these economic and psycho-social factors inform the experiences of the constituents of the higher education ecosystem in Vietnam. Moving beyond the cultural foundations of inequality discussed in Pham’s [2019] work, both Phan and Doan [2020] explore the pervasive nature of Neoliberalism in Vietnam as it relates to higher education and corresponding social realities which are manifest as a consequence. Neoliberalism and higher education The problematic nature of international higher education, in particular, has been highlighted in Phan’s [2017] own work as well as Pham’s [2019], as they both argue that broader inequalities of a political and economic nature are exacerbated under Neoliberalism [Pham 2013, 2019; Phan 2017; Phan and Barnawi 2015]. Neoliberalism here is defined as a socio-economic ideology which stands at the intersection of globalisation, Modernity, and capitalism [Elyas and Picard 2013]. Within this frame of reference human activity is often transactional, in the sense that it quantifies and commodifies such activity and subjects it to deregulated, free-market competition and entrepreneurship that emphasises individual autonomy in the pursuit of ‘interests’ which may be personal, community-based or political [Phan and Barnawi 2015]. This totalising philosophy permeates nearly all aspect of contemporary social life, as an outcome of the socio-historic condition of Modernity [Luke 2010; Stuchtey 2011]. Consequently, Neoliberalism in Vietnam can be considered a component of the higher education ecosystem, while also being an outcome of the same. According to Tran et al. [2017], the neoliberalisation of higher education in Vietnam has directly led to issues with inequality of access, which is a major point has also been highlighted by several analyses conducted by education researchers whose work has been focused within this context [Dang and Glewwe 2018; Hayden and Chính 2020; Ngo 2019; Nhan and Nguyen 2018]. In their work, Harman, Hayden, and Pham [2010] make note of the fact that general access to education is a critical aspect of increasing social mobility, while at the same time decreasing inequalities in Vietnamese society at large, yet on the other hand, they argue that access higher education often presents one of the most visible divides between various social classes. Bearing this in mind, Harman, Hayden, and Pham [2010] continue their line of reasoning in stating that the neoliberalisation of higher education in Vietnam severely undermines efforts to broaden access to this valuable means of mobility, by considering the unevenness of poverty and economic growth across localities, which affect the output of students which can access and complete their studies. This analysis provides significant implications for how resources are distributed locally, in an attempt to address issues related to individual and community mobility and inequality. Figure 1 conveys data which presents a general trend of increased higher education enrolment in Vietnam between the 1980s to the 2010s, which indicates a broadening of access, with many students within this period being first-generation learners, indicating a measure of upward progress as previous generations in their respective families were unable to attend a college or university [Sanger and Gleason 2020]. The increased enrolments in Vietnamese higher education institutions are also in line with regional trends of increased access to education across Asia, which corresponds with the rapid rates of modernisation that have characterised several of these postcolonial states [Fan 2016; Sanger and Gleason 2020]. However, this enlargement of the higher education sector has not eliminated disparities between various classes within Vietnam; in some cases, it has made more transparent the stratification of local society. Yet, at the same time such research does not indicate much regarding the social entanglements of persons in regard to education access, participation, and attainment, while at that the same time providing a broader view of higher education policy and practice. Fig. 1. Tertiary enrolment statistics in selected Asian countries from the 1980s to 2010s. Source: [Sanger and Gleason 2020] Metrics on inequality and higher education in Vietnam A report by Pimhidzai, et al. [2018] takes an extensive look at issues relating to social mobility in Vietnam and notes the importance of education as a major contributor to upward mobility by members of local society. While education, in general, is an important indicator of one’s social standing, the data from this report strongly suggests that post-secondary education had greater import regarding one’s lifetime earnings and corresponding quality of life [Pimhidzai et al. 2018]. This corresponds with well-established notions regarding the importance of one’s education with one’s social standing and related opportunities which arise as a result [Farfan et al. 2019; Ngo 2018; Pham and Le 2020]. Data in Figure 2 confirms this understanding, which displays the relationship between education levels and wage returns from the period of 2011-2014. However, it should be noted that a robust upper secondary education is a necessary prerequisite for attaining post-secondary education, often noted as tertiary education throughout the report by Pimhidzai et al. [2018], which denotes both academic and vocational fields of study. While it is clear from the report that there is much to be gained from attaining a college or university education, the importance of balancing issues of access, participation, and attainment is essential in ensuring that challenges to social equitability are sufficiently mitigated. Fig. 2. Trends in returns to education from 2011-2014. Source: Pimhidzai et al. 2018 Again, such data is useful in providing a sense of scope for higher education-related issues, however, much detail is absent with regard to how persons negotiate the cost-benefit of such informed by their socio-economic status. Fig. 3. Number and distribution of poor people in Vietnam from 2010-2016 as seen through remote and rural localities. Source: [Pimhidzai et al. 2018] As such, these issues of access and quality are pertinent as it relates to underserved and poorer regions in general, which are often rural areas often populated by ethnic minorities [Dang and Glewwe 2018; Pimhidzai et al. 2018]. The vast disparity between ethnic minorities and the rest of the population in Vietnam, as 95% or poor households inhabit rural localities (Figure 3), which in turn make up almost 70% of the total national population [Hu 2019; Pimhidzai et al. 2018]. Figure 4 presents data included in a regional report on Asian countries by the Asian Productivity Organisation, which profiles Vietnam and its poverty rates among locals according to locality and ethnicity. Yet again, in taking a closer look at factors of locality and ethnicity, it is interesting how these can inform the social behaviour of persons with regard to both opportunities and challenges to higher education engagement. Fig. 4. Poverty rates according to localities and ethnicities in Vietnam. Source: Hu 2019 Conclusion In this brief survey of the literature on Vietnamese higher education, it is evident that the expansion of this sector has not produced an even scope of benefits to all members of local society, as a significant cross-section of the population remains underserved. Furthermore, the limited selection of data in this brief review infers that in providing appropriate infrastructure to ensure greater levels of higher education access, participation, and attainment must be done with a better view of understanding those persons who may receive the most benefit and the barriers they face to such. While addressing education inequality in both policy and practice serves as a means of mitigating the negative impacts on persons, it is also needful to gain insight into the entanglements of the persons represented in quantitative studies, by avoiding monolithic conceptions of the same, alternatively turning attention to the social production of the constituents of the higher education ecosystem. Evidently, as rural communities and those who live in remote localities often experience the disproportionate benefit of investments and advances in the local higher education sector, this disparity results in ongoing issues of social mobility among the populace with persons in rural areas experiencing a greater negative impact concerning the modernisation of the higher education sector in contrast to their urban counterparts. Understanding the enabling and preventative factors of higher education access, participation, and attainment offers opportunity to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in society. Meeting such a need requires for new directions for future research, where top-down approaches to the study of higher education and inequality are common. The new directions needed should take into account how human agents generate meaning and capital within the social worlds they occupy and the ways in which might relate to higher education-based issues.

About the authors

Jonathan J. Felix

RMIT Vietnam

Email: jonathan.felix@rmit.edu.vn
Associate Lecturer, RMIT Vietnam, Visiting Fellow of the International and Comparative Education Research Group, University Brunei Darussalam (ICE-UBD). ORCID: 0000-0001-8258-6938


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