The Ministry of Education and Training recently published statistics on higher education in Vietnam for 2017-1018 and 2018-2019. There were 36.476 master’s students graduating in 2017-2018, an increase of 1.792 compared to the previous academic year. Graduation data on master’s degrees was not included in the 2018-2019 report. The capacity for master’s level education in Vietnam decreased by 9.433 comparing to 2017-2018, down to 97.134 students, while admissions experienced only a slight decrease, from 45.032 students in 2017-2018 to 42.160 students in 2018-2019.
Employment statistics in the first quarter of 2019 illustrates an average graduate-level worker earns approximately 13.5 million dong per month (~USD 580), which is 43.5% higher than undergraduate-level workers. With this income gap, what are the factors limiting young people from pursuing the graduate education that will offer them a satisfying and higher pay job?
In the public sector, a graduate degree can provide promotion opportunities. Nevertheless, pursuing higher degrees to advance competencies and improve working performance is not an option favoured by all. Many decide to follow a less savoury track – bribing for grades and buying degrees, degrading the higher education environment as well as its credibility in the process.
A Master’s degree: Affordability vs. Accessibility?
The journey to higher education is a profitable investment for those aiming quality, high income employment. However, the investment is not negligible. A master’s degree does not represent the same affordability for everyone. Cost of a master’s degree is not limited to tuition fees; it also involves expenses such as books or room and board. Most importantly, there is a cost in the students’ time.
To pursue the “life-changing” opportunity to succeed, many individuals seek out bank loans as a solution. Uncertain about the future, students may concurrently face substantial debts, and thus find themselves spending portions of their income paying off these debts afterwards.
Some master’s programs, aiming to eradicate financial barriers to enhance accessibility, offer financial aids and scholarships. For example, at the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM), thanks to funds from the US Department of States, students pursuing a Master of Public Policy will receive a 100% scholarship for the Policy Analysis Major, and a 50% scholarship for the Leadership and Management Major.
As Mr. Vo Thanh Trung, an MPP student majoring in Leadership and Management at FSPPM, relates, “even with 50% scholarships, the majority of my fellow students still find tuition and a course to Harvard Kennedy pose significant financial barriers to full participation in the program”
The most expensive opportunity cost for students is time. Not many are willing to sacrifice their current jobs and promotion opportunities to pursue an uncertain future. Moreover, many companies will not easily allow their employees to attend a long-term program.
“I have been following MPP program in Policy Analysis at FSPPM for 10 years. I had asked my employers about 10 times before finally making it to study at the school. I applied and re-applied every year, but my companies were not able to make suitable arrangements. And after 15 years of working experience, I finally succeeded in pursuing my education,” said Mr. Tran Quang, Deputy Head of Soc Trang Provincial People’s Committee Office.
The amount of time a student is expected to spend on a master program is not limited to the 2 years of official training, but also to dedicate time to prepare for entrance exams, especially for those who follow programs in other counties. Standardized tests such as the GRE or GMAT require extensive preparation. Furthermore, those whose proficiency in English is insufficient will need to allocate even more time to study for English tests.
Nevertheless, the biggest obstacle is educational quality. In terms of rigor or qualification level, not all master’s programs are created equal. It is also not the case that all master programs help enhance the students’ knowledge and professional skills they will need in their future career. An international executive program may not ensure one’s success if the knowledge is not applicable with their working and living environment in Vietnam.
“I find it a privilege to have studied in the US for my master’s and bachelor’s degrees. Being back in Vietnam, however, I failed. I realized that I lacked practical knowledge of practices and procedures in Vietnam. What I learnt in the US only exemplified American scenarios, thus distancing me from the reality in Vietnam,” shared Mr. Nguyen Tuan Anh, currently working at the Department of Industry and Trade.
Therefore, despite having 2 degrees from US universities, Tuan Anh still decided to follow the MPP program in Leadership and Management, Class of 2021.
What is the solution for future masters’ students?
Graduating with a master’s degree is a dream of many young people. However, there is a disparity between dreams and reality.
“Success is not an effortless achievement; it is also not accessible to all. Success is a necessary reward for those who dare to take risks and make sacrifices,” remarked Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, Executive Professor at FSPPM. “The mission of educators is to prepare students with the necessary knowledge and skills that will assist them through future risks so that their sacrifices will be worthwhile.”
With the goal of helping many young people have the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree, FSPPM School has launched many new initiatives to help reduce barriers to access. In addition to the Policy Analysis major, which requires students to study full time within 15 months, two years ago, FSPPM introduced the MPP program in Leadership & Management, with part-time training over a period of 18 months. Every two months, the Leadership & Management students gather for one session, each lasting for 9 days from Saturday to the following Sunday, helping busy students organize their workload to accommodate their learning.
“The curriculum of the MPP program in Leadership and Management is very accessible for professionals like me. I can still go to school while sustaining my current job. It is fortunate for me to work at a company that supports its employees’ learning and self-developing opportunities. Hence, I was greatly supported to follow the study program. To be honest, I used my leave for school days at FSPPM. Therefore, if I efficiently plan my workload, it will not negatively affect my work while going to school,” shared Ms. Le Thi Kim Hong, Legal Director, Representative Office of GlaxoSmithKline Pte Ltd in Ho Chi Minh City.
Admission requirements such as entrance exams and interviews are essential in FSPPM’s effort to ensure educational quality. Besides, with student outcomes placed at the center of the school’s education philosophy, FSPPM strives to offer students an internationally accredited education of utmost academic quality which prepares them with the proper knowledge and mindsets for their future careers in multidisplinary fields.
“I am not sure yet whether I will get a promotion at work after graduation, but I am sure that I have had my knowledge “promoted” at Fulbright. Learning from peers and professors, I have acquired an interdisciplinary, analytical and critical mindset to arrive at the central values of all issues. I find the knowledge I have gained at Fulbright indispensable for my present and future job where I strive to become an effective and inspiring leader,” said Ms. Nguyen Thi Bao Tran, an MPP student majoring in Leadership and Management, and the Secretary of Tinh Bien Town’s Party Committee (An Giang).
However, financial barriers have been the greatest concerns of students majoring in Leadership and Management at FSPPM. “Sustaining a school in public policy following NASPAA accreditation involves varying costs,” explained Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh. In other countries, costs of admission to universities of similar quality average approximately 600 million dong per student (~USD 25,900), excluding additional expenses. Additionally, NASAPAA requires partner institutions to scale up their programs, diversify courses, and enhance teaching quality. These requirements thereby necessarily direct FSPPM’s resources to sustain educational quality.
“Tuition fees with 50% scholarship still concern students who depend on personal financial resources. However, this investment is worthwhile for the knowledge and experience a student can get from their study. Furthermore, a 50% scholarship from prestigious Fulbright University Vietnam has greater value as an encouragement than it is as a monetary ‘quantification’,” shared Ms. Le Thi Kim Hong.
“At present, FSPPM still offer full and partial scholarships to students, thanks to support from the US Department of States. But we are still looking for alternatives because this fund is finite. We hope that students will always appreciate efforts that the school has been making and honor values that a Master’s in Public Policy at FSPPM offers.”
It is undeniable that a master’s degree while have varying impacts on a career. A quality master’s program does not only develop students’ knowledge and skills, but also offers students meaningful relationships with talented individuals from various professions and across the country. Yet, since there are always sacrifices on the journey to success, fore-planning and careful considerations are essential.
Truong Thi Thach Thao