Saturday, 26 September 2009

Vietnam, other nations look to U.S.-style community colleges

By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY

RACH GIA, Vietnam — The words of a song about Kien Giang Community College here say it was created to meet "the pressing expectations of the motherland." But school founder Do Quoc Trung, who co-wrote the song, says he wants his students to know college can enrich them, too.

"For the future development of our communities, let's build our school together," say the lyrics. "For Kien Giang … let's devote and sacrifice our life."

Asian culture has long placed a premium on higher education, but Kien Giang Community College, located in the capital city of Kien Giang Province in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, is a relative newcomer.

Founded in 2002, it is one of 15 created since 2000 in Vietnam, and is modeled in part on U.S. community colleges, where the concept was born in 1901, when Joliet (Ill.) Junior College was founded. And just as President Obama is counting on community colleges to prepare the USA's workforce for 21st century jobs, Trung and his counterparts here believe their fledgling schools have potential to play a lead role as Vietnam pursues its goal to join the ranks of industrialized countries by 2020.

Other countries, too, are tapping into U.S. community college expertise as they diversify their higher education systems. In April, China's Ministry of Education sent a delegation to the American Association of Community College convention in Phoenix, and a second group plans to visit in November. The first of several community colleges developed by the Republic of Georgia opened last year, with assistance from community colleges in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. Qatar's government is working with two U.S. community college presidents as it looks into offering associate degrees and a transfer option to four-year universities.

Such schools are not a new phenomenon beyond U.S. borders, says Rosalind Latiner Raby, director of the nonprofit group California Colleges for International Education. But changes in the economy have heightened interest worldwide in harnessing their potential. "What we're now seeing is an explosion that's been decades in the making," she says. "Most countries now either have or are developing plans for a community college-like institution."

Community colleges in Vietnam — or any country — are not carbon copies of the U.S. version. Iran and Mexico, for example, have borrowed heavily from France. Vietnam also has partnered with Canada and the Netherlands. And each system is shaped by its country's governance policies.

What binds such institutions is a common philosophy, Raby and other researchers have concluded: Whereas universities cater to an elite few, community colleges strive to address multiple needs of the public they serve, from nontraditional students to employers to low-income students just out of high school.

"We bring opportunity to the community," Trung says.

They appear to be having an impact. Since Kien Giang Community College was founded, the number of educated workers in the province's labor pool has jumped from 8.5% to 15% last year. Though the community college can't take sole credit for that, enrollments more than doubled, from 3,164 to about 6,500 in that period. It is 6,600 this year.

Like U.S. colleges, academic offerings such as accounting, finance and informational technology are standard fare. Kien Giang also has capitalized on the province's rich natural resources. As resorts attract more foreigners to Phu Quoc Island, a short ferry ride from Rach Gia, the school has been ramping up a tourism program. It launched a seafood technology program two years ago to help local fisheries meet export standards.

"We have a variety of food products but (the processing field is) not very developed," says Kien Giang food technology major Pham Thi Mong, 20 who hopes to go on to earn a bachelor's.

Many students aspire to begin their studies at a university — a bachelor's degree is held in high esteem — yet the odds of doing so are not in their favor. Just 16% of university age students in Vietnam were enrolled in higher education in 2005 (vs. 43% in Thailand that year, 17%-19% in China and Indonesia), says a Harvard report out last year.

Though that percentage is increasing, those precious few slots go only to those scoring highest on a national exam. The Vietnamese government, acknowledging that its higher education system needs an overhaul, encourages more affluent families to send their children abroad, or to one of the private universities sprouting here under agreements with other countries, including Australia, Germany, and the USA.

Affordability is a growing concern, too. Undergraduate tuition at a four-year public university is only slightly higher than it is for an associate's degree, but prices could increase this fall — to about $135 and $110, per academic year, respectively. But for students in Kien Giang Province, where the average household annual income is about $456, costs related to travel, housing and other expenses quickly add up. The nearest major universities is in Can Tho, a three hour drive from Rach Gia. And for some families, that's too far for comfort.

"My parents … do not want me to learn far from home. My home is near my school, it is very convenient for me," says English major Duong Thi My Hang, 21, who is pursuing a bachelor's degree through a satellite program at Kien Giang Community College. Added benefits she says, include the college's computer labs (acquired as part of a partnership with the India-based National Institute of Information Technologies) and its foreign teachers, who come mostly through a U.S. program called Princeton-in-Asia, a nonprofit founded in 1898 that sends college graduates to serve communities throughout Asia.

Still an 'experiment'

Yet for all their promise, the future of community colleges here remains uncertain. The most concrete roadblock: They must be granted permanent status from the government's Ministry of Education and Training. And it still views the schools as experimental.

One problem is that the concept is not fully understood by the public or some key decision-makers, says Mai Van Tinh, the Ministry of Education and Training official in charge of community colleges. Some provinces, for example, have tried to merge community colleges with long-established public professional schools that typically focus on a single discipline, such as teaching or medicine. That model reflects the "sluggish, stagnant and bureaucratic thinking … of the old command centralized planning market," Tinh says. Local leaders "did not understand that the North American model of community college is very dynamic and flexible in a market economy."

Tinh's interviews last year also found some provincial leaders who said they would rather have a four-year university.

In fact, three of Vietnam's 15 community colleges have been upgraded to university status. And Diane Oliver, an education professor at California State University-Fresno and lead author of a chapter on Vietnam in Community College Models: Globalization and Higher Education Reform, published in March and co-edited by Raby, worries that other schools may want to do the same — if only to ensure their continued existence. "Without a permanent regulation they're always in a little bit of jeopardy," she says.

The preference for university status reflects the biggest perceptual challenge for community colleges: lack of prestige — an issue not unfamiliar in the USA.

"Overcoming the stigma that they are perceived as 'lesser' institutions in terms of quality of education is a major hurdle" for Vietnam's community colleges, says Michael Michalak, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. The State Department has helped support a number of initiatives here with U.S. community colleges.

The American Association of Community Colleges is working with its Vietnam counterpart to develop quality-assurance guidelines. And Trung, who hosted three U.S.-Vietnamese conferences during his tenure at Kien Giang, developed an especially close relationship with Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, N.Y., one of four U.S. institutions to help his campus develop its information technology program.

Benefits go both ways. "U.S. companies doing business in Vietnam (need) a skilled workforce to function productively," Michalak says, and U.S. partnerships lend credibility to Vietnam's programs.

Tinh agrees. "I hope that in the near future, together with assistance and cooperation from U.S. community colleges, we will promote the pilot program … to the more permanent status," he says.

And Trung, who has been reassigned to a university starting this fall, hopes he is right.

"The country needs all levels (of training), from vocational to higher education," Trung says. But "the urgent aims of education are to bring training to the community and to provide opportunities for everybody."

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