HANOI — Dao Quoc Huy and his wife joined other anxious parents camped outside Thuc Nghiem primary school at 3 a.m.
When the sun came up, the crowd pressed against the metal entrance gate until it fell - then stampeded, hurdling bushes and losing flip-flops in a frenzied rush to grab coveted application forms.
The school is one of Vietnam’s only public institutions emphasizing American-style learning instead of rote memorization. About 600 kindergartners from around the capital were vying for the 200 or so spots available this fall.
“It’s like playing the lottery,” said Mr. Huy, 35, who hoped his daughter would be among the chosen. “We need luck.”
The recent stampede, which resulted in a few minor bruises but no arrests, underscores a problem experts say weighs heavily on Vietnam’s graying communist leadership: Nearly four decades after the Vietnam War, the country’s education system remains so corrupt and backward that it’s impeding economic growth.
And the rising middle class is now desperate for alternatives.
In this Confucian nation where education is a national obsession, schools at all levels are hampered by cheating, bribery and a lack of world-renowned programs and researchers. As a result, a surging number of Vietnamese students are attending international-style private schools and later overseas colleges and universities.
Although average income here is just $1,400, more than 30,000 Vietnamese were studying at foreign higher learning institutions last year. Vietnam ranks fifth-highest worldwide for its student enrollments in Australia, and eighth for enrollments in the U.S., placing it above Mexico, Brazil and France.
A crisis in education
The number of Vietnamese studying in the U.S. has increased sevenfold from about 2,000 over the past decade.
Most of the nearly 15,000 who were studying in the U.S. last year were not on scholarships to well-known schools, but instead attending community colleges paid by their families, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education.
Unlike universities in neighboring China where communist leaders enacted sweeping reforms in the 1980s, Vietnam’s schools are not keeping pace with an increasingly globalized world, experts say.
The government instead has preserved a system promoting inefficient central management and a lack of critical thinking. Up to 10 percent of course work remains devoted to the teachings of Marx, Lenin and late Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh.
Vietnam’s educational model is “one size fits all,” and the country’s leaders “should have done more to make education one of its assets,” said Mai Thanh, a World Bank senior education specialist in Hanoi. “I see it as a missed opportunity.”
As Vietnam’s annual growth rate holds at 6 percent despite having one of Asia’s highest inflation rates and an economy burdened by stagnant state-owned companies, analysts say the education crisis threatens to stunt the domestic workforce and further hinder the country’s development.