Bài này mới đăng trên báo Vietnam Financial Review, nay tôi để ra blog bản chưa qua biên tập. Nội dung chính là ảnh hưởng của vấn đề dân số học lên câu chuyện giáo dục ở Việt Nam.
The flattened age pyramid and the education challenge
Demographic attributes are among the most persistent, most predictable socio-economic characteristics of a country, compared to other variables such as GDP, investment or consumption growth. Given the central role of population in most society-wide phenomena, it should be a key indicator in all forward-looking strategic planning for both public and private purposes. The failure to fully acknowledge this point can be very costly, as illustrated in the case of Vietnam’s education system in recent years.
Vietnam has a unique twentieth century demographic history, with vast impacts of the half-century long wars, economic underdevelopment, a post-war population boom in the late 70s and early 80s, followed by a mild population restriction policy. All these historical traits leave unmistakable marks on the demographic growth and composition. While some of their effects have long been under consideration by policy makers, others seem to be overlooked, leaving humongous consequences.
The reunified Vietnam since 1975 experienced a surge in population similar to the baby boom in the West, somewhat despite economic hardship in the early 1980s. Even though population growth was later kept under control by a series of financial and occupational disincentives against high-fertility families, the age pyramid quickly expanded at the bottom for several generations of children. This particular phenomenon promises a huge demand for education when those children reach their school age in the 1990s and 2000s.
The population growth was coupled with a strong push of urbanization in a typical emerging economy. The urban population share rises about two percentage points a year, with most urban immigrant families focusing on giving their children a better chance. That creates enormous demand pressure on the education infrastructure of large cities.
However predictable it was, that demand trend has not been dealt with properly. The supply side remains rigid until recently, partly due to inadequate national education planning, partly due to stringent bureaucratic red tapes preventing the private sector to step in and fill the gap. In cities, the number of public schools has not grown, while their capacity improved only by a small fraction, mostly in unavoidable situations. Under strong pressure, educational entrepreneurs have slowly been allowed into the picture, first in joint venture with public institutions, and since a few years in independent businesses. Nevertheless, the high costs of licenses, both in time and in other means, have kept the private share of the market relatively low.
More importantly, supply of skilled labor in this profession has not seen much improvement. While education schools may make progress in teaching quality, since the 1990s the quality of incoming students to those schools deteriorates sharply as better students can now choose more lucrative career paths, as opposed to be assigned to a university by a central authority. Consequently, graduating batches of teachers since the late 1990s barely compare to previous generations, many of whom soon reached retirement age. Together with a stagnate capacity of education supply, its real quality has been impoverished by the self-selection out of a low salary career.
Education quality thus starts its decline since the late 1990s, when high, growing demand meets low capacity, low quality supply. Classroom size usually reaches more than 50, and the rationing process in education creates many ugly side effects, such as extra-hour classes by the very same teachers on the same topics for additional remunerations, or student-screening prerequisites starting even before school age. Government-enforced quality control lacks a serious, non-superficial monitoring system, and reform attempts have been staunched by fervent conservative opponents. Market forces, on the other hand, are dysfunctional as too few private schools manage to emerge to bridge the supply-demand gap. Schooling does not mean the same as a generation before, and better-off parents seek all means to support their children with adequate education, including sending them abroad at an earlier and earlier age.
Many experts point out that the remedy lies in the liberalization of the education market to domestic and foreign private entities. Clean and clear competition with enough private competitors who truly value their clients – parents and children – would improve the system and may keep it in check against adverse side effects. In fact, not only should private schools be allowed to freely enter the market, they should also be partly subsidized with land use, since the value they create for the society can largely exceed what the entrepreneurs can reap in return. However, similar to many reform policies, liberalization is always met with a strong group of opponents, be it on ideological, practical or business ground.
While a full-scale liberalization may be out of the near horizon, the education sector is still a highly profitable area of investment, even with the current high fixed costs of starting a business. Young middle-class parents coming from the first wave of baby boom in the 1970s are quick to realize the education conundrum their children are facing now, and will not wait for the government’s intervention to improve their children’s lot. They are already contributing heavily, in money and in time, to the public school education of their children, but they would also be willing to spend more to get them a better, care-free education in private schools. High growth breeds not only more demand of education, but also demand for higher quality that can be more assuredly met by eager, dynamic education investors than the State. The next few years will predictably see new surge in private education institutions, giving the society more, better choices.