The first ever seminar of the Association of Episcopal Conferences in Asia has been held in Vietnam from 22-26 October to highlight the role of Catholic schools as places of integral education of the human person. Ironically, the seminar about Catholic education has taken place in a country where Catholics are prohibited to run any Catholic schools.

Forty cardinals, bishops, priests and teachers from Bangladesh, India, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam gathered at Ho Chi Minh city (formerly known as Saigon) last week to attend a weeklong seminar on Catholic Education during which they discussed on the identity of Catholic schools and their duty to evangelize. The theme of the seminar was “Catholic Schools and Catechetical Centres as venues of Eucharistic Faith Formation in Asia”.

The seminar was initiated by the Office of Education and Student Chaplaincy (OESC) of The Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) - a voluntary association of Episcopal Conferences in Asia, established with the approval of the Holy See. Its first meeting was held in Manila in 1970 in the presence of Pope Paul VI. Since then, despite active involvements of Vietnamese bishops in its activities, FABC has never been able to hold any meetings in Vietnam.

The opening Mass
Participants in the seminar
On the first day of the seminar, Oct. 23, Bishop Francis Xavier Osamu Mizobe, S.D.B. of Takamatsu, Japan –president of OESC – celebrated the opening Mass in which Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Kham, the Auxiliary Bishop of the host archdiocese delivered a homily on the duty of Catholics to evangelize.

One of the key speakers at the seminar was Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man of the host archdiocese who spoke on “The education for Christians to live the mystery of the Holy Eucharist in the socio-economic context of Vietnam today.”

The objective of the seminar was to share information, ideas, innovations and technological measures on the administration, teaching strategies, and social activities of Catholic schools. Vietnamese participants of the host country tried to contribute their best to the conference. But, obviously, their talks were not in line with others due to the fact that for decades Catholics in Vietnam have been kicked out of the monopoly education system which has been run exclusively by the State.

Historically, Catholic education in North Vietnam was terminated in 1954. The system of Catholic education in the South which consisted of more than 2,000 facilities for pre-primary, primary, intermediate, secondary, and higher education ceased to exist with the communist takeover in 1975. Since then, Catholics have been barred from running any public education services.

Bishops, especially at major cities, have repeatedly called for Catholics’ rights to participate in the education system citing alarming issues in the current system running by the State. They have warned that children in Vietnam are being deprived of their rights to enjoy an adequate, decent, effective and honest education.

Vietnam’s education system has long been under-funded by the government. Currently, only 50% schooling costs for students from grades 1-5 are subsidized by the government. All schooling costs for students past grade 6 are at their parents' expense. Monthly salary of teachers at primary and high schools fluctuates between USD 60 to USD 100.

According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, from 2000 to 2006 the state budget for education increased from VND12.6 trillion (US$762 million) a year to VND37.3 trillion ($2.2 billion) a year. State budget assigned for education was considerably increased in the last 2 years. But it accounts for no more than 9% of the total government spending and up to 80% is used for paying teachers’ salary. The remaining 20% reportedly tends to make its way into the “private” pockets of officials in administration sector due to poor management and pervading corruption calamity.

These statistical figures show a very low level of financial and human resource investment in education, reflecting the party and the government's failure to recognize the importance of "the human factor" and the fundamental role of education in socioeconomic development.

In fact, there have been so many problems caused by teachers’ low-incomes. In order to survive, more and more teachers force their students to attend private tutoring classes as a means to supplement their income thus putting more financial pressure on students’parents.

“Private tutoring is found to have significant impact on a student's academic performance,” said Sr. Marie Nguyen from Saigon. “Students who do not attend their private tutoring classes are reportedly discriminated overtly in their classes. In particular, they find themselves hard to understand lessons, and difficult to pass exams. Those who do attend [private tutoring classes] enjoy many privileges including being taught adequately in a much easier way to understand and absorb the lessons, and especially knowing in advance exam questions and answers,” she explained.

The phenomenon had become so common that it triggered constant condemnations from Church leaders. Among them, Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham of the host archdiocese has long been well known for his outspoken critics against “the plague of dishonesty and deception in the education environment.”

Other bishops also share the cardinal’s point of view. “Nowadays, one of the most aching issues for conscientious people is the dishonesty in many areas, even in the environment of education where truth is needed most. Definitely, no one concerned about the future of our country and our people can afford not to pay attention to this situation,” said Vietnamese bishops in the “Statement of Vietnam Conference of Catholic Bishops on current issues” released on Sept. 25, 2008.

Also, “tuition fee for students have become a great burden for their family. With nearly 24 million people in Vietnam living in extreme poverty, the number of children who have never gone to school and the school dropping out rate keep increasing at an alarming rate,” Sr. Marie Nguyen, who is also a Social Psychologist, warned.

“Boys are less likely to drop out of school and the probability of school dropout increases with age and children’s labour participation,” she added, raising concerns over the future of the large number of girls who have been deprived of adequate education.

Furthermore, Vietnamese students regardless of their religious adherence are forced to become members of associations organized by the Communist Party, and to attend meetings at a regular basis. This concerns many parents as family education has suffered great impact because “time budget” of students have been constantly “carved out”.

“We, parents and children, have not much time for each other,” said Long Nguyen, a father of five in Tan Dinh Deanery of the Archdiocese of Saigon. “On one hand,” he explained, “students are too busy taking part in numerous school activities including private tutoring courses, and children association activities. On the other hand, their parents are also too busy struggling to finance their children’s education.”

His eldest son, a Year 12 student, added that his family finds harder and harder to have time to pray together. “I leave home every day at 6:30 AM and return home no earlier than 8 PM, completely exhausted,” he said.

Above all, despites changes in the social economic environment, education in Vietnam remains very hostile to Catholic belief. Vietnam generally makes no distinction between education and propaganda or indoctrination. All three share the common task of training the future generations to be atheist, to obey and to provide fervent support to the ruling of the Communist Party. To serve these purposes, teachers are encouraged to use their lessons as opportunities to attack religions and anything that go against the Party’s policies.

School regulations stipulates that not less than 10 percent of the curriculum should be set aside for learning tenets of Marxism–Leninism at all levels of schools, but, in practice, ideology and politics have been taught and studied in many other subjects, such as Biology, Foreign Languages, Mathematics, and History. Ideology and politics permeates the entire curriculum and school life, completely dominating extracurricular activities. Therefore, Catholic students often find their belief being attacked by not only teachers of ideology and politics, but also those of other subjects.

Scholars have repeatedly criticized that education in Vietnam focuses so much on the protection of the Party that it provides little preparation for children to live in a speedily changing social economic environment, and instructions in general are still oriented toward purely academic subjects and theory divorced from practical applications.

Generally speaking, Catholics have completely been barred from running education services. However, recently, there have been glimmering hopes for Catholic education in Vietnam. In major cities where education is generally seen as a top priority; and foreign languages are highly regarded, Catholic nuns are unofficially allowed to run pre-primary schools provided they are willing to provide a certain degree of discounts for local officials and their relatives, and promise not to teach their students to sing the Rosary in Vietnamese (But, “say it in English is OK”, said a young nun in Saigon, smiling mischievously).

Also, in February of 2009, Loyola University Chicago, the largest Catholic University in USA run by Jesuits, in partnership with the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training, became the first U.S. university to establish a representative office in Vietnam. Through the office Loyola will work in three critical areas of need: English as a Second Language (ESL) education for health-care professionals, leadership programs for Vietnamese professionals and administrators, and study abroad programs for U.S. students. Loyola’s first study abroad offering, the Vietnam Service Learning Program, takes place in the summer of 2009.