Vietnamese parents must stop pushing their children into degrees they hate

Schools in Vietnam need to recruit careers advisers – but their advice should be aimed primarily at parents, says Matthew Edward

November 2, 2019
A stressed asian student
Source: iStock

Two hands crept up, after a few seconds of hesitation, when I asked my class of 25 Vietnamese student journalists if they wanted to work in the media. Some time later, a student at a private test-prep centre told me that as a young teen she had wanted to be a psychiatrist, but her parents dismissed the value of a psychology degree and pushed her instead into a logistics major that she found mind-numbing. Meanwhile, mental health has recently become a pressing concern in Vietnam, leading to increased demand and salaries for psychiatrists.

Time and again I hear the same story from Vietnamese teens and undergraduates: their studies align poorly to their interests because they were chosen by their parents with little, if any, discussion. Parents in Vietnam can compel compliance from their children to a much greater degree than in the West, and often that means forcing a 17-year-old interested in therapy into a “guaranteed” major such as engineering. But these majors are far from a sure thing when a young person lacks interest.

Where are the careers counsellors to help schoolchildren devise their own life plans? They simply don’t exist in public schools, according to Hieu Le, founder of GAP Institute: possibly Ho Chi Minh City’s first career counselling outfit. Universities do employ careers counsellors, but they are ineffective; only 7 per cent of students find theirs effective.

The sparse data that exist in Vietnam appear to back up Le’s views. A 2011 survey conducted by the VNU – University of Social Sciences and Humanities, for example, found that 58 per cent of graduates did not know how to find a job, and 27 per cent expressed frustration that their major did not match or qualify them for the careers they wanted. Le also estimates, based on his experience, that about 30 per cent of university students have considered changing majors, even though Vietnamese universities make it quite difficult to switch programmes or transfer to other institutions, often forcing students to start over as first-years.

Given the pressure to stick with courses they lack interest in, Vietnamese graduates keep falling into careers they hate with no one to catch them. But even if careers advisors were more common, they would be ineffective if they did not advise parents as well as students. That means training would-be careers counsellors not just in teen psychology and conducting aptitude tests, but in understanding parents’ concerns, thought processes and ingrained stereotypes around issues such as job prestige and salary. Misinformation runs rampant in Vietnam, and parents often buy into the deluge of nonsense found on popular parenting message boards.

Empathy matters, too. Parents do not force major or career choices on their children to make them miserable. Several cultural factors underpin the status quo, and changing these will not be a simple task. Whereas North American parents usually plan to retire using a 401(k), home equity or a modest investment portfolio, Vietnamese parents only have their children.

Vietnam also remains a very status-conscious country, and a child who grows up to become a psychiatrist will not earn his family the same respect as his sister who works in marketing. A college-bound Vietnamese youth constantly hears relatives’ voices reminding them of this.

Vietnamese universities, public schools, and private sector need to recognise that career choice is a family affair, and plan accordingly. Inspiring students is great, but it is only by informing parents with simple, actionable careers information that studying will become a more rewarding experience for Vietnamese youth.

Matthew D. Edward is a teacher trainer and educational technology consultant in Hanoi.

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