In my blogging over the past couple of weeks, I have mentioned several areas of educational nonconsumption in Vietnam. These are areas where the alternative is nothing, so they are opportunities for disruptive innovations to plant themselves, improve, and transform gradually the education system in Vietnam.

To sum up, here are a few areas that offer the opportunity for disruptive innovations.

Because the required national curriculum in Vietnam for secondary and high school is so broad—13 to 14 subjects—there is little ability for public schools to offer extracurricular classes that students might want to take. Extra classes therefore are one area of nonconsumption.

As I’ve written, the after-school market also has nonconsumption where entrepreneurs are entering.

Similarly, English is an area where Vietnamese schools struggle to find competent English teachers—which makes it essentially an area of nonconsumption for many schools. This disproportionately affects rural schools. In one rural school I visited, for example, the English teacher used Microsoft Word to read passages in English to the students.

In the arena of higher education, there is limited capacity within Vietnam colleges and universities, which means there are nonconsumers of at least a college age who could use further skills and education but for whom there is no viable option. This applies in particular to adult learners who are seeking to level up their skills while working, as well as to students who graduate from college or university with skills that are less relevant to employers than they had hoped.

Schooling is compulsory in Vietnam through secondary school—meaning through grade 9. As a result, many students—around 20 percent in some provinces—don’t continue to high school. Some of these students will go right into jobs; others into vocational programs; but many need further education for which there is no option today.

The story is bleaker than this, particularly in the rural areas that are populated by Vietnam’s ethnic minorities.

My first day in Vietnam I had the chance to meet Le Thi Bich Hanh, an education manager at Plan International in Vietnam. Hanh described how Plan works to help marginalized children across Vietnam, especially those from ethnic minority groups in mountainous regions, access an education that would be otherwise unavailable.

Le Thi Bich Hanh, an education manager at Plan International in Vietnam, with Michael B. Horn. Photo by Tracy Kim Horn
Le Thi Bich Hanh, an education manager at Plan International in Vietnam, with Michael B. Horn. Photo by Tracy Kim Horn

Plan has educational programs in 10 Vietnamese provinces that focus on providing community-based services and parenting help—once again, teaching parents how to parent is an important emphasis and arguably an area of nonconsumption; building capacity for teachers to adapt the Vietnamese national curriculum to local contexts; and building preschool educational opportunities.

Although Plan’s focus is on children 0 to 8 years old—and preschool and early childcare are certainly areas of nonconsumption throughout Vietnam—Hanh said that absenteeism in primary schools is a significant problem in the areas in which it works, which constitutes another area of nonconsumption. For example, most primary school students will go home for lunch. Home will often be relatively far away, as these schools serve students from many different villages. Even though the lunch breaks are long in rural areas, many students don’t come back afterward. Likewise, during festivals or harvest, these students will often not attend school.

This does not tell the whole story of nonconsumption here though. When we visited Sapa in the mountainous northwest of Vietnam at the end of our trip—an area similar to where Plan works, but where it does not have programs today—we saw several schools. One of our local tour guides told us that some of these schools only have five to nine students in a given class. The reason? Students start dropping out as early as primary school. The national curriculum is often not at all relevant to their economic opportunities and is not helpful to their lives. To pay for the school uniforms that the government requires is a big burden for many of these families. Consequently many students and families rationally conclude that school is not for them.


Teachers in Sapa work to beautify a school.
Teachers in Sapa work to beautify a school. Photo by Tracy Kim Horn

Despite primary and secondary schooling being compulsory, it is not enforced, and indeed, one of our tour guides had dropped out of school early. Adapting the national curriculum to make it relevant represents an area of nonconsumption, as does serving many of these children who drop out so young. Our tour guide was interested in continuing education; certain forms of it could have been helpful to her in her job and life. One could imagine a tour company creating an adjacent blended-learning center, which would offer tour guides flexible hours and training as a job benefit. In this way, perhaps it would not have to register initially with the Ministry of Education and Training and thereby would have the flexibility to offer skills relevant to the tour guides’ lives—both now and in the future. Over 90 percent of the villagers in Sapa apparently have cell phones, and many of them are connected in at least a limited way to the Internet, so there are opportunities for innovation.

This relates to one more area of nonconsumption in Vietnam, which is students who have disabilities. For example, hearing impaired students have a difficult time learning in Vietnamese schools. The reason is that the national curriculum is not customized for their different needs. Universal design for learning appears to be absent. Online learning and social networking are a much better fit I was told for this population, but because these are generally not options today, over 50 percent of hearing impaired students drop out in secondary school. Roughly 5 million people in Vietnam have a disability that limits their ability to work and makes them dependent on someone else—either the family or the government. And it’s much harder to be designated as having a disability in Vietnam compared to the United States. Creating disruptive innovations to help serve these populations—and all of these areas of nonconsumption—seem both important and rich opportunities to begin a broader transformation of the education system.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.