I went to a friends graduation from the National University of Laos (NUOL) a few weeks ago.
Education here, at all levels, is slowly rebuilding after decades of communist isolation from the global community. I don't think it was ever of a terribly high standard so it is trying to build from a very low base. During the Communist era it was really only the Temple schools, Sangha, that kept educational standards as high as they could.
The Government makes much noise about improving educational standards but also complains that it lacks the funds to make significant advances.
Primary education is compulsory and mostly free but after that it is pay, pay, pay. Despite that the teachers are poorly trained and even worse paid. Primary teachers are amongst the poorest in the community earning just $1-$2 a day. In many rural areas they regularly go unpaid when Provincial authorities complain they have run out of money.
City schools are not much better with many teachers only surviving by taking second jobs as waiters at night or moonlighting as private tutors for extra pay. I am told there is even a level of petty corruption as students fear being "failed" if they do not give the teachers "gifts". Teachers even help students in the public exams by pointing out the answers to those students that can afford it.
Entrance to NUoL is competitive and a percentage are admitted on scholarships through public exams but many also "buy" there way in. You can see the affluence of these students as they pull out their mobile phones or digital cameras to photograph me when I walk around the campus.
I meet many students around the city in bars and restaurants. It seems a favourite activity is to find a farang and try to get them to "sponsor" them in their studies. Fifty or a hundred dollars a month is not much for the farang but goes a long way with the genuinely poor students.
Private education flourishes here. There are several big international schools and colleges that provide secondary and business management courses. It is not uncommon for students to be enrolled in both the NUoL and a private business college. A Chinese University has just announced they are setting up a local Campus as a feeder into their system.
Tertiary education here is also much more authoritarian.
I was really staggered at the number of family and well wishers at the graduation. I knew that it was a big deal with the Laos but I really had no idea just how big. There must have been more than 30 000 people there. The streets for kilometres leading up to the Campus was lined with stalls selling flowers, which is a traditional gift for the graduand.
Students, at both private and public colleges have to wear a uniform on campus and participate in some sort of military parades and activities. This has lead to an amusing situation at my local waterhole ... the Crazy Cricket. One of the bargirls dresses in ordinary fashionable street clothes for work, then changes into her school uniform to go off to study, and then returns later still in uniform to serve behind the bar again. You sometimes see students in uniform drinking in the bars (although I dont think they are supposed to be in uniform) and you have to keep telling yourself that they are probably in their twenties and quite legally there.
At the same time, the College or University is much more authoritarian than our western institutions.
My young friend was one of 5000 graduates at the NUOL ceremony last month. As he lined up to receive his certificate he was told by one of the Professors that his hair was too long (it barely touched his collar) and he would not be allowed to get his document unless he had a haircut. So he had to rush out, have his haircut and get back in time. Which he managed to do.
Its all a bit of a head spin.