Vietnam’s higher education system, having expanded dramatically over the past 20 years, is now committed to improving quality. The task is challenging because the government is currently experiencing difficulty in adequately funding public universities and colleges, which form the backbone of the national higher education system. Progress is being made, though there remains a considerable variation in quality across the higher education system.
In general, public universities that are more research-oriented are getting more public recognition for the quality of their achievements.
The main vehicle for improving quality within the higher education system is the national quality assurance and accreditation framework. This framework — the development of which has been greatly influenced by the ASEAN University Network’s (AUN) quality assessment guidelines — requires all higher education institutions in Vietnam to have their own internal quality assurance units, and to achieve quality accreditation by 2020 through any one of four national quality accreditation centres approved by the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET).
Three of these centres are attached to large public universities, in which case the institutions concerned must obtain accreditation through one of the other centres.
The more research-oriented universities in Vietnam have had a strong incentive to make a commitment to improving their quality. These are the public universities wishing to be selected by the government as belonging to an elite group of research universities.
These institutions are also conscious of the need for them to obtain regional and eventually global recognition for their teaching and research. One of these universities is the Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City (VNU-HCMC).
VNU-HCMC has invested heavily over recent years in boosting its research profile. An important part of its strategy is engagement with some of the world’s leading research universities. The university is, for example, currently implementing a CDIO (Conceive, Design, Implement and Operate) model for research mobilisation that has been borrowed from leading international universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Nanyang Polytechnic. The university is also supporting an expanding number of international research partnerships and supervisory collaborations with the strongest research universities in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as globally. This research-led approach to improving quality is yielding impressive outcomes. VNU-HCMC was recently listed among the top 750 universities on the QS global rankings of universities. Together with the VNU in Hanoi, VNU-HCMC is now also ranked among the top 150 universities in Asia.
The task of getting all higher education institutions in Vietnam accredited for the quality of their operations is, however, proceeding very slowly. By April 2018, only 95 out of 235 universities and academies had been accredited and certified to have met the national quality standards. There is, in other words, a long list of institutions that may not yet be in the proper state to achieve quality accreditation, and this includes many private-sector institutions, for which teaching is their only focus. A possible weakness in the government’s approach could be that it has been reluctant to clarify the repercussions of failing to obtain quality accreditation and certification by 2020.
There are many challenges facing the higher education system in Vietnam. Only three will be identified and discussed here. The first is that all public higher education institutions in Vietnam are struggling financially because of government budget cuts. Though the national economy is expanding rapidly, with GNI per capita almost trebling over the decade up to 2016, the level of public debt has also been increasing. Therefore, public-sector universities and colleges are being forced to become more financially self-reliant. Indeed, there are now 23 public universities that have agreed to be completely self-reliant financially in exchange for a much larger entitlement to be institutionally autonomous. The lack of sufficient public funds is adversely affecting the commitment of talented young PhD graduates in remaining in Vietnam’s higher education system — where the financial rewards are poor; where there is too much emphasis on teaching relative to research; and where funding arrangements for obtaining research grants are complicated and burdensome.
UNESCO estimates that in 2018 there would be about 70,000 Vietnamese students studying abroad, mainly for research higher degrees. According to survey data released recently by a private human resource company, as many 60% of these students would prefer not to return to Vietnam once their studies are completed.
The second is that the level of academic staff qualifications across the higher education system is poor by international standards. Only 23% of all academic staff members in Vietnam hold a PhD qualification. Even this figure may convey a more positive impression of the situation than is warranted. Staff members holding PhDs are disproportionately employed in the larger public research-oriented universities, and so most universities and colleges across the system have relatively small proportions of PhD-qualified staff members. In addition, the current national figure is almost twice what it was 10 years ago, which means that many, if not most, PhD graduates currently employed across the system are relatively inexperienced as researchers, having obtained their qualification only recently. As a consequence, the number of international peer reviewed journal articles coming from Vietnam is low when compared with levels for Thailand and Malaysia, for instance. Furthermore, much of what is being published comes from a very small number of universities and academies.
The third is that the private sector of higher education in Vietnam is becoming increasingly marginalised.
Though this sector accounts for about 16% of all higher education students, many private-sector universities and colleges are struggling to achieve the enrolment numbers in order to remain viable. These institutions, which rely heavily on part-time and casual academic appointments to teach their programmes, are often publicly criticised for their poor academic standards. Their poor reputation is at odds with the high quality of academic programmes at some private-sector universities, such as RMIT Vietnam and FPT University. These high-achieving private universities charge very high tuition fees, enabling these institutions to achieve a high international standard of teaching and curriculum.
Vietnam, like China, Korea, Japan and Singapore, has a Confucian culture in which educational attainments are highly valued and widely respected. It is only a matter of time before Vietnam joins these other countries in terms of having a high-quality and high achieving system of universities and colleges. For the moment, though, progress is being achieved at what for many is an agonisingly slow pace.
LE NGUYEN DUC CHINH
Le Nguyen Duc Chinh is Deputy Dean at the School of Medicine, Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City.