Vietnam is a densely populated country of 95.5 million1 on the Indochina Peninsula that has been historically separated between north and south until its reunification in 1975 at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Vietnam is an ethnically diverse country with over 50 minority groups, though Vietnamese is the dominant national language. Though culturally influenced by France’s colonial rule dating back to the 19th century, French is not widely spoken in Vietnam today, but Vietnam remains a member of the International Organisation of La Francophonie, where it maintains cultural connections with France. Vietnam has enjoyed one of the fastest growing economies over the past 30 years following the market reforms under Doi Moi, launched in 1986, with real GDP growth of 7% in 2019.2 Approximately 70% of its population is under the age of 35,3 making for a demographic dividend that has strongly benefitted Vietnam’s booming manufacturing sector and has also substantially boosted the potential demand for higher education. However, Vietnam has still yet to capitalise on the masses of young people graduating from its general education system, showing a “disconnect” between general and higher education output.4
Vietnam, particularly its north, has a history of cultural influence from China, from which it adopted elements of the Confucian tradition and which influenced Vietnam’s perspective on the value of education. Since independence from France and reunification, Vietnam’s higher education system has followed the model of the former Soviet Union, and has been a highly centralised state-run system managed by three government ministries: the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET), the main body responsible for regulating HEIs, forming curricula and implementation of national accreditation; the Ministry of Science and Technology, which distributes government funds to public research projects; and the Ministry of Labour, Invalids, and Social Affairs (MOLISA), which manages its TVET institutions.5
Since the 1990s, Vietnam’s higher education system has expanded massively in tandem with economic reforms and shifts away from the Soviet-style university system. The 1993 Prime Ministerial decree paved the way for multidisciplinary education in HEIs and the introduction of private HEIs. National universities remain the most prestigious in the country, and while private universities have grown significantly, there remains a strong stigma in Vietnam that private universities are second-tier and cater to students who could not secure a place in a public university.6 Public universities still outnumber their private counterparts today, with 171 public and 65 private universities in 2017. Among public universities, 21 are designated by the government as “key” universities with roles in national development. Vietnam’s 2005 Higher Education Law defined all universities in Vietnam as either public, private, or “people-founded” run by NGOs or other unionised organisations,7 which are ineligible for government funding. The growth of Vietnam’s middle class has also been supportive to the growth of its higher education sector and demand for quality education. Vietnam had just over 1.7 million tertiary-level students in 2017.8
In 2012, the Vietnamese government passed the Higher Education Law. It aimed to increase university autonomy and reduce public universities’ reliance on government funding, which accounted for approximately 60% of their revenues, while the other 40% came from tuition fees and other sources.9 Full implementation of autonomy, however, has been challenging, due to political reasons and management strategies relying on governing boards. The Higher Education Law was updated in 2018 to introduce more modern governance mechanisms, and to remove excessive bureaucracy and overlapping decrees from different ministries. MOET hopes that more public HEIs will eventually go fully autonomous under these changes. There are currently 19 fully “autonomous” public universities, all of which have foregone direct government subsidy for autonomy.10
Vietnam’s higher education system is generally underfunded by international standards, and as the government expects more funding to come from the private sector, proportions of government funding for tertiary education continue to shrink. In 2016, expenditures on tertiary education only drew 6.1% of the total education budget, or 0.33% of GDP, a significantly lower figure than its ASEAN peers.11 On a per student basis, Vietnam only spent USD316 per higher education student in 2015. In 2017, tuition fees made up a significantly higher proportion of public HEI revenue at 55%, while government subsidy was at 22%. Public-private partnerships, which are common strategies for funding gaps in higher education, remain challenging in Vietnam due to high regulatory barriers.
While the costs of university in Vietnam are low by international standards, tuition and fees at public universities still come at a significant cost to many Vietnamese. University tuition is broad in range, as public universities that are subsidised can charge as little as USD250; unsubsidised HEIs can charge around USD700 for a social sciences degree and as much as USD1,700 for a medical degree. Private universities are out of the reach of many in Vietnam, as it is estimated that the cost of supporting a full-time student in a private HEI is approximately 60% of an average Vietnamese household’s income.12 Within the private HEI space, foreign universities have also become active in Vietnam, which started in 2000 with the opening of RMIT University in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Universities that are either foreign-owned or provide foreign curricula, such as RMIT, can charge tuition in excess of USD13,000. Certain categories of students are fully or partially exempt from paying tuition at public HEIs, such as those with disabilities, and those enrolled in teacher education programmes,13 of which there were over 44,000 in 2017.14
Vietnamese authorities have also made efforts to internationalise Vietnam’s higher education system by expanding English-language education and strengthening ties with foreign institutions in countries like France, Germany, Australia and the United States. Three Vietnamese universities have membership in the ASEAN University Network,15 and some have even established ties with institutions in the Philippines as a means of internationalising via the introduction of English curricula.16 A sizeable number of Vietnamese students also study in foreign universities in the region, one of the most notable being Japan, which hosted nearly 35,000 Vietnamese university students in 2017, a number that has tripled since 2013.17 On the other hand, Vietnam hosts a far smaller 7,250 international students, an overwhelming 83% of whom come from neighbouring Laos, which has a history of sending students to Vietnam via their shared colonial heritage.
There are several private universities that were established as collaborative efforts with Vietnam, such as the Vietnamese-German University (VGU) and Vietnam France University (also known as the University of Science and Technology Hanoi). Also several Vietnamese public universities have opened joint programmes with foreign universities: the Foreign Trade University hosts an array of joint programmes with universities in Australia, the UK, Japan, Taiwan, France and others, and offers business language training in Chinese, Japanese and French in addition to programmes taught in English.18
Vietnam has emerged relatively unscathed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with less than 50 deaths as of January 2021. However, the pandemic and the sudden imperative for e-learning and web-based resources have exposed Vietnam’s lack of development in online infrastructure in higher education. A strong attachment to in-person education and weak demand for online resources in foreign languages has hindered past government attempts to encourage online education.19 Vietnamese universities’ internationalisation practices and ties with foreign universities, who conduct classes in foreign languages, may be the centre of where Vietnam’s shift to e-learning is the most pronounced.
Zane Kheir recently graduated with a PhD in Comparative Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.
United Nations Institute for Statistics, “Viet Nam”, accessed January 29, 2021, http://uis.unesco.org/en/country/vn.
World Bank, “The World Bank in Vietnam: Overview”, last modified October 6, 2020, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/vietnam/overview.
World Bank, “Improving the Performance of Higher Education in Vietnam: Strategic Priorities and Policy Options”, April 27, 2020, https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/33681/Improving-the-Performance-of-Higher-Education-in-Vietnam-Strategic-Priorities-and-Policy-Options.pdf.
Ly Thi Pham and Martin Hayden, “Higher Education Systems and Institutions, Vietnam”, in The International Encyclopedia of Higher Education Systems and Institutions, eds. Pedro Nuno Teixeira and Jung-Cheol Shin et al. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2020).
Quang Chau, “Fighting the Stigma of ‘Second-Tier’ Status: The Emergence of ‘Semi-Elite’ Private Higher Education in Vietnam”, in Higher Education in Market-Oriented Socialist Vietnam: New Players, Discourses and Practices, in eds. Le Ha Phan and Doan Ba Ngoc (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
WERN, “Education in Vietnam”, November 8, 2017, https://wenr.wes.org/2017/11/education-in-vietnam
Ministry of Education and Training, “Statistics of Vietnam Education and Training 2018”, https://en.moet.gov.vn/reports-and-statistics/Pages/Sectoral-staticstics.aspx?ItemID=3923.
Quang Chau, 2020.
World Bank, “Improving the Performance of Higher Education in Vietnam: Strategic Priorities and Policy Options”, 2020.
Ngoc Anh Nguyen, “The Financial Allocations for Public Universities in Vietnam: The Recent Situation and Recommendations”, Conference Proceedings from “Higher Education Financing Reforms”, Ministry of Finance, Hanoi, November 2012 (in Vietnamese), cited in Quang Chau, 2020.
Quang Chau, 2020.
Ministry of Education and Training, 2017.
ASEAN University Network, “AUN Members”, accessed January 29, 2021, http://www.aunsec.org/aunmemberuniversities.php.
Le Ha Phan, “Higher Education, English, and the idea of ‘the West’: Globalizing and Encountering a Global South Regional University”, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 39, no. 5: 782–797.
BMI, “BMI Market Report Vietnam”, accessed January 29, 2021, https://bmiglobaled.com/Market-Reports/Vietnam/student-recruitment.
Foreign Trade University, “International Students Admission 2020”, May 14, 2020, http://english.ftu.edu.vn/admissions/undergraduate-students/joint-programs.html.