Vietnam: Higher Education Reform and World-Class Universities


Associate Professor Binh Tran-Nam

Recent calls for education reform in Vietnam have become increasingly more public, more organized and more intensive. A typical example of this movement is the Education Reform Seminar headed by Professor Hoang Tuy, an internationally renowned Vietnamese mathematician. While serious problems can be found at all stages of the Vietnam's education system, reform discussions have typically been focused on the higher education level. This is easy to comprehend for a number of reasons. Firstly, the majority of Vietnamese individuals who engage in the education reform debate are university academics. Secondly, the university is the final and most visible stage of the education process. Thirdly, higher education is, relative to the region, perhaps the weakest stage of education in Vietnam. Fourthly, and most importantly, university reform represents possibly the most viable short-cut education reform strategy from a cost-benefit perspective.

After former PM Phan Van Khai's visit to Harvard University in June 2005, the term 'world-class' university, in spite of its ambiguous meaning, has appeared at regular frequency in the Vietnamese press. Following this visit, the Vietnamese Government invited the Vietnam Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government to prepare a proposal for developing top-tier universities in Vietnam. This proposal for discussion was submitted to the PM in October 2005 by Professor Thomas Vallely, the director of the Harvard Vietnam Program. Independently, a more detailed and comprehensive plan for establishing one or two high-quality universities in Vietnam by a group of six overseas Vietnamese intellectuals (including the author) was also presented to the PM at roughly the same time.

In February 2006, the Vietnamese Government formally set up a Working Group in charge of the preparation of a plan to establish world-class universities in Vietnam. Following the report of this Working Group, former PM Khai issued, approximately a year after his Harvard visit, Decision No. 145/2006/Q -TTg setting out the Government's guidelines and directions for the construction of world-class universities in Vietnam. According to this Decision's timetable, the Working Group is expected to present the preferred model of a world-class university to the PM in early 2007. The main points in the draft proposal of the Working Group include:

i) The Government's initial funding will be about US$100 million over three years; ii) Government funding will constitute a major part of the university's recurrent budget, especially in the first 10 years; iii) The cooperation of leading international universities, especially those in the US, will be sought.

iv) Academic staff will consist of leading teachers/researchers in Vietnam and a sizeable proportion of academic staff will be world-class overseas scholars, including overseas Vietnamese.

v) The university will offer degrees at bachelor, master and doctoral levels. In the first five years, total student numbers will range between 1,000 and 1,500 in each year.

vi) The university will initially focus on a small number of strategic areas relating to the natural sciences and industry. Courses will be taught in Vietnamese and English.

Sadly, however from the way in which 'world-class' is defined, it is apparent that past errors are being repeated during the planning phase of this project. The first obvious problem relates to the announced time frame. The draft proposal suggests that Vietnam would be able to build a university that is internationally competitive within 10 years. This is exactly the sort of over-optimistic and unachievable time target that was announced when the National Universities in Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City were first set up by merging various local universities. This historical lesson must be learnt and what is important now is to articulate a time frame that is consistent with the fact that no Vietnamese university is seriously ranked within ASEAN, let alone East Asia. A more realistic and achievable time frame would be 10-15 years to become the top university in Vietnam, 20-30 years to be ranked in the top 10 of ASEAN universities, etc.

The second and more serious problem is concerned with the construction of the world-class university. Is this going to be a newly built university with new staff or is it going to be formed by combining and upgrading some existing, reputed universities and research institutes? The common sense approach is to build a new university because (a) the physical facilities and infrastructure of existing institutions are relatively small, outdated and separated; (b) the organizational structure and management at existing universities are too rigid, (c) there are too many vested interests in the current system, and (d) it would be too difficult to deal with those existing staff who do not qualify to work for this world-class university. This prevailing view is confirmed in the Working Group's draft proposal, which indicates that a world-class university will be built on a new campus of 100 ha. However, in a subsequent media interview, Mr Tran Xuan Gia, the then Head of the Working Group, indicated that the construction of a new campus is only a possibility, not a certainty. This situation again demonstrates the inertia of the Vietnamese university system and the influence of certain interest groups within the sector.

The third problem is concerned with the role of the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) in the leadership, organization, management and monitoring of the proposed university. For a variety of historical reasons, the MOET currently wields considerable power over curricular and personnel matters in the structure of Vietnam's education system, even at university level. It is well known that academic excellence tends to be positively associated with university autonomy and academic freedom. Thus, the development of a world-class university in Vietnam necessarily calls for a more decentralized governance model in which the university enjoys a much higher degree of autonomy than now. Such a model of decentralization is by no means guaranteed under the Working Party's draft proposal. In fact, since the establishment of a world-class university can be regarded as an experiment, one may even argue for a more extreme model in which the university is practically independent of the MOET (this means university funding must come directly from the Government); and, reports directly to the PM.

There are of course other relevant issues such as whether a one-off grant of US$100 million is adequate for one world-class university, or how does the new university attract a sufficient number of world-class staff. However, these problems are less serious than those discussed above and, thus, are more surmountable.

WATCHPOINT: Whether an entirely new 'world-class' university is built or not will indicate the strength of Vietnam's commitment to higher education reform.


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