Vietnam’s Higher Education System Overload

For Vietnamese youth, a university degree is the entry ticket to the middle class and a promise, often unfulfilled, of an urban professional job. Vietnam’s enrollment in higher education has grown from 162,000 in 1992 to more than 2 million last year, some 25 percent of the nation’s college-age population. Business, finance and foreign trade degrees are prized, a consequence of the Vietnamese economy’s globalization.

To meet demand for diplomas, universities have sprouted like weeds. Study after study reports that curricula are outdated; teachers overmatched and underpaid; and graduates lacking in job-ready skills. ‘We have an excess of low quality universities and a dearth of high quality ones,’ Minister of Education Pham Vu Luan told the nation’s National Assembly late in 2011

Nationwide examinations qualify 20 percent of high school graduates for places in Vietnam’s elite and relatively inexpensive national universities. Most of the rest find berths in provincial universities, vocational colleges or private universities — a sorting mechanism that depends partly on exam scores and partly on family finances.

And, with good grades or bad, the children of Vietnam’s political and business elite typically head to Australia, the United States, United Kingdom or China for higher education.

After debating four drafts, the Assembly passed Vietnam’s first Law on Higher Education in June 2012. The law aims to give university administrators autonomy while relegating the Education Ministry to quality control. In a bid to bring some schools up to world standards, a select handful of national universities will get more, and more predictable, support from the state budget. Private universities, provided that they don’t aim to make a profit, are now eligible for local government support in the form of land grants or subsidized loans. If a substantial number of Vietnam’s 419 (by last count) institutions of higher learning go out of business, the new law implies, so be it.

Though no one seems satisfied with the operation of the new law, it is probably too soon to look for big changes. Administrators have yet to use their new autonomy to offer teaching staff a living wage or better working conditions. As a result, professors continue to put much of their energy into activities that lucratively leverage their prestigious titles (for example, private tutoring, setting up private research institutes or moonlighting as advisors to NGOs or private firms) instead of into teaching.

Science and engineering was once the most popular course of study, supplying staff for state enterprises. A few good schools survive from the era of the five-year plan, in particular Bach Khoa Polytechnic in Hanoi. Even so, there’s a disconnect: Vietnamese college graduates simply don’t have the basic skills sought by multinationals that have committed billions of dollars to manufacturing in Vietnam.

The US chipmaker Intel has responded by promoting initiatives to produce more and better engineers — staff who are incidentally proficient in English, of course. Among its objectives, Intel says, is to ‘train the deans and rectors of the colleges and universities to… be more strategic and forward looking.’

That’s not enough, say Vietnamese graduate students at several Melbourne universities, whose open-ended debate on their nation’s education future has just spawned a perceptive and prescriptive book, Higher Education in Vietnam: Flexibility, Mobility and Practicality in the Global Knowledge Economy. Western ideas are a fine starting point for reform, they say, but higher education must also be faithful to Vietnam’s core values and educational tradition, so that ‘the best of the past continues into the future’.

In Vietnam, it’s assumed that the elite state universities will retain their place at the top of the academic pecking order if only because their students are uniformly bright and ambitious. Public debate focuses on alternative models, in particular on new universities that describe themselves as ‘not for profit,’ schools like Ton Duc Thang (TDTU) and Hoa Sen universities. With substantial support from the Ho Chi Minh City government, these two schools have grown from modest vocational schools to institutions with a reputation for turning out graduates who have no trouble finding good jobs. Both, however, are caught up in controversy.

Aiming to build its reputation for research, Ton Duc Thang University paid a distinguished overseas Vietnamese professor handsomely to launch an academic journal. When copies of the first number arrived from the Springer publishing house, however, they bore no marks of a TDTU connection. The university has sued the professor, providing plenty of titillating copy for Saigon newspapers.

Meanwhile, a stockholder revolt has convulsed ‘non-public’ Hoa Sen University. As required by the 2012 higher education law, Hoa Sen reorganized as a private corporation and distributed shares of stock to its employees. Little did it (or, presumably, the drafters of the new law) imagine that many of the recipients would sell their shares to outsiders. By July, these investors had accumulated enough shares to oust the school’s much-admired founder-rector, with the apparent intention of substituting staff willing to turn a profit for shareholders.

The plan for ‘Fulbright University Vietnam’ (FUV) has also gained public attention.

For a decade now, there have been for-profit branches of foreign universities in Vietnam. RMIT Vietnam, affiliated with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, is the best known. For hefty fees, it teaches a solid business curriculum mainly in English.

Now a group linked to Harvard University aims to take the foreign-affiliated model considerably further. It is raising funds in Vietnam and abroad to endow a full-featured institution on the foundation laid by two decades of teaching economics to civil servants in Saigon. The plan seems to have won strong central government backing, including tacit agreement that FUV can design its curriculum independent of Ministry of Education oversight. The first students will be enrolled in 2016.

The educational system that can support the institutions of a modern Vietnam is still under construction. Critical to the success of that venture will be the energy of the tens of thousands of students returning from study abroad — provided that the system can slot them into positions that fully engage their talents and reward them accordingly.

David Brown, a retired US diplomat and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel, wrote this for East Asia Forum. He is indebted to several young Vietnamese scholars, in particular Thao Vu, for assistance with this article.