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Beyond the Apex:
Toward a System Level Approach to Higher Education Reform in Vietnam
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This publication is a joint collaboration between the New School, the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Fulbright Economics
Teaching Program (FETP) in Ho Chi Minh City, under a contract agreement with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to provide a White Paper on the Future of Higher Education in Vietnam. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations Development Programme, its Executive Board or its Member States, neither does it necessarily reflect the views of the New School, the Harvard Kennedy School or Harvard University.
Beyond the Apex July 2010 Page 2 of 151 Preface This is the second of two white papers produced by The New School and the Vietnam Program at the Harvard Kennedy School‘s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation with funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Vietnam. The first paper, ―The Intangibles of Excellence: Governance and the Quest for a Vietnamese Apex Research University‖ was completed in June 2009 and revised in January 2010; the key findings of this paper are included in an appendix. Both the first paper and the present study draw intellectual inspiration from a path-breaking study conducted ten years ago by the Task Force on Higher Education and Society, a blueribbon commission convened by the World Bank and the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and chaired by Professor Henry Rosovsky of Harvard University and Professor Mamphela Ramphele of Cape Town University. The Task Force was mandated to study the challenges associated with improving higher education in developing countries. Key findings were published in a report in 2000 entitled Peril and Promise: Higher Education in Developing Countries.1 This paper was written by Laura Chirot of The New School and Ben Wilkinson of the Harvard Kennedy School Vietnam Program. The sections on the financing of higher education and expanding access to higher education were written by Dr. Trần Thị Quế Giang of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program. Appendices were contributed by Professor Philip Altbach of Boston College, Dr. Malcolm McPherson of the Harvard Kennedy School, and Professor Võ Tòng Xuân of An Giang University. This paper benefited from the input and feedback of many individuals inside and outside Vietnam. In particular we wish to thank Mr. Bob Kerrey, president of The New School; Mr. Markus Urek of the New School; Professor Henry Rosovsky of Harvard University; Mr. Tom Vallely, Professor David Dapice, and Dr. Jonathan Pincus of the Harvard Vietnam Program; Professor Altbach; Professor Phạm Duy Nghĩa of the University of EconomicsHo Chi Minh City and the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program; Dr. Phạm Thị Lý of Hoa Sen University; Professor Huỳnh Đình Chiến of Hue University; Professor Xuân and many other Vietnamese people who shared their time and insights with us. Research support was provided by Christopher Behrer, Hoàng Bảo Châu, Nguyễn Thị Diễm My, Thuc Minh Nguyen, and Văn Thị Quý. The UNDP provided invaluable intellectual support throughout the research and writing of this paper.
Hereafter Peril and Promise. The full text of the report can be downloaded at the Task Force website:
Executive Summary …Overall, the quality of education and training in our country lags far behind many other countries in the region and the world. This condition was recognized early on. The Party and the State have [adopted] many correct resolutions and policies that have not been implemented seriously. Several years ago, we searched restlessly for solutions, but the situation has changed slowly.
Until now, differing points of view, even diametrically opposed views, have yet to be discussed in order to determine effective policy directions. Persistent weaknesses and inadequacies have had a significant impact on economic, cultural, and social development.
General Võ Nguyên Giáp, VietnamNet, 2007.
A broad consensus has emerged in Vietnam that higher education is in need of deep and wide-reaching reform. This consensus extends from students and their families to public intellectuals and educators to policymakers at the highest levels of government.
Vietnam‘s national competitiveness increasingly depends on skilled human capital, which its higher education system is not delivering. Ever growing numbers of families are choosing to send their children abroad for undergraduate and even high school education in order for them to acquire the skills and credentials needed to succeed in the global economy. Study abroad, however, is only an option for a lucky elite of university-age students. If Vietnam is to achieve growth with equity, tap its best talent, and fulfill its economic potential, it must improve its domestic higher education system.
The Vietnamese government has recognized the gravity of the situation. In 2005, the government issued Resolution 14 (14/2005/NQ-CP), which called ―fundamental and comprehensive renovation of higher education.‖ Since then, the government has released a series of policies and plans calling for reform of nearly every aspect of the system. The state has recently identified management as the core problem in higher education. In April 2009 the Politburo found that ―educational management retains many weaknesses and is the principal cause of many other weaknesses.‖2 In January 2010 the Party commission of the Ministry of Education and Training adopted a resolution on the ―renovation of higher education management‖, which concluded: ―In the time to come, in the face of rapidly rising social demand for education and the continued increase in the number of universities, it will be impossible to improve the quality of education and training without sweeping, vigorous, and path-breaking responses…‖3 In May 2010 the National Assembly completed a investigative report on ―Implementing policy and law on establishing schools, investment, and assuring quality in higher education‖, 4 which exposes gaping holes in the regulatory and legal framework and provides an empirical Conclusion No. 242-TB/TU, 15/4/2009.
Resolution No. 5-NQ/BCSD, 6/1/2010.
Report 329/BC-UBTVQH12, 29/5/2010.
foundation for the government‘s current efforts to improve management, in particular to better define responsibilities among various state agencies and universities.
This is the second of two UNDP-sponsored papers on implementing higher education reform in Vietnam, both aimed at supporting the government‘s ongoing policymaking
process. The first paper addressed a cornerstone goal of the government‘s reform agenda:
to build an apex research university.5 It argued that Vietnam‘s current approach to creating top-tier universities has emphasized inputs such as money and infrastructure at the expense of other, intangible factors that are no less determinative of outcomes— namely, good institutional governance. Merit-based personnel systems, an ironclad commitment to academic freedom, and a high degree of autonomy in operational and academic matters are prerequisites for universities to achieve research and teaching excellence, as is demonstrated by the examples of elite universities in China and India.
These principles of governance are applicable all academic institutions, but they are most critical at research universities, which link countries to global knowledge systems and strive to attract and train a nation‘s best scholars and scientists.
This second paper looks beyond the apex to suggest a system-level policy framework for designing and implementing a modern, expanded, quality system of higher education in Vietnam. Our analysis is motivated by the pressing, complex questions confronting higher education policymakers today: what is the tradeoff between expanding enrollment and improving educational quality? What is the role of the market in higher education?
How can universities and colleges equip students with the skills to support Vietnam‘s development? How are standards enforced in a system of nearly two million students and four hundred universities and colleges, and can decentralization help? What will drive the transition from a state controlled system of higher education to a state supervised system of autonomous institutions, as conceived by Resolution 14?6 These questions are the crux any system-level reform effort.
It is often said that Vietnam has an advantage in being a late mover in its socioeconomic reforms because it is able to learn from international experience. This is certainly true in higher education. For many countries it has taken decades of concerted effort to build the diverse network of institutions needed to deliver both mass access and excellence. Higher education reform is a long process, and Vietnam needs to base its own reforms on a strong understanding of how reforms have proceeded in other countries. Policy documents have already identified many of the elements of systemic reform that The Intangibles of Excellence: Governance and the Quest for a Vietnamese Apex Research University, June 2009. Available at http://ash.harvard.edu/extension/ash/docs/Apex.pdf.
Resolution 14 set three key goals for transforming the relationship between the state and universities:
―Transfer public universities to a mechanism of autonomous operations‖; ―End line ministry ownership [of universities], create a mechanism to represent state ownership in public universities‖; ―Focus state management on: building and directing the implementation of development strategies; developing the quality assurance and accreditation system; perfecting the legal environment; increasing oversight and investigation; macro-regulation of higher education; and meeting the country‘s human resources needs for every era.‖
international experience suggests are important, including autonomy, strong accreditation schemes, and community and industry participation. This paper seeks to enhance that understanding by drawing on international experience in a range of settings that are relevant to Vietnam‘s case.
The Ministry of Education and Training has already taken some concrete steps to begin the process of reform. It has increased transparency requirements, particularly through the Three Disclosures policy, and has delegated greater control to universities over some financial and operational decisions. Education systems and institutions change slowly, and it will take time to see and evaluate the impact of these initial steps. We observe, however, that reform efforts generally emphasize campaigns and short workshops for university administrators, rather than the deep structural transformations to management and personnel policies that are needed to achieve lasting institutional change. Meanwhile, the alarming reality is that the system is developing in a different direction, as has been observed by Vietnamese public opinion and affirmed in the National Assembly‘s 2010 investigation into higher education.7 This paper finds that the prevailing trends in Vietnamese higher education are commercialization—manifested by crowded public university classrooms, revenue-generating part-time programs, and profit-seeking private institutions—and decentralization, in which responsibility is being shifted to local governments and universities before appropriate accountability mechanisms have been put in place to ensure the public interest.
Vietnam needs a workable strategy based on valid assumptions to guide the making of specific policies on issues from accreditation to the role for private universities. Yet, despite the Ministry of Education and Training‘s drafting and redrafting of extensive strategy documents, this paper finds a wide gap between Vietnam‘s objectives and the policy actions needed to achieve them in a number of key areas. Below are the paper‘s main conclusions for Vietnamese higher education policymakers.
First, a defining characteristic of a well-functioning mass system of higher education is a clear hierarchy of higher and vocational educational institutions oriented toward meeting diverse student and labor market demands. Research universities sit at the top of the differentiated system, filling society‘s need for top tier science and scholarship.
Underneath, a network of two, three, and four year college and university programs— differentiated by mission, not by quality—provides access to large numbers of students.
International experience demonstrates that the key to expanding enrollment to mass levels is to channel most new students into professionally-oriented institutions, often in community or technical colleges. Different types of schools are linked together into a coherent, integrated system that allows successful students to transfer up to higher levels.
Differentiation reduces the waste and redundancy caused by the proliferation of new universities, and eases pressure on public budgets.
See ―Universities are chaotic, nobody is responsible‖ [―Đại học lộn xộn, không ai chịu trách nhiệm‖] Tuổi Trẻ, 8-6-2010.