Policies, not funds, stymie development of universities

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Students sit the entrance examination at the FPT University

Vietnam does not lack funds to develop its universities, only know-how, former Deputy Minister of Education and Training Tran Xuan Nhi tells Vietweek, adding the country should look to private investment.

Vietweek: There is not a single Vietnamese school in Asia's 100 top universities as ranked in [the UK's] Times Higher Education. What do you think about this?

Tran Xuan Nhi: The number of Vietnamese universities has increased to more than 400 since the first one, the Imperial Academy, was established more than 1,000 years ago. We are happy with the rapid increase in the number of universities. However, it is very sad that a country with a population of 90 million does not have any university in the list. Singapore and Thailand, which have much smaller populations than Vietnam, have highly ranked schools.

Our universities are not highly ranked because of poor quality. The Times Higher Education list ranks universities based on teaching, research, knowledge transfer, and international outlook. However, our universities are too weak in terms of science research. We have just a few science research works published in international journals. 

State investment in scientific research is too small, just dozens of millions of dong (US$1 equals VND21,000) per project. The investment is not enough.


We do not have enough funds to develop schools, so we should strengthen [privatization of the education]. The fact is we have not.


Meanwhile, it is easy for people to get a PhD by bribing or plagiarizing from old PhD theses. This has not encouraged scientists to undertake research, hindering universities' development.

Another reason is that the education ministry does not allow universities to determine their issues themselves, so the knowledge of tens of thousands of their staff has not been utilized. Now the development of universities depends mainly on the knowledge of ministry personnel.

A good university should have good facilities, qualified teachers, and good treatment for teachers. But the government's policies for education sector staff are not good; their salaries are not enough for living. So they cannot do their work properly. It is necessary to comprehensively reform the education system.

Do we lack the resources to improve the quality of universities?

We don't lack money but we don't know how to improve the quality. We organize two exams, high-school graduation and university entrance, in just one month, which costs trillions of dong. The ministry can abolish the university entrance exams to cut cost. It should instead improve the quality of the high school graduation exam, and universities can use those results as a basis for enrolling students.

Because of the limited funds available, we should have sought investment from people. But we have not done it properly. Singapore has over 100 universities, but only 6-7 of them are public ones, the rest are private. Some 20 percent of Vietnamese universities are private. To ensure there are enough funds for developing universities, it is planned to increase the number of private universities to 40 percent and then 60 percent. However, we have not facilitated their development. The private schools have not got any government support in terms of enrollment, land, and access to funds.

Our policies do not enable schools to improve their quality. The global trend is for universities to expand student enrollment, identify good students during the training process, and tighten up to ensure the quality of their graduates. Thus, schools have to make great efforts to improve their quality and protect their brand name.

In Vietnam, universities are not allowed to determine admissions by themselves. The entrance exams are costly and difficult for students, but quality is not strictly controlled. Therefore universities' products [graduates] are of poor quality. We should strictly implement the Education Law, which allows schools themselves to determine their admission criteria.

Does Vietnam need to rank its universities?

Yes, we should evaluate and categorize universities. We need to do it to facilitate their development. Different universities have different missions. Thus, scientific research universities need more professors, more Ph.Ds, and more investment than those mainly focused on training human resources for localities.

We now have [universities teaching a bit of everything], so we have not categorized universities. The current method will not facilitate their development. It is impossible for all of our more than 400 universities to develop into the world's top schools.

We should categorize universities so that there are ones that focus mainly on science research and others on training human resources to meet local demand.

We could pour money into five to seven schools to develop them into top ones in the world. To this end, we should have policies that encourage investment in non-public schools to attract private investment.

Is Vietnam's dream of having a university in the world's top 200 by 2020 too ambitious?

If we are determined and have the right policies, we can achieve the target. The Vietnamese possess a traditional fondness for learning, so the important thing is that we have good policies to develop schools. We do not have enough funds to develop schools, so we should strengthen [privatization]. The fact is we have not.

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