Raising the stakes

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Vietnam's target of establishing four universities of international standard by 2020 is coming into focus despite a barrage of criticism.

Vietnam will invest US$400 million in loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank over the next 10 or so years to create three new universities of "international standard" and enhance a fourth to the same level.

The three newcomers will be located in Hanoi, Da Nang and Can Tho cities. The other is the Vietnamese-German University, a partnership between the two nations' governments that started up last year.

They will be public, non-profit institutions of "high quality," the head of the Higher Education Department under the Ministry of Education and Training said in a recent interview with Tuoi Tre.

"The schools will operate under specific statutes approved by the prime minister... but be much more autonomous. And they will also be the first public universities to hire foreign administrators," Tran Thi Ha told the newspaper.

With foreign investment in teaching, research and administration, the universities will operate in the same way as the world's advanced universities in terms of academic programs and teaching methodology, she said.

"They will have an equal number of undergraduate and postgraduate students. This 1:1 ratio will be much higher than the proportion at other universities in Vietnam," she said.

France recently committed 100 million euros ($139.31 million) to the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, a project that will be executed in collaboration with the Vietnamese Academy of Science and Technology, Ha said.

The money will be spent over 10 years to turn 400 doctoral degree holders into lecturers and researchers for the school. At the same time, France will supply lecturers to teach there, and skilled administrators to run it.

The new universities in Da Nang and Can Tho will be collaborative ventures by the two cities' existing state universities, the education ministry, and foreign investors from countries like the US, Japan and Russia.

Objections

Asked where the money for maintaining the four universities would come from, given Vietnam's modest education budget, Ha said the foreign partners would contribute some.

"As these will be public, non-profit schools, state funding will play a major role, though there will also be the revenue from tuition fees, sponsorship and the commercialization of research," Ha said.

According to the ministry's website, Vietnam earmarked VND297 billion ($16.69 million) for higher education in 2007.

The intention for 2008 was to double the overall education expenditure to VND76.2 trillion ($4.6 billion) in 2006, with higher education accounting for 9 percent.

However, the ministry is yet to report its actual expenditure last year.

With the higher standards and greater overheads, the four universities will charge higher fees than others, but they won't be "outrageous," according to Ha.

Financially disadvantaged students with good academic records will be eligible for scholarships, she said.

"To put it simply, these universities will be for talented students with research potential" rather than only for students whose families can afford them, she said.

In response to concerns that there could be too few qualified teachers for the four universities within 10 years, Ha said that in the initial stages 50-80 percent of the lecturers would be professors from the foreign institutional partners.

The training of Vietnamese lecturers by both sides will allow the proportion of foreign lecturers to fall to 30 percent by the tenth year of operation, she said.

Another important point, according to Ha, is that the four universities will offer high salaries, a good working environment, and other incentives found at Southeast Asia's prestigious institutions to attract the best teaching talent.

"It's vital that we have incentives to attract the right people, and create a good working environment to keep them here," she said.

Ha predicted that the attractive offers to employ good lecturers would force other universities to become more competitive and find ways to improve themselves.

When it announced the four-university project in its Draft of Educational Development Strategies by 2020 last December, the ministry faced one formidable objection from the experts: it was unrealistic.

At a conference to solicit expert opinion on the draft, Nguyen Minh Thuyet, deputy head of the Education, Youth, Teenagers and Children's Commission of the National Assembly, criticized the standards mentioned in the draft as "vague" and said the revamp would "likely be a waste of money."

To reinforce his point, Thuyet mentioned the hugely expensive scheme launched in 2000 to build 17 national key laboratories as a prime example of failure.

Objectives like having at least one Vietnamese university listed among the world's top 200, and at least five listed in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' top 50 universities by 2020 were also dismissed as unrealistic by the Vietnamese and foreign experts.

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