Vietnamese universities are reluctant to build brands, said Dr. Vu Thi Phuong Anh, arguing that the resistance could be the kiss of death in an increasingly globalized and commercialized world.
"In some cases, the word 'brand' is even being avoided," said Dr. Anh from the Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City's Center for Educational Testing and Quality Assessment.
She was speaking at a two-day conference titled "Branding in Higher Education: Practices and Lessons Learned from Global Perspectives."
The event, hosted by the Southern Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO), ended Tuesday in Nha Trang Town, the central province of Khanh Hoa. It drew the participation of Vietnamese officials and educators as well as experts from the US, Vietnam and other ASEAN countries.
Dr. Anh said there were two underlying reasons as to why Vietnamese institutions did not feel the need to talk about brand building.
"I think that has to do with the prevalent view that higher education is a public service, which has to be subsidized by the government, and the total lack of competition among universities as demand far exceeds supply," she said.
It's estimated that nearly 1.3 million students failed their university entrance exams this year as only 300,000 secured places in the country's institutions of higher education.
Branding: here and there
The notion of brand building for universities, according to Gary Matkin, dean of continuing education at the University of California-Irvine, could be "inappropriate" in developing nations such as Vietnam, since it stirs up images of commercialism.
In the US, it's a far different story, he said.
American higher institutions have to compete in a fierce race to attract the best academic performers and the best student athletes to feed off the institutional brand identity ââ‚¬" which is how funding, revenues and endowment are generated for the schools.
According to Professor Mai Trong Nhuan, president of Vietnam National University-Hanoi, in a knowledge-based economy and a time of increasing globalization and competition, each university must develop its own brand strategy to build and maintain its reputation.
However, brand building in higher education isn't just about advertising to sell services to the students, he said.
It's a long-term development process to improve that university's competitive capability in terms of scientific research quality, educational programs and lecturers, training quality and student services.
In essence, paying attention to brand building forces that institution to improve its services and at the same time, realize its weaknesses and their causes, according to associate professor Vo Xuan Dan from HCMC University of Foreign Language and Information Technology.
For Dr. Phuong Anh, branding in higher education is about keeping the promises made to the stakeholders, especially the students.
She noted that even though competition to enter Vietnamese schools was tough, the number of truly outstanding students applying for the country's top-notch universities was actually decreasing.
Many prefer attending foreign institutions that are considered more prestigious, she said.
"It's high time Vietnamese universities start building and developing their brands so as not to lose the right to play the game on their own field."