A matter of degree

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Provincial Party official found using fake US academic qualifications

The website of Vietnam National University-Hanoi shows its afiliation with Irvine University, an unaccredited institution in the US. Such affiliations have come under public scrutiny following revelations a senior Party oficial was using dubious academic qualification.

The unsavory side of non-accredited foreign educational institutions entering Vietnam was spotlighted again with last week's exposure of a high-ranking party official in the northern Yen Bai Province using a fake university degree granted by an unaccredited American university.

The scandal has also reignited debate on the need to tighten restrictions on foreign schools entering the Vietnamese market.

Nguyen Van Ngoc, deputy chief of Yen Bai Province Party Unit, is said to have received a doctorate degree in just six months from the Southern Pacific University (SPU) in 2009.

It turns out that in 2003, SPU was ordered to halt operations by the Hawaii state government in the US for violating state regulations relating to higher education.

SPU advertises on its website that it runs a master's program which usually lasts between two and three years, but several online reports suggest that SPU now mostly runs offices in Malaysia to sell degrees.

According to documents obtained by Tuoi Tre newspaper, Ngoc was sent to study at this school under a government initiative and was supposed to defend his thesis in Malaysia. It's unclear whether he was supposed to study online or on campus. The paper found that he had received about VND74 million from provincial authorities to support his study.

Ngoc personally told Tuoi Tre that he defended his thesis in Vietnam and not in Malaysia. The SPU was offering joint degree programs with Vietnamese institutions, he said.

Ngoc also denied receiving any financial support from the province for his studies.

Prior to his studies at SPU, Ngoc attended a joint program run by Irvine University, another unaccredited institution in the US, and the Vietnam National University-Hanoi.

The story of unaccredited American institutions exploiting Vietnam's rush to improve higher education in the country through affiliations with foreign universities isn't new.

Thanh Nien had found earlier that MBA programs offered by the Adam International University and Southwest American University in partnership with local schools in Ho Chi Minh City's District 10 did not require students to understand or speak English.

However, the issue has assumed more serious proportions and elicited greater public concern because local officials can rely on these institutions to shore up their academic credentials and boost their careers as well as earnings ahead of "less-qualified" colleagues.

Tran Van Nghia, deputy head of the Department for Testing and Education Quality Accreditation under the Ministry of Education and Training, said he personally did not believe that one could finish a doctorate program in such a short period of time.

However, he also said that the ministry only starts to investigate those schools once it receives complaints from the applicant or any other involved organization.

Mark Ashwill, former director of the Institute for International Education and managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a human resources development company, said the case of government officials using fake degrees also happens in the US. He said most of the officials whose misdemeanors are exposed end up leaving their post.

"What you hear about is only the tip of the iceberg," he said. "The driving forces behind this phenomenon are ever-present: credentialism, the desire for a degree, especially a foreign one, and greed, considering this is a multimillion dollar industry in Vietnam."

The only way to put an end to this is for the Ministry of Education and Training to monitor all foreign partnerships that postsecondary institutions enter into and require that all foreign higher education partners be officially accredited, he added.

"That ensures at least a minimum standard of quality. Those who enroll in unaccredited programs on their own should not be rewarded for obtaining a degree from such programs."

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