Vietnam’s efforts to internationalize higher education achieves a milestone

By Minh Vu —

Secretary of Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee Dinh La Thang speaks at the ceremony for the licensing of Fulbright University Vietnam on May 25, 2016. Source: State Department’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) has attracted much attention because it was born out of Vietnam-U.S. bilateral engagement. However, as the university welcomes its first class in September, FUV will become more than just a diplomatic achievement. It will mark another step in the ongoing effort by the government to lift Vietnam’s higher education to international standards through collaboration with the private sector and foreign governments.

One of the problems that exists in Vietnam higher education is the lack of competitiveness. Another is that it does not teach students to think critically and how to tackle real life problems. Most Vietnamese universities are public institutions funded and regulated by the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET). The ministry provides guidelines and direction for the universities on everything from values to curriculum and faculty management. This level of oversight standardizes all universities and eliminates incentives for universities to innovate or diverge from their assigned paths.

One instance of control impeding education is the State Council for Professor Titles of Vietnam. Unlike other countries, the Vietnamese government, through this council, is the only body that can grant the professor title to individuals, regardless of their affiliation with any universities. Individual must submit an application request, which the council then reviews using criteria such as their years of experience, the number of projects they have led, and the number of Ph.D. students they guided. These eligibility requirements neglect the quality of the teachers’ contributions and the requirements often fall short of international standards. This process discourages scholars from doing substantial research and emphasizes teaching experience instead.

The result is a theory-centric higher education system that fails to prepare the high-skilled graduates need for a 21st-century economy. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Human Capital Outlook ASEAN reported Vietnam had the highest number of low-skilled workers in Southeast Asia, accounting for 41 percent of the workforce, compared to the next highest, the Philippines, at 33 percent. Even the 10 percent of the workforce considered to be high-skilled failed to meet the workplace demands because Intel Corp. and Samsung Electronics Vietnam reported having to retrain graduates after recruiting them.

To tackle this problem, the private sector began introducing new education methods that could train Vietnamese graduates to meet the needs of the market. Intel led the effort in 2010 by establishing the Higher Engineering Education Alliance Program (HEEAP) to develop a high-skilled engineer workforce by modernizing engineering teaching methods. Instead of pushing traditional Confucian memorization of formulas and information, HEEAP introduced applied and hands-on instructional methods to more than 2,000 faculty members through programs offered domestically and overseas through Arizona State University.

A sizeable number of lecturers reported introducing the new teaching methods in their institutions after receiving the training. Since then, HEEAP has grown to include more universities and foreign industrial partners such as Siemens PLM Software and Pearson PLC with the aim of transforming Vietnam’s higher education national wide. Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology, by partnering with HEEAP, became the first institution in Vietnam to receive the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accreditation in 2014. ABET is a U.S. based organization recognized by the U.S Council for Higher Education Accreditation and has expanded to accredit programs in 30 countries.

These steps mark the beginning of a process to introduce international standards into Vietnam higher education. The initial effort by the private sector provides international accredited courses and programs that aim to overhaul teaching methods. Subsequent efforts at the state level took another step further by introducing international scholars and lecturers into domestic institutions.

Founded in 2008, the Vietnamese-German University (VGU) is a collaboration between the MOET and various German agencies, including Germany’s Ministry of Education and Research. VGU is a member university of the most prestigious Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City branch, but with German-accredited programs and German professors. Having partnerships with 36 German universities which offer professors and resources, VGU offers technical training in mechanical engineering and a case-study approach to business and finance.

Vietnam Japan University (VJU) received its first class of student in September 2016. A member of Vietnam National University, Hanoi branch, VJU partners with seven Japanese universities to deliver Japanese-designed degree programs and curriculums focusing on various engineering fields. Japanese professors account for more than half of the faculty, providing a teaching method that emphasizes hand-on learning and experience. VJU also aims to support the education reform effort in Vietnam by having its leaders visit other international model universities in Vietnam to share experiences.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has demonstrated high hopes and expectations for these international education efforts by promoting reform of Vietnam’s higher education. In visits to VGU and VJU, he has said that beyond serving as models of state-level bilateral cooperation, these universities must take the lead in developing the human capital needed for Vietnam’s growing economy. To continue this trajectory, the government is proceeding to the next step by allowing a fully independent university established with foreign cooperation.

FUV is not just the highlight of education reform. It is the embodiment of the internationalization of Vietnam’s higher education. FUV began in Vietnam as the Fulbright Economic Teaching Program (FETP) in 1994, as a collaboration between Harvard University and University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City to train senior government officials in economic management and project implementation.

More than 20 years later, after closer bilateral relation between the United States and Vietnam and with funding from the U.S. government and the Vietnamese and U.S. private sector, the government has decided to upgrade FETP into a full-fledged university with its own leadership and autonomy. The board of trustees will attract not only American professors but also Vietnamese graduates who have obtained degrees abroad. FUV will seek accreditation from the U.S. higher education bodies, shifting away from the MOET’s own agency. This level of independence promises a more aggressive internationalization progress, introducing a research-based tenure track and transforming a generation of student’s thinking.

Education is a long-term process. The success of a university depends on the achievements of its graduates after years of training. It is too early to predict the full importance of FUV in Vietnam’s future. However, looking back at Vietnam’s path of educational reform, FUV already marks an important milestone with promises of a better-trained cohort of graduates to staff the country’s workforce.

Mr. Minh Vu is a researcher with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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