Vietnam: Are the Pieces of the Puzzle Falling into Place?

Vietnam Re-confirms its Long-term Strategic Higher Education Ambitions
Earlier this month, Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training [2] sponsored the country’s first major education event of the year, the National Conference on Improving Higher Education Quality. In the presence of ministerial and university representatives from across the country, the Deputy Minister of Education and Training claimed not only that the quality of higher education in the country is comparatively lower than elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, but that substantial reform is needed to improve it in the coming years. With a series of objectives having been presented in anticipation of doing so, the Ministry has confirmed the country’s long-term strategic higher education plan that was officially approved towards the end of 2007. Interestingly, however, and in spite of the concerns expressed by Ministry officials at the conference, Vietnam has become an increasingly visible player in the international higher education market, with the ‘business’ of education having considerably expanded there in recent months. What steps is the Ministry taking to improve the quality of higher education in the country, and what progress has been made? Why is the country proving increasingly attractive to foreign investors? How might Vietnam benefit from foreign direct investment, and how is policy change in the education sector likely to affect the country’s competitiveness in the higher education market?

On January 5, higher education delegates from across Vietnam convened at the National Conference on Improving Higher Education Quality, an event organized to discuss the current state and future direction of higher education provision in the country. Sponsored by the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) and held in Ho Chi Minh City’s University of Technical Education [3], the conference provided a platform for top officials from the MoET to announce the findings of a comprehensive analysis of the national higher education system undertaken by the Ministry. According to the MoET’s Deputy Minister Banh Tien Long, because none of the major international university rankings have listed a Vietnamese university as one of the world’s ‘top’ 500 institutions, the country has substantial ground to cover before it can consider itself a quality higher education destination, both within the Asia-Pacific region and worldwide. “Though we could question the credibility of any ranking system, they can still help us see where our universities stand in the world’s higher education picture”, argued Long, and given the low ratings of the country’s higher education institutions, the Ministry claims substantial reform is needed before Vietnam can improve them.

In an effort to do so, the MoET has outlined a series of key objectives as part of a larger long-term strategy to improve the quality of tertiary education in the country. With the Ministry aiming to have at least one Vietnamese institution recognized and accordingly ranked, as one of the world’s ‘top’ 200 universities by the year 2020, first and perhaps foremost, Minister of Education and Training Nguyen Thien Nhan has highlighted the need to improve higher education participation rates in the country and the infrastructural capacity to support it. With a population of approximately 85 million, a very large percentage of which is under the age of 30, it is perhaps unsurprising that Vietnam is currently unable to meet the present demand for higher education. According to figures published in UNESCO’s 2007 Global Education Digest [4], in 2005 the country reported a gross enrollment participation rate of around 16 percent among the relevant age group, but the majority of students from Vietnam’s more rural areas have largely been excluded on the basis of inequitable geographical distribution of institutions. Importantly, a small number of ‘key’ multidisciplinary institutions such as the Vietnam National University [5] reportedly enroll around 30 percent of the estimated 1.4 million higher education students in the country at least partially because of their locations in larger cities such as Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, Hue, Can Tho and capital Hanoi.

In an attempt to expand participation rates across the country, the Government is therefore establishing a number of new institutions in the more remote regions of the country, including the Central Highlands (Trung Nguyen). Media releases report that the Ministry intends to ‘groom’ new institutions to match the development priorities of each area so as to supply appropriate provision for local conditions and interests. By doing so, it presumably expects to maximize the technological potential of each of the country’s provinces and the socio-economic capacity of Vietnam as a whole. By additionally investing in as many as 20 research-intensive universities and applied-science research centers, the Government also seems interested in increasing the number and quality of scientific research activities taking place throughout the country. Should it manage to do so, Vietnam’s higher education sector might be more able to accommodate the rapidly growing number of mobile Vietnamese students seeking tertiary provision, many of whom currently go abroad. In this way, the country may eventually be in a position to dissuade them from doing so, and to more seriously compete with other international student destinations within the Asia-Pacific region, including Malaysia and Singapore.

The Ministry has furthermore re-committed itself to expanding the amount of non-public provision available in Vietnam, with plans to increase the percentage of privately enrolled students by establishing a series of for-profit tertiary education institutions. Over the past few years, Vietnamese authorities have progressively aligned the higher education sector with liberal economic reform policies in order to facilitate foreign direct investment (FDI) and through it, international collaboration. In April 2003 for example, after having already approved the development of twinning (2 + 1) programs administered in co-operation with overseas institutions, the Government passed legislation to allow the ‘bricks-and-mortar’ establishment of foreign-owned and for-profit institutions in the country. Part of a ‘roadmap’ for the ‘renovation’ of tertiary education, the stipulation was aiming to grow the sector so as to expedite Vietnam’s transition into a knowledge-based economy.

Importantly then, while this is not the first time the Government has signaled its intention to encourage the development of a non-state education sector in the country, it appears now to have better articulated its strategy for doing so. Specifically, the Ministry is actively encouraging the private sector to engage with universities and colleges so as to strengthen the comparatively weak quality of the country’s higher education curricula to date. In his opening remark at the conference, Minister of Education and Training Nguyen Thien Nhan not only urged companies to develop student internship opportunities in accordance with the labor demands of key industries, but also endorsed the opening of tertiary education facilities by private companies themselves. Should both take place, Vietnam could produce both a higher number of qualified graduates with the practical professional training increasingly needed to fulfill the demands of the economy, and more capital to invest in further tertiary education sector development.

Not insignificantly, claims Phan Huu Thang, Director of the Vietnamese Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI)’s Foreign Investment Agency, the Government’s “continual efforts to improve infrastructure network and raise investment in education and training” should capture the attention of foreign investors. Media reports released towards the end of December 2007 suggest that Vietnam is well on its way to doing so. According to the local Vietnam Investment Review newspaper, the country reaped a record US$20 billion in FDI last year, which, according to the MPI, was significantly ahead of initial government targets and a close to 70 percent increase on 2006. (A substantial increase in FDI is often indicative of market perceptions regarding return on investment and opportunities for sustainable and long-term growth potential in a given country.) With a young population and growing middle class, much of which is likely to pursue a higher education degree before joining the working population, Vietnam should remain in the coming years the investor ‘hotspot’ it has become since its January 2007 accession to the World Trade Organization. Indeed, according to a recent survey [6] by the Asia Business Council, an association of Asian business leaders devoted to the progressive economic development and competitiveness of the region, only China and India appear to be more attractive Asian locations in terms of potential investment over the next two years.

For this reason, and in light of developments over the past several months, including the establishment of Bac Ha International University, reportedly the first private international university to open in the country, the Ministry could have reason for optimism. In June 2007, the World Bank approved at least partial funding towards the MoET’s US$70.5 million Second Higher Education Project (HEP2), an initiative aimed to initiate further reform in Vietnam’s higher education system. First introduced in 1999, HEP2 is expected to better the MoET’s capacity to develop education policies in the areas of governance, financing and quality assurance while expanding the capacity and autonomy of individual institutions. With joint developmental objectives to increase the responsiveness of Vietnamese higher education to the changing demands of a market economy, to improve the quality of teaching and research in the country’s tertiary education institutions and to make more efficient use of higher education resources across the sector, university administrators further expect the project to widen practical applications of undertaken academic research.

More recently, in September 2007, Berjaya Land Berhad, part of Berjaya Corporation Berhad, a Malaysian investment conglomerate, signed a US$3.5 billion contract with Ho Chi Minh City council representatives to construct an international university city. Under the terms of the deal, the Malaysian company has been granted permission to develop a higher education area likely to include several institutions, an information technology center, a residential complex and a library.

With a goal of increasing its overall student population to 1.8 million over the next three years, and to 4.5 million over the next 12 as per the Government’s strategic plan, Vietnam will have to increase current tertiary enrollment figures (reportedly the lowest in Southeast Asia) from the current level of 188 per 10,000 people to 450 by 2020. According to Nguyen Duc Nghia, Deputy Director of the Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, “in order to meet that goal, we need to add at least another 1.8 million students in universities and colleges nationwide in the next five years”, but the more important question is, along with quantity, “whether we can improve the quality of our curriculums, classrooms, research labs, dormitories and teaching assistants” in the coming years. Initiatives such as the recently launched Vietnam OpenCourseWare [7] project are certainly a step in the right direction, as are (perhaps overly ambitious) plans to implement a sector-wide requirement for as much as 75 percent of university staff and 15 percent of college lecturers to hold PhD qualifications. In light of further efforts to expand the number of English-language higher education opportunities available, the country could eventually transform itself into an attractive and high-quality higher education provider. Given its regionally isolated population and high level of poverty, Vietnam has a considerable way to go before it can compete with regional neighbors, but pieces of the puzzle are arguably beginning to fall into place.

World Education Services is grateful for permission to reprint this article, which was originally published in January 2007 by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education [8].