Higher Education in Vietnam: Student Growth, Faculty Shortages and International Partnerships

Two-thirds of the population of Vietnam is under the age of 30 and the state is struggling to cope with the rapidly growing demand for higher education. This lack of educational capacity is especially troubling for the country at a time when it is seeking to capitalize on rapid GDP growth and increasing labor demand from multinational corporations and importers of Vietnamese-manufactured products.

According to ministry estimates, the country needs 10,000 to 15,000 skilled employees annually in fields such as information technology, tourism, harbor management, finance and banking to keep up with demand. However, with its current training capacity, Vietnam can only meet 40-60 percent of human resource needs.

Despite the establishment of as many as 100 new universities in the last three years, training capacity is still constrained to approximately 60 percent because of faculty shortages, even as student to teacher ratios in the classroom increase significantly. Combined with the growth of class sizes has been a deterioration of quality standards, which currently go largely unchecked, especially with the recent growth of the private sector.

The Ministry of Education and Training [2] has acknowledged that the system needs a drastic overhaul, and it is working to alleviate some of the problems associated with lecturer shortages through a program of domestic and international faculty graduate training programs. It has also established a body responsible for overseeing quality standards within the system and brought in a number of internationally respected universities to partner with local universities in developing programs and curricular that can be modeled by other institutions of higher education across Vietnam. But these efforts currently represent just the seeds of the nation’s education reform effort, and much work remains to be done if Vietnam is to fully capitalize on its rapidly growing GDP in offering all constituents of its young population access to quality training and broader opportunities in the labor markets.

Tertiary Sector Growth

According to official government statistics, there were 63 universities and 38 colleges (101 total) operating in Vietnam in 1987; by 2003, there were 111 universities and 119 colleges; and by 2009 there were 150 universities and 226 colleges, with particularly fast growth occurring in the last three years, especially in the private sector.

In 1987, all tertiary-level institutions were state-owned; by 1997, 15 of the 126 universities and colleges then in existence were private; and by 2009 there were 44 private universities and 37 private colleges, representing 21.5 percent of the total stock of tertiary institutions in the country (376).

The growth in the number of universities, through college upgrades or the construction of completely new institutions, has been particularly explosive in Vietnam’s two major urban centers. Ho Chi Minh City has seen the creation of 18 new universities since 1998, while in Hanoi 23 additional universities have come into existence over the same time frame, representing 43 percent of the growth in university-level institutions. Of Vietnam’s 150 universities, a total of 102 (68 percent) are located in five cities, meaning that rural higher-education opportunities are largely limited to colleges, of which 64 percent are located outside the five major urban centers. There are still 23 provinces (out of 63) in Vietnam that do not have a university, and one (DakNong) that does not have a college or university. However, there has still been significant growth in access to tertiary level institutions in the poorer rural and mountainous regions of the country over the last 20 years.

In 2008/09, there were 1,719,499 students in the higher education system, with 1,501,310 of those attending public institutions and 218,189 (12.7%) attending private institutions. This is a significant increase from 1987 when there were just 133,136 students in higher education, and from 1997 when there were 715,231 students.

With well over a million students graduating from high school every year, and with places for just 30 percent at current institutions of higher education, competition for places is set to increase significantly. This year alone, 1.8 million candidates registered to take the university entrance examination. Just over a half million will be offered places.

Faculty Shortages and Overseas Training

As noted in the introduction, the rapid growth in student numbers has not been matched by a similar expansion of the faculty body. In the 22-year period between 1987 and 2009, the number of students has increased 13 times, the number of institutions of higher education by a factor of 3.3 and the number of lecturers just threefold. Student to teacher ratios have increased from 6.6:1 in 1987 to 28:1 in 2009. At private universities, the student overload on lecturers is considerably higher.

Of equal concern to lecturer shortages is lecturer quality. According to official government statistics, the total number of lecturers at both colleges and universities has grown from 20,112 in 1997 to 61,190 in 2009, while the number with doctoral degrees has grown from just 2,041 to 6,217 over the same period. Those with masters degrees has increased from 3,802 in 1997 to 24,831 in 2009, meaning that more than 50 percent of tertiary-level instructors do not have graduate qualifications.

Many experts have attributed this now-profound shortage of qualified lecturers to the lack of a long-term focus on professor development, so the ministry set a target in 2008 of having 35 percent of faculty be PhD holders by 2020, starting a program under the Higher Education Reform Agenda to produce 20,000 Ph.D.’s by that date. Because Vietnam has a limited capacity to train graduate students, the government plans to send half of that number abroad for training.

Between 2000 and 2009, 7,039 Vietnamese studied abroad on government scholarships, with 2,029 of those at the doctoral level. In academic year 2008-09, more than 1,000 received scholarships (700 at the graduate level), and by October 2009, in the new 2009-10 academic year, 900 students had already commenced studies abroad through government funding (with 585 at the graduate level) or international scholarships.

In addition, the ministry is attempting to standardize the maximum student to teacher ratio to prevent classroom overcrowding, however this could prove problematic considering 2020 enrollment goals of between 4.3 million and 4.5 million students, and a plan to establish a further 288 universities in the country by the same date. These goals will require an additional 220,000 lecturers according to government estimates, but with faculty salaries averaging approximately $150 per month, and the private manufacturing economy booming, there is little incentive for college graduates to go into teaching. Faced with such intense shortages of trained lecturers, many universities are resorting to hiring faculty from other universities on an hourly or per-classes basis. This is especially the case in the private sector, according to local media reports.

Developing Curriculum with Overseas Partners

In a bid to develop university curriculums, the ministry has selected 17 universities that will work with international university partners across 23 subject areas in science and technology fields deemed important to the country’s industrial needs. There are currently 12 curriculum development programs underway, with teaching in those programs being conducted in a language other than Vietnamese and involving overseas professors. Funding for this program has come in part from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

The University Illinois, Urbana-Champaign [3] is one such university that has helped develop curriculum. In partnership with Hanoi University of Science [4] (HUS), Illinois professors have worked since 2007 to introduce their advanced chemistry curriculum at the state-run Vietnamese university, with funding largely from Vietnam’s Ministry of Education & Training. Ultimately, the entire Illinois chemistry curriculum will be replicated at HUS and then at other universities across Vietnam, according to a 2009 article [5] in Chemical and Engineering News.

Much of the initial training at HUS has come from visiting Illinois professors, but is now increasingly being offered through webinars prepared by the Illinois team and played in class by local faculty partners who then lead in-class discussions. The Illinois professors also offer virtual office hours through e-mail and Skype. The webinars have helped Vietnamese faculty take over the teaching duties, and more than 20 have taken part in three-month trips to Illinois where they have attended chemistry lectures and taken courses at Urbana-Champaign’s Intensive English Institute. Ultimately, the students going through the intensive chemistry program will go on to graduate studies and then return to work in developing and teaching the new curriculum. All students currently in the program have gone through rigorous selection procedures and are considered among the most talented in the country.

The University of Buffalo’s (UB) Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering [6] began teaching its undergraduate mechanical engineering curriculum at Thai Nguyen University of Technology [7] (TNUT) with support from the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training program. Under the program the ministry is providing support in building learning and teaching facilities to UB standards and to support the exchange of personnel between the two departments. Buffalo is also assisting TNUT in its efforts to gain accreditation from the American Board for Engineering and Technology [8].

Other examples under the program include a partnership between Portland State University [9] and the Ho Chi Minh University of Science [10], who together are developing a computer-science curriculum; and the Medical University Vienna [11]’s partnership with Vietnam National University [12] to develop an integrated medical curriculum.

Developing World Class Research-Oriented Universities with International Partners

The Vietnamese government has agreed in principle to the construction of four multi-disciplinary international research universities with US$400 million in loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Whether it is realistic or not, the ministry has said it would like to see these universities ranking among the top 200 in the world by 2020.

The so-called New Model University Project is aimed at offering the Vietnamese government the opportunity to develop and test new approaches in the management of the higher education sector, particularly in the areas of governance, financing and quality assurance. The program will be implemented over a span of five years from October 2010 to October 2015.

The four universities will be modeled after existing universities in developed economies and will seek to maintain international standards of curriculum development, teaching, assessment and training management. To date, the Vietnam-Germany University [13] in Ho Chi Minh City is the only one that is operational. Other projects include:

The universities will operate under specific statutes approved by the prime minister, but will have much more autonomy than existing universities. They will be the first public universities in the country to hire foreign administrators, and 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.

In-Country International Degree Programs

In addition to collaborative efforts with international partners in developing curriculum and institutions, the education ministry has also been actively encouraging joint ventures, and many international partners have been engaged in this arena.

Some examples of US universities engaging in Vietnam include:

In addition, there are a raft of other providers that offer articulation agreements whereby Vietnamese students begin a program in country and then transfer to the US partner after one or two years to complete their degrees.

The Future

Clearly, Vietnam’s education system faces a raft of challenges in meeting the demands of its growing population and economy. While there is never any quick-fix solution in improving quality standards and capacity in the higher education system of a rapidly developing economy, the government has acknowledged that major problems exist and has begun the process of addressing them.

There remain, however, major question marks over quality standards and access, especially in rural parts of the country, but the move from a largely elitist higher education system is underway, and with the help of overseas trained talent and partners Vietnam is beginning to embrace best practices from around the world.