Ly T. Pham (2013)
Reflection on GLOBAL EDUCATION DIALOGUE: ” Connecting Asia: Preparing Higher Education to meet the demands of the 21st century ” held by the British Council in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Training (Vietnam), and Aston University (UK) on 26-27/11/2013 in HCM City, Vietnam

Universities are expected to be intellectual center of the society, where knowledge as well as other social values are created, preserved and transferred to the next generations for creating a better world. The mission requires university leaders, academics and particularly higher education researchers to keep rethinking over time the changing perceptions of the changing world with the aim of reshaping the vision and responding positively to those changes. GLOBAL EDUCATION DIALOGUE is a policy forum in East Asia held by the British Council in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Training of Vietnam and Aston University (UK) on 26-27/11/2013 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to debate the issues affecting higher education in East Asia, as well as in the UK, and how to respond to those challenges in the context of each country. The theme of the dialogue held in Vietnam this time is “Connecting Asia: Preparing Higher Education to meet the demands of the 21st century“. This article reflects a number of key issues that were raised and discussed at the workshop, along with comments and commentary by the author.

 The University in the 21st Century

The central theme of the workshop was to present the picture of the University in a changing world, and reflections on its future. In all aspects, globalization and internationalization are definitely irreversible trends. There is a growing number of students studying abroad. More and more universities have opening new campuses in foreign countries or establishing joint training and joint research programs with universities abroad. The competition for talents to have the best scientists, the most promising students and faculty is taking place not only within countries but worldwide. Outside the universities, the labor market is also a global market. The university is facing the challenge of preparing their students to be global citizens. As Steve Cannon (University of Hong Kong) pointed out, the global university rankings make one thing clear: the great universities of the 19th Century were shaped by nationalism; the great universities of today are being shaped by globalisation. There is a clear relationship between the degree of internationalization and position of a university in rankings: US universities, which dominate the list of top universities in the world, have been recruited more foreign Ph.D. students than the rest of the OECD countries put together; 66% of these remain in the US. Only 2% of academics in France are foreign born; 7% of newly hired professors in US are alumni of the institution in which they teach, in France the figure is 50% and in Spain 95%. And, France has only 2 universities in the list of top 200 of QS, 8 universities in the list of top 200 of THES. Spain has no universities in both rankings, while the United States accounted for 54 out of the list of top 200 of QS and 83 in the list of top 200 of THES.

Sam Jones (University Alliance, UK) asserts that we live in a world that is facing tremendous change and a lot of uncertainty. Alongside this uncertainty is change in the way we work; create, share and receive knowledge; deliver value; and connect to people around the world. He pointes out five key drivers for those changes:

(1) Social mobility, including demographic changes, perceptions about the societal values and development of social networks;

(2) Technology advances, especially in communication technology. This raises the issues that have directly influenced schools, such as ownership of information, personalization versus mass information; and hyper-connectivity. The “virtual connections” through cyberspace are increasingly popular. Communication technology also fundamentally changes teaching and learning.  Formal education institutions are no longer the only source of knowledge and information. This challenges the role of the teacher in the Asian traditional societies more than ever before;

(3) Economic drivers, the demand for skilled labor to meet the requirements of local and global economy. University education itself is becoming more business-like.

(4) Environment drivers, physical space and other resources are increasingly scarce, pushing the school to find new forms of existence, or new ways to perform its traditional mission.

(5) Political drivers: Higher education funded by state budget, meaning taxpayers’ money. All governments feel the pressure of holding accountability to the public about effectiveness of investment in higher education, along with questions that the policy makers need to answer, such as decisions about opening up to foreign partners.

Sharing perspectives on the significant changes that are reshaping the world of higher education, Saad Rizvi and co-authors (Institute for Public Policy Research, UK) showed that universities today are operating in a entirely different context from that of the 20th century: today, not only universities, but the think tank, government organizations and non-governmental, businesses and corporations are doing research and producing results they have great impacts. Not only universities, but many other training organizations/providers also offer degrees. The value of college degree today is falling. University degrees are no longer a guarantee for a good job in the future; hundreds of thousands of people have master’s degrees and still are facing unemployment. Meanwhile, college tuition has increased rapidly: In the United States, from 2000 to 2010, the cost of education in public schools has increased by 42 % and in the non-profit private schools it has increased by 31 % after adjustment for inflation. Other countries are experiencing the same trend.

Facing those changes, Bill Rammel (University of Bedforshire, UK) emphasized that the university can not succeed if it keeps trying to think and act in the same way as before, especially in university administration. On the one hand, universities are being urged to operate more like business models to increase efficiency and responsive to social needs. On the other hand they must retain a set of common and shared values that consisted with their missions as serving public good. These characteristics make them different from other organizations in both the public sector and the private sector. Balancing between the two is actually not easy, especially in the context of decreasing public resources in almost all countries.

This context has created great challenges for countries and universities around the world. Some key points were raised and identified from the perspective of each country, as indicated in the following section. 

The national challenges facing higher education systems

A common issue of many East Asia countries is the lack of legal framework and policy documents to direct the system. Myanmar is drafting their Education Law, a legal document that they have never had before. Mya Do, the Secretary of Education Development Committee of Myanmar Parliament reported that Myanmar is undergoing profound politically changes, and HE is trying to respond to that. Mdm Sengdeuane Lachanthaboune (Vice Minister, Ministry of Education and Sports PDR) emphasized the need to complete legal documents and promote communication via social media to enhance understanding and consensus on the reform of public higher education. Tran Anh Tuan (Vietnam’s Ministry of Education) also highlighted the desperate need for drafting of decrees and circulars to implement the Law on Higher Education.

Quality of education is a big concern of Myanmar, China, Vietnam, and Laos. The university degrees do not always reflect the quality and competences of person who hold the diploma.  Nor do they even guarantee a good job prospects for them. In Myanmar concepts such as quality assurance or accreditation are still new, but the state requests that results must be immediately achieved. This demand is indeed very difficult to meet. In Laos, private higher education is growing rapidly (they account for 24% of the total number of students however the proportion of master’s programs is 36 %). One out of seven students is studying in science and technology, economics and other business programs. The low quality of higher education has forced the Ministry of Education and Sports to terminate all special undergraduate programs offered at four universities as well as bachelors and post graduate programs at private colleges in 2013.

Phonephet Boupha (Ministry of Education and Sports, Lao PDR), explained that the particular problem of Laos is low enrolment in technical and vocational education. Therefore, the higher education reform requests a review of student intake in each field so that it is in line with the country’s socio-economic development. Phase 2 of the Strategy (2010-2015) focused on teacher training reform, and emphasized improving the management system as well as school management. Mai Ha (Ministry of Science and Technology, Vietnam) presented the Science and Technology Strategy of Vietnam, which has very ambitious goals. Achieving these goals is obviously a great challenge for all schools.

Not only developing countries or emerging economies are confronted with many challenges, but the developed countries are also facing unprecedented challenges. The competition for talent, for higher rank in world rankings, for funding, today those are fiercer than ever before. The question whether university education is a really good preparation for life, career and citizenship in the 21st century, or in other words, whether the university will be continued to be seen as a desirable value (as it used to be) or not, given the rise in the cost of college during last decade, and the percentage of young college graduates are unemployed is also growing around the world.

It should be noted that the role of the state is also changing. Previously, the state provides funding almost unconditionally for the university operation. Depending on the context of each country, the relationship between the state and the school is of different level of control, but in general, the generating of a legal framework and outcome evaluation is still common role of the state. Today, the role has changing: university has become a service provider for the state and funding only provided on a “something for something basis” (Steve Cannon, UK). For government, higher education is viewed as a means to achieve the ultimate goal of economic growth, social development and prosperity of the nation. Therefore, for both public and private sector in higher education, questions about the relevance of university, and the question of accountability is raised intensively more than ever.

And the university responses

On the issue of university leadership and management, the Vietnamese universities are showing positive responses to the internationalization trend. Aliston Haltead (Aston University, UK) and Duong Mong Ha (University of Da Nang, Vietnam) presented a new cooperation model, an initiative to create an elite, research-led university, and aiming at becoming a science and technology central hub for the countries in the region. It is expected to carry out essential research for the economy through a collaborative project between Vietnam and UK, which will set up a special mechanism to recruit and nurture talent. Bui Xuan Lam (Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology, Vietnam) emphasized the benefits of the university when promoting affiliate programs with international partners, seeing internationalization as a way to enhance the quality of the university. Nguyen Linh Trung (University of Technology, Vietnam National University, Hanoi, Vietnam) addressed his school’s efforts to move toward market side to enhance their ability to meet the needs of society.

On the issue of quality assurance, Rachel Chee (Malaysia) presented the quality assurance mechanism which is embedded in the design, development of curriculum and delivering programs. Simirlarly, Pham Xuan Thanh (Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training) highlighted the need of strengthen collaborations among various parties in the process to ensure quality, as well as the need for recognition of qualifications between countries, especially Vietnam and the UK. That is important to promote cooperation and exchange of faculty and students. Ha Thanh Toan (Can Tho University, Vietnam) showed that CTU is seen as one of the pioneers in quality assurance and international cooperation. So far they have a number of programs evaluated by AUN, and there is no surprise that they are considered one of the best institutions in Vietnam, in term of reputation and research outputs. The importance of international partners in developing national qualifications frameworks is also stressed by M.Lacey Fiona (Aston University, UK). Carolyn Campbell (Quality Assurance Organization of Higher Education, UK) raised a new trend which very interesting: the purposes of quality assurance are often stated as accountability and enhancement or improvement the operation of the school; but more recently, a third purpose, that of providing reliable and accurate public information about the standard and quality of the public schools, for students, for sponsors and employers, has become increasing important. “Balancing the demands and interests of multiple stakeholders is a challenge facing all quality assurance agencies”.  Internationalization not only with student mobility but also with the training program also requires national quality assurance agencies in each country to work closely with international colleagues to develop shared principles and criteria for ensuring quality and to protect the interests of students who take up cross border study oppoturnities.

On the issue of teaching and learning, Renke He (Hunan University, China) presented a new model that has been implemented in his School of Design: learning and teaching pattern based on student-generated content. This is a positive response of higher education to the digital technology world. Computer and social networking has changed the context of the classroom. We used to assume that the teacher is the primary source of knowledge, and students shall “acquire”knowledge from teacher. This teaching model is indeed outdated. He pointed out the contrast between the pattern of traditional teaching and learning – delivering and acquisition, with a new model that he and his colleagues initiated – every student is involved in the process, by generating, sharing, and reflecting.

On the issue of research activities and connections with industry, Anna Gosman (Aston University, UK) emphasized the possible interaction patterns between schools and businesses, and the ability to exploit this collaboration. Judy Halliday (University of Queensland, Australia) presented the thirty year journey of the University of Queensland in the commercialization of research outcomes. There are many challenges and risks in the process. The school has set up a company specializing in technology transfer, called UniQuest. This agency conducts patent registration; assesses the feasibility of the projects on commercialization research outcomes; surveys market demand; takes care of every aspect and legal procedures; and seeks research partnership and funding. UniQuest generates an impressive income that has grown from 10 million AUD in 1991-1995 to 64 million AUD in 2009.

Another initiative that helps promoting linkage between university and industry is the Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship Program at Bangor University, UK. The project aims to develop higher level skills through collaborative research scholarship for Ph.D. students whose research responds to the needs of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). As David Sherpherd (Bangor University, UK) pointed out, this model has proved very useful and efficient, as it brings immediate practical benefits to the SMEs, while also helping graduate students connecting with the world of work and enhancing research skills.

From the perspective of industry, David Priestley (Roll Royce International, Vietnam Ltd) and Bui Duc Quang (TMA Solution) confirmed the need to connect with the research activities of the university, but also mentioned tremendous challenges. TMA actively created interaction models with universities, through student internship, students visiting, invited lecturers participating in the company, and collaborative research project. However, the results achieved in terms of research are still limited in reality.
Pham Ngoc Nam (Hanoi University of Technology, Vietnam), who presented the challenge for research activities faced by the universities in Vietnam, provided an explanation for these modest results. However, another presentation by Pham Thi Ly (Viet Nam National University Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), provided new insights. On the one hand, the presentation recognized huge existing challenges (limited resources, lack of internationally recognized scientists, poor infrastructure, underdeveloped academic culture), but on the other hand it showed that creating excellence in the context of Vietnam is entirely possible. A case study was mentioned: Ton Duc Thang University (TDT). Although it is a very young self-financed public university, TDT’s achievement in research activities is impressive over a short time (less than a decade). Their strategy was to set up Research Groups, with team leaders with talent, experience and research achievements up to international standards, delegate them full autonomy in identifying research focus. They created a reward system and evaluation mechanisms based on results and measured by publications in international peer reviewed journals. They also established the Foundation of Science and Technology Development to change research funding schemes to promote research activities that lead to international publications and that are connected with industry. TDT focused on international linkages and partnerships, appointed international scientists to be visiting professors. Their achievements show the importance of organizational structure, mechanisms of evaluation measurement and incentives system towards creating excellence. Behind such initiatives is the vision and leadership capacity of the leader. What they do in promoting research activities is consistent with practical experience and international practice. Their success demonstrates that the approach is feasible, and international experience can absolutely be applied in Vietnam.

The Future of the University

In the past two centuries, universities around the world have regarded the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, rather than for achieving a concrete benefit, as central to its mission. It seems that the good and beauty of truth were sunk in a sea of pragmatism that the school has given to their students. Does anything like philosophy or medieval history still have an important standing today in the university, when the relevance of universities in preparing students for their career and life is constantly being questioned?

CS Lewis has a widely known quotation: “We read because we want to see with other eyes, to imagine with a other imagination, and feel with other hearts”. Therefore, the traditional culture and intrinsic values in literature, art, history, and philosophy is never useless. “We live in an era when future business people and bankers need ethics more than ever” (Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnely and Saad Rizvi, 2013). Thus, just aiming at meeting the immediate needs of students, as well as society, is not enough. Universities need to achieve a balance between short -term goals and long-term objectives, otherwise it will lose its unique mission and become merely a business enterprise.

Saad Rizvi and his co- authors suggest that, in the future, there might be five models of university: (1) The Elite University; (2) The Mass University; (3) The Niche University; (4) The Local University; and (5) The Lifelong Learning University. Whatever model universities will adopt, the success will lean on strong leadership, including the vision and capacity to adapt to a changing world.


We live in an era of the knowledge economy and, as Mr. Bui Anh Tuan (Vietnam MOET) said in his opening remarks, “The future of the knowledge economy depends heavily on the ability to generate knowledge”; “What is important is that one way or another, we all realize and position ourselves in the face of the volatility of the world in the 21st century.” That is exactly what the Global Dialogue Education organized by the British Council brought to the attendees. With the direction of Mrs. Alison Goddard, Chief Editor Journal of Higher Education, Policy and Markets in Higher Education, serving as a chair and Mrs. Carolina Chipperfield, Deputy Director of Education in charge of the British Council, the forum highlighted the key issues of higher education, including rethinking the role of universities in the 21st century, the challenges it is facing, and the ability to respond. The two trends of globalization and marketization require schools to be connected more globally and emphasize international partnerships, to succeed in cooperation and competition on a global scale.
HCMC 27-11-2013


The author of this report would like to thank the British Council for its kind invitation to participation in the Dialogue.  Special thanks go to Chris Brown, Giang Nguyen and Van Anh Hoang for their support.  The author would also like to express her sincere thanks to Jamil Salmi (former World Bank tertiary education coordinator) and Tuan V Nguyen (professor, University of New South Wales, Australia) who provided feedback on the draft report.