Ly Pham02 October 2015 Issue No:384
University World News

Ton Duc Thang University, or TDTU, a self-financed public institution in Vietnam, announced in mid-September that it will create its own requirements and procedures for promoting professors. This has caused an intense and ongoing debate in the national media and on social networks.

Within 10 days of the announcement, there were at least 35 newspaper articles published and 45 high-ranked academics or government officers voicing their opinions for or against this initiative. Among them were five Vietnamese professors working abroad, including Professor Nguyen Van Tuan from the University of New South Wales, Australia, and Professor Ngo Bao Chau from the University of Chicago, USA.

Up to now Vietnam has been following a two-step process according to the French model: the National Committee on Professorship Titles, under the Ministry of Education and Training, develops the requirement and criteria, reviews the final round of professorship promotion applications (after these applicants have been approved by the Institutional Review Committee and the Specialty Review Committee); and approves or rejects them. Universities then appoint a professorship after the National Committee has given its approval.

Opinions on the change can be divided into three main groups: unconditional support for TDTU; support for universities to grant professorships with certain conditions; and opposition to TDTU’s move.

Main arguments

Dr Le Vinh Danh, rector of TDTU, asserts that TDTU has developed professorship requirements following international practices and sees the professorships as a job title to be used within institutions, not an external title, a nationally recognised lifetime academic rank, as granted by the National Committee on Professorship Titles.

He pointed out that TDTU is allowed to reform in aspects relating to “recruitment, appointment of administrators/experts/ scientists/lecturers” by Decision 158/QD-TTg on granting institutional autonomy to TDTU.

Academics or administrators who object to TDTU’s proposal argue that it is unacceptable that there are parallel professorship systems: national ones and the TDTU’s. A consistent national requirement is needed and there is concern that it is difficult to control academic integrity when the review process is delegated to universities.

Moreover, they say universities are state organisations so should only be bound by government regulations. Article 71 of the Education Law states that the prime minister regulates professorship requirements and the process of appointment to or ending of these titles.

Supporters of TDTU’s move argue that we must return the true meaning of professorships to universities. It is about a professional title among academic ranks, which reflects a set of achievements in research and teaching rather than a lifetime of titles, which bear no correspondence to any outcomes in research and-or teaching.

They call for more institutional autonomy and say the ability to appoint professorships must be an integral part of this. They say that TDTU has made great progress in research outputs and is fully capable of leading this initiative.

However, some academics support the delegation of this task to universities, but not to TDTU as the pioneer, or not now. They argue that TDTU has two professors and eight associate professors out of 619 faculty members, which accounts for only 1.6% of academic staff. Some 24.7% of teachers are bachelor degree holders.

Moreover, Le Vinh Danh, the rector of TDTU, who was rejected twice when he applied for an associate professorship in 2012, appointed himself a professor in 2013 without the approval of the National Committee on Professorship Titles before TDTU had developed regulations on requirements and procedures. However, it should be noted that the current system for the conferment of a professorship may need some work. Dr Danh’s academic qualifications and credentials measured by scores met the requirements of The National Committee on Professorship Titles, but his application was rejected on the basis of secret ballot without a clear explanation.

Dr Le Van Ut of TDTU said that TDTU would appoint professors in other universities if they need this service and if they meet the requirements. These facts are in conflict with the TDTU’s statement that this is an internal job title and that their requirements or procedures are consistent with international standards.

There are five unanswered questions in the case of TDTU:

  • What are their minimum requirements, criteria and procedures?
  • Who are the Committee reviewers?
  • Who has been appointed a professor and based on what criteria and procedures?
  • Is their reputation worthy of the professorship at an international level, as stated?
  • And finally, what are the benefits and working conditions provided to a professor and what are their expected responsibilities?

One group of academics who support the idea that professorship appointments should be part of institutional autonomy has suggested developing a roadmap, starting with a pilot involving some institutions, with state supervision and an appropriate legal framework in order to avoid chaos on the ground.

Implications of the debate

First, it seems the space for different perspectives on this issue has expanded, not just on social media and networks, but also in state-controlled newspapers. This can be read as a signal of the maturity of our society.

Second, the wider debate also reveals some misunderstandings. Some people said the existing professorship promotion scheme in Vietnam is unlike any others. In fact, it is quite similar to the French and German systems. What may be seen as ‘strange’ is the fact that two-thirds of Vietnamese professors do not work in universities and research institutes. In Vietnam, the title of professor is often sought by non-academics purely for social prestige.

And third, more importantly, some seem to support any move that strengthens university autonomy. However, autonomy does not automatically lead to excellence. Without accountability, institutional autonomy might lead to arbitrary decisions being taken. Scepticism about professorships at institutional level and particularly at TDTU shows that there is a lack of mechanisms that would help make sure the universities are accountable to the public.

Many others are critical of TDTU’s behaviour noted above, but still support this initiative. They believe that loosening state control might lead to chaos at the present time, but that in the long run, the market will have the final say, with necessary adjustments, and that university autonomy might provide the opportunity and dynamics for universities to experiment with innovation.

Ly Pham is an education researcher from Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City.