Ranking makes no sense without differentiation

Ly Pham17 October 2015 Issue No:386
University World News 17.10.2015

Over the past two decades, the number of universities and colleges in Vietnam has increased fourfold reaching 425, and the number of higher education students has increased by 13 times. The gross enrolment ratio in tertiary education was 2% in 1991and 25% in 2013.

Is the number of higher education institutions in Vietnam too high or too low?

This needs to be seen in relation to other factors such as population size, the development of the knowledge economy, average income, affordability, public policies and national vision, and so on.

The United States has 4,762 higher education institutions for 319 million people, that is, one institution per 67,000 people; Vietnam’s figures are respectively 425 and 90 million: one institution serves 212,000 people. In Malaysia, the ratio is 1:55,000.

Tertiary gross enrolment in Vietnam is currently at 25%, compared with 97% in South Korea, 86% in Australia, 30% in China and 37% in Malaysia. It can therefore be seen to be relatively low.

However, there are several paradoxes:

  • The number of higher education institutions as a percentage of the population is small, but most have to compete fiercely for students because there are fewer applicants than seats available at these institutions;
  • Higher education gross enrolment is low, but graduate unemployment is increasing;
  • Higher education graduates are unemployed while industry complains about lacking qualified personnel.

Given such paradoxes, I can’t help thinking that there is a significant gap between what Vietnamese higher education institutions are doing and what society really needs.

Possible reasons

Higher education enrolments rocketed between 1993 and 2011 then slowed down in recent years. There are several reasons, including the fact that people’s ability to afford higher education is limited, while graduate employment prospects are not promising. There are so many reasons for the unemployment levels of graduates, among them, the quality of education and meritocracy practices.

Highly skilled people still have doors opened for them, if not to government agencies then to the private sector and international corporations. However, the fact that high ranking positions in the public sector may be held by incompetent people undermines young people’s motivations for pursuing a university education.

Moreover, rampant fake degrees, test-taking impersonators and surrogate learners have seriously devalued university degrees.

The consequences?

The Hanoi University of Business and Technology projected 5,000 enrolments this year, but has received less than 2,000. Other institutions only had 20-30% of the applicants out of their quota, such as Dong Do University (95 out of 1,600), Chu Van An University (80 out of 650); and some even had only 30-70 incoming students for all offered programmes, including Dai Viet College (30 students) and Ha Hoa Tien University (72 students).There are many similar cases.

Not only private higher education institutions but public universities are also facing challenges. An Giang University, a public institution located in a province of two million people in the Mekong Delta, which spends approximately US$3.5 million a yearfrom the national budget, is intended to be sold to a private company. This year it had 600 graduates from its faculty of education, but only 30 of them found jobs. There are 858 faculty members and administrators to serve an intake of 2,000 studentseach year.

The above situation is attributable to the fact that too many higher education institutions have been established. Between 2000 and 2010, a new university was born almost every week. From 2007-2013, among the 133 new universities established there were 108 institutions upgraded from two-year colleges. Dong Nai province has five universities and three colleges while its population is only 2.7 million.

Stratification of the system

There is a feeling that there are too many higher education institutions in Vietnam because it seems that what we have is not what we really need and we do not have enough of what is truly needed.

We find the number of higher education institutions is too high because most institutions do not differ from each other. They are very much alike, even public and private ones are not much different aside from funding issues. The distinctions between types of institutions, such as research-oriented, teaching-focused or professionally oriented institutions, are blurred.

Because of their similarity, higher education institutions do not meet the diverse needs of society. The special strengths of each individual institution are not identified so they are also not able to focus on these strengths to develop them further.

Therefore, stratification of the higher education sector is urgently needed to build up an ecosystem aimed at diverse styles and missions that can serve the diverse needs of the society.

The Decree 73/ND-CP, issued on 8th August, on the stratification and ranking of higher education institutions is the first step in an ongoing effort to restructure the system. This is guidance for the implementation of Article 9 of the Higher Education Law, which states that the system will be divided into three tiers: basic research, applied research and professionally oriented research.

Can this help shape a better system that reflects the diverse needs for socio-economic development and produce better outcomes for the country?

The idea of restructuring the higher education system came from the recommendations of the Master Plan for Higher Education in Vietnam, a study led by Professor Martin Hayden with the support of a national consultancy team and funded by the Ministry of Education and Training.

The Higher Education Law states that higher education institutions will be stratified to serve planning interests, to increase the research capacity and quality of education and to support state management of the system. Second, higher education institutions will be ranked to evaluate a university’s prestige and the quality of education it offers.

However, Decree 73/ND-CP does not clearly reflect these purposes.

Decree 73

Stratification and rankings serve different purposes, as stated in the Higher Education Law; therefore they should be based on different criteria and procedures.

However, Decree 73 uses the same criteria for both stratification and rankings:

  • The role and position of the institution within the system;
  • The size of the institution including the number of programmes and degrees granted;
  • The balance between training and research;
  • The quality of education and research; and
  • The result of accreditation.

Therefore, stratification and ranking are the same. Nowhere in the decree are the purposes of the stratification and ranking identified. Therefore we do not know specifically what their purpose is except that the Ministry of Education and Training and other ministries will develop related policies based on the stratification and ranking outcomes.

However, nobody knows what these policies are so it is hard for university administrators to make a choice of which path they should be following. Indeed, they have no choice because the decree is simply a technical instruction for measuring the current status of the university and for grouping institutions according to their 10-15 years strategic plan development.

Why stratify the system?

Stratification is about restructuring the system, and rankings are about making information about the quality of universities available to the public in comparison to other institutions.

Stratification is meaningful only when each type of higher education institution has distinct goals, aimed at serving different groups of students and therefore requiring a different strategic plan, governance structure, funding scheme, recruitment requirements and admission policies.

For instance, a community college should focus on lifelong learning needs and professional development of middle managers and skilled labour to serve the specific needs of the locality. It does not need high admissions standards; it should emphasise application and experience sharing to meet the need of local industries; and it should be flexible in delivering programmes or granting degrees.

In contrast, a research university aimed at generating new knowledge and training the next generation of academics must be highly selective in admission standards. It must focus on connections to international academia. It must be capable of competing for a research grant at the global scale. To do so, its staff recruitment policies should be based on research output achievement and international reputation. Funding schemes and personnel management should also be different.

This is what is seriously lacking in Vietnam’s system. At present, most universities and colleges do not differ from each other regarding their missions and governance structure. They do not have a particular emphasis and features on which they can focus resources to develop their strengths. The diversification of the system is thus undermined.

Will Decree 73 help to solve these problems? It is unclear because it seems to support the current situation in which no tertiary institution is different from any other. The stratification and rankings implementation, as provided in Decree 73, might help institutions to realise where they are in the system. The question is: so what? So far there is no answer.

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