VIETNAM: Model university heralds culture change

If Vietnam is to follow China in becoming a low-cost manufacturing centre for the world it needs good universities geared towards 'world-class' research and innovation. The new University of Science and Technology Hanoi (UST) could cater to that need. But attracting the best students and academics requires institutional autonomy - a major cultural shift.

When the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced a huge loan of US$190 million for USTH in May, the amount raised eyebrows. It was clear that the Vietnamese government was serious about setting up a state-of-the-art technology university, and a partial admission that its existing universities were failing to meet world-class criteria.

The funding was requested by the government itself, said Norman LaRocque, Senior Education Specialist for the ADB.

"Vietnam's prime minister initiated the discussion with the heads of the World Bank and development banks in Vietnam to go forward on this new model of university. It meets the development needs of Vietnam, which recently achieved lower middle-income status."

LaRocque described it as a bottom-up reform of higher education. A consortium of French universities has devised the curriculum, which will be taught by professors from France until the university can attract or train top Vietnamese academics.

Although teaching will be in English and French, USTH is not an international branch campus or a private university but a Vietnamese public university that intends to provide international standards of teaching and research.

Its Rector, Pierre Sebban, a French chemist, must steer a delicate course. "I have to put myself in a Vietnamese skin as I am rector of a Vietnamese university and I have to obey Vietnamese rules. But at the same time I am running an international university. And the question of autonomy is a permanent debate," he told University World News.

For example, just putting out banners in the street in August to publicise USTH courses required approval from both the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET).


Vietnamese institutions have limited autonomy. Enrolments are controlled, tuition fees are capped, and MOET makes most decisions including appointing the rector and establishing spending and budget guidelines.

There is some autonomy for managing funds, research, some aspects of human resources and international cooperation. But it is not the same as a fully autonomous university within the public sector. And Sebban finds he is feeling his way.

"When I talk about autonomy [with the Vietnamese authorities] we are not speaking about the same thing. We have to compromise. Sometimes I must compromise on some things in order to get other things which are more important," said Sebban.

One compromise involved having to accept that all Vietnamese students must attend Marxism courses. But at USTH they will only be summer courses and they will not be held at the university "We don't want to deliver those courses," said Sebban.

The ADB's LaRocque said: "We certainly did start with different definitions of autonomy. The Vietnamese government equates autonomy with a private university fully-funded. The concept of a public university autonomous of the government is still a big thing to get through. It is a big issue and one we need to work on throughout the implementation."

The government allows the private sector to set up universities such as telecommunications company FPT's Hanoi University and investment company Becamex's Eastern International University in Binh Duong province.

Vietnam's first foreign university, RMIT International University, opened in 2001 and has more than 3,000 students. The German Vietnamese University opened near Ho Chi Minh City in 2008. There are also more than 200 joint degree or cooperation programmes between Vietnam universities and foreign institutions.

The difference is that the ADB loan agreement to build the USTH campus to house 5,000 students and researchers, which will be completed in the next five to six years, includes clauses on academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

"Academic freedom is another pillar of a well-functioning university," said LaRocque

"It is not just about a new building and facilities and equipment but a new way of operating universities. It is fundamental because if the governance and funding are not right, it is not going to work. Not many universities in Vietnam are operating at that international level of being in the top 200 or even 500 in the world."

Recruitment and pay

Autonomy includes allowing USTH to attract the right academic staff and students. The first cohort of students was enrolled in 2010 and is being taught in temporary premises.

"Competition for talent is fierce and because of that you can't tie the hands of the university. We have very much been pushing a flexible system so that the university can set its own employment arrangements," said LaRocque.

Rector Sebban added: "We are free to recruit whoever we want. But salaries are a thorny issue. In Vietnam academic staff are public servants with pay levels, promotion, and hiring and firing decisions made centrally."

USTH needs to pay better salaries than the Vietnamese norm to attract good staff, including Vietnamese who want to return home from abroad.

"There are many Vietnamese scientists in Europe and the US who want to come back. There is a very strong spirit among them of wanting to come home," said Sebban, who added that not everybody was looking for a huge salary. Other attractions included good equipment and facilities and a core of good colleagues.

All the jobs at USTH are currently part-time so that it is not accused of poaching from other public universities. "I tell them that soon I will offer them a very good salary, but I cannot offer it now," said Sebban.

He admitted that in the coming year staff salaries would be "a hot topic". It would not happen without political support and the issue was likely to "go all the way up to the prime minister".

The regulation on salaries could go to the prime minister by the end of September, and approval would be a small but important victory and would pave the way for other reforms.

University charter

The French government is giving about US$100 million for USTH's development and operating costs, including providing the curriculum, research training, and paying for the rector and some other academic staff and scholarships.

Degrees will be accredited by both USTH and a French university. "This is excellent for us as we try to sell our university [to students]. Vietnamese students want to go abroad but we say you can stay in Hanoi and we will support you. International is the 'key' for them and their parents," Sebban said.

The Vietnamese and French governments are still negotiating the university's charter, which will operate as its constitution. Though not part of the funding agreement, it is seen by many as very important for guaranteeing autonomy.

"The charter for the Vietnam-German university was imposed, there was no debate. In our case there has been a debate for 18 months until we agreed on a common version," Sebban said.

But the real proof of the autonomy pudding will be when the university council is established under the charter and holds its first meeting. The council will include representatives of France's education and foreign affairs ministries as well as major research organisations in France together with high-level Vietnamese officials.

"The debate will be animated, I am sure. There are still some administrative points to sort out," Sebban said.

Political support would still be important. At a party congress in early August, former MOET Minister Nguyen Dy Nien had to defend the new international universities as some in the party hierarchy still maintain that money should be spent on improving existing universities.

On 17 August Nien visited USTH, which was seen as an indication that at the party level at least, support had been won for the new university model. It might not amount to the cultural change that is still needed, but is an important step in the right direction.

Related links

VIETNAM: New state-of-the-art S&T university
CHINA: Universities still have problems
CHINA: More autonomy for universities

I twice had an opportunity to teach in the school of biotechnology at the International University (Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City) as Visiting Professor. It is my observation that Vietnamese universities are on a par with any university in India. They have a well organised curriculum pattern and dedicated teachers. Maybe their salaries must be increased on a par with salaries of other Asian countries.

It is true that every student should study Marxism-Leninism, Ho Chi Minh Thought and History of their Communist Party. What is wrong in it?

We all know how much the heroic people of Vietnam struggled for three decades under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Party to establish a socialist republic. The history of this hard-earned freedom and liberation from the French and US colonial oppression should be necessarily taught to future generations.

It is not acceptable that Vietnam should bend its party ideology for the sake few million dollars given by France or Germany or any other country.

Professor T.K.Raja