VIETNAM: Higher education quality poor, says minister

The massification of Vietnam's higher education sector in the last two decades has led to quality problems that do not "match the demands of society and of the nation's development", Minister of Education and Training Pham Vu Luan (pictured) has admitted to the National Assembly.

"Vietnam is now suffering from an excess of low quality universities and a lack of high quality ones," he told the assembly on 24 November, in response to almost 40 questions from deputies, most of them raising concerns that the deteriorating quality of higher education was becoming uncontrollable, especially in private institutions.

It was the first time Luan had faced questioning in the assembly since his appointment this year. Newer universities and non-public institutions are become less attractive to students and their families, in part because of quality issues, the deputies said.

Vietnam should have predicted quality problems after the breakneck expansion of higher education over the last 20 years, according to observers, as well as a "reckless negligence" of quality assurance mechanisms, which did not exist before 2005.

In 1987, Vietnam had just 87 higher education institutions. By 2011 the number had risen to 386, some 40 of them established from 2007 to 2010.

Dao Trong Thi, chair of the National Assembly's committee on culture, education and youth, told local media: "The fact that few proposals [to set up new universities] were rejected led to a boom in the number of new institutions of unreliable quality."

The first regulation on higher education quality assurance was promulgated in 2004, and the Bureau of Testing and Education Quality Assurance under the education ministry was set up a year later.

"Quality accreditation of higher education is only at a voluntary stage, and many universities haven't met the requirements. Hence, we cannot rely on the real quality of Vietnam's universities," said an educator from Hanoi who would not be named.

"According to the ministry regulation, all institutions must have an office in charge of internal quality assurance, but I know that few have these," the educator said.

Many high-income families have sent their children to study overseas, with some 50,000 Vietnamese going abroad every year for higher education. The number of 'education refugees' as they are called by Pham Thi Ly, an educator at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, is continuing to rise.

Students whose families cannot afford to send them abroad enroll in private institutions if they are not accepted at public institutions.

Last month, reports that the provincial government of the northern province of Nam Dinh had refused jobs to holders of degrees from private institutions ignited a series of heated debates in the media.

Luan told the national assembly: "The ministry never promulgates a policy that differentiates between degrees from the public and private sectors." But he conceded: "The story of Nam Dinh has alarmed us about the quality of the private sector."

He said the ministry and the ruling Communist Party's central committee for education and information would set up a "research group on comprehensive reform of education", stopping short of calling for reform itself. He also said the ministry would tighten up on the establishment of new universities.

The minister said five universities had been inspected for quality and that another 20 institutions would be checked by the end of this year. The inspection plan this year is seen as the ministry's belated response to escalating criticism on lax procedures for establishing universities in previous years.

Plans to inspect universities in the south have been set for next year. "Based on the inspections, we will have appropriate adjustments in policies such as retracting permissions, reducing [enrolment] quotas, closing courses or even [closing] institutions," Vice-minister of Education Bui Van Ga was quoted as saying by the official Thanhnien (Youth Daily).

Ga said 101 graduate programmes from 35 institutions had been temporally halted, and two other universities had their permits to enrol undergraduate students retracted. Some institutions have been required to reduce their enrollment quotas, he said.

However Le Nam, the parliamentary deputy for Thanh Hoa province, criticised minister Luan for not providing solutions to improve higher education quality.

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