New higher education law approved, but sparks criticism

Vietnam’s national assembly has voted to adopt a wide-ranging Law on Higher Education, which was approved by almost 85% of the assembly this week – the first time the country has promulgated a law dedicated specifically to the higher education sector.

The law, approved on 18 June, has been eagerly awaited by educators and professors because of its wide-reaching effects on the higher education system and the economy, as it sets the stage for Vietnam to move towards a knowledge-based economy.

At a press conference in May, Vice-minister of Education Bui Van Ga, who is the executive deputy head of the drafting committee, said he hoped the new law would provide standard principles for higher education development as well as the promotion of human resources in a knowledge-based economy in the future.

“Without a comprehensive law, we cannot ensure the sustainable development and reform of higher education," he said.

The law for the first time mentions that national and regional universities will receive more investment and be given increased autonomy. National universities in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and regional universities in Thai Nguyen, Hue and Danang have until now had to run under ‘special decrees’.

Increasing autonomy for public and private universities alike is an important part of the new law, which also includes clauses on international education cooperation that have not previously been formally included in legislation, and other clauses that would remove the government cap on tuition fees and allow public and private universities to decide on their own fee levels.

For public institutions, however, there could be some conditions attached to fee levels and they may have to be set within government-set limits.

The new law is also expected to strengthen the research mission of universities, which are still regulated under older Soviet-era laws that separated teaching and research.

Controversies remain

The new law is overdue and was expected to be in place a year ago, after the government suggested in 2010 that the national assembly promulgate a specific higher education law. But because of controversy over many details in earlier drafts, delays have occurred.

After previous consultations, a fourth version of the new law was finally announced on the national assembly’s website in late May. Although it has now been promulgated, it sparked criticism and debate from educators and experts in local media.

The law has been adjusted to fit in with international standards for-profit and non-profit institutions, ‘classification’ of higher education – where universities are ranked according to their role including size and whether they carry out research – university autonomy, and setting up boards of trustees at institutions.

According to Bui Van Ga: "The objective of classification is to support private universities in [acquiring] land, credit and faculty development, and to invest in public universities.”

Some parliamentary deputies also suggested during consultations in May that the proportion of foreign capital contributed by foreign investors should be regulated, and the level of foreign investment allowed should depend on the amount of autonomy.

Autonomy and quality assurance

University autonomy has been regarded as a pressing issue in higher education reform in Vietnam for many years.

“Autonomy and accountability are indispensable attributes of higher education institutions, and the current application-approval mechanism is demolishing the innovation and creation of universities,” said Tran Du Lich, parliamentary deputy for Ho Chi Minh city, commenting in January on the third draft of the law.

However, although the version of the law promulgated this week did include some sections on autonomy, it did not satisfy many educators.

Vu Thi Phuong Anh, a member of the Association of Non-public Universities and a well-known expert on education management, wrote in Nguoi Lao Dong (Workers’ Daily) that “autonomy issues are not described enough in the new law to help institutions proactively run their operations on academic affairs as well as research and development activities”.

Quality assurance, still in its infancy in Vietnam’s higher education system, also attracted attention and comment.

Nguyen Thi Kim Be, deputy for Kien Giang province, argued that the quality assurance agency should operate in the way the state audit of Vietnam operates in the finance sector – under the rigour of the national assembly, rather than under the Ministry of Education as is the case now.

Vietnam’s first regulation on higher education quality assurance was only promulgated in 2004, and the Bureau of Testing and Education Quality Assurance under the education ministry was set up in the following year.

Tran Thi Tam Dan, former chair of the national assembly's committee on culture, education, youth and children, even suggested in an interview in Tuoi Tre (Youth), that the private sector should be involved in education evaluation.

Delays in promulgating the law

Delays in the law have meant that some sections may not have kept up with other developments.

Nguyen Minh Thuyet, former deputy chairman of the national assembly's education committee, and emeritus professor of Vietnam National University in Hanoi, has said the law does not relate enough to the government’s November 2011 Human Resources Development Strategy, which set an objective of having 573 higher education institutions and 400 university students per 10,000 people by 2020.

With dissatisfaction over the law lingering, some education experts had proposed yet another postponement.

Lam Quang Thiep, former director of higher education at the Ministry of Education, was quoted as saying in Tien Phong (Pioneer) this month that the law included ‘new’ concepts such as for-profit and non-profit, classification of higher education and boards of trustees to oversee autonomous institutions.

“These new concepts are still being debated. Maybe we should spend more time considering them”, Thiep suggested.

On the other hand, after years of waiting, many university leaders have been impatient for a law to be in place.

As mentioned, this is the first time the assembly has promulgated a separate law on higher education after the Education Law of 1998 was replaced by another in 2005. Both included higher education.

The general education law is considered weak and not detailed enough for higher education, which has been developing apace. In particular it is not considered adequate to govern the burgeoning private higher education sector, or to settle issues such as the need for increased institutional autonomy.

The new higher education law will come into effect from May 2013.