Strict new regulations on foreign providers and programmes

A new government decree to tighten regulations on foreign-based education institutions and cross-border programmes in Vietnam will come into force this month, aimed at arresting the unregulated proliferation of foreign-linked institutions and raising standards in the sector.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved the new decree 73/2012/ND-CP, often referred to as Decree 73, on 26 September. It will come into effect on 15 November and covers education institutions with foreign links from early childhood education to university level.

For higher education, it specifies a minimum level of investment per student, strict rules on teacher-to-student ratios and on minimum English-language proficiency, as well as regulations on teacher qualifications.

It follows a government order earlier this year to seven higher education providers affiliated with institutions in Singapore, Australia and France, to cease operations and pay fines.

They were said to be violating rules and were denounced as unqualified, unlicensed or even operating as ‘degree mills’.

For the first time, a foreign-owned education institution – Raffles Vietnam, run by Raffles Singapore – had its licence to operate in Vietnam revoked in March because of “continuous violations” of the rules, according to official accounts.

Two other foreign-affiliated institutions – ILA Vietnam and ERC Vietnam – were fined US$10,000 each for ‘illegally’ recruiting students onto several degree courses.

Raffles disputes that it was acting against the law. And the defence in some other cases has been that the rules were unclear and sometimes contradictory.

Unclear regulatory environment

Previously, cross-border programmes and foreign-based education institutions – wholly owned and joint ventures alike – operated under a raft of different regulations, which experts described as unclear, lacking in detail, often superficial and not applied systematically.

For example, some foreign-linked institutions were given exceptional approval by the authorities, bypassing the regulations.

In particular, the regulatory system has been unable to keep up with the proliferation and variety of foreign providers and their programmes in recent years.

Since the first cross-border course was launched in the mid-1990s, some 500 programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and four foreign-linked universities, have been established in Vietnam.

Foreign-linked programmes, particularly at higher education level, have been criticised by academics and the public as being of deteriorating quality, with few proper controls.

“The management system, which has not kept pace with real practice, lacks guidelines and instructions,” said Dao Trong Thi, chair of the National Assembly’s culture, education and youth committee, in the local Tien Phong (The Pioneer) newspaper in June.

Thi and other experts say policy-makers are at least partially responsible for the current market chaos.

Nguyen Thanh Huyen, deputy director of international cooperation in the Ministry of Education and Training, told local media the day after announcing the new decree in September that the new regulation will supersede all others as it specifically covers all aspects of foreign-related education activities.

Clampdown on foreign institutions

Decree 73 specifies that foreign higher education institutions should have an initial investment in Vietnam amounting to at least 300 billion dong (US$15 million) and a minimum cost per student of 150 million dong (US$7,500).

The teacher-to-student ratio in science, engineering and technology should not be higher than 1:15, while the ratio in social sciences, humanities, economics and business should be 1:25 or better.

The decree also sets out more demanding English proficiency requirements for students, equivalent to a minimum B1 level in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

In the past, limited English proficiency of local students has led to dual lecturers for many courses, with a foreign lecturer, and a local tutor in charge of translation or interpretation. To help improve English proficiency this will not be allowed under Decree 73.

The decree also states that the quality of foreign-linked programmes must be verified by quality assurance agencies overseas.

Some gaps in the decree

However, the new decree does not cover all areas and observers have noted that some clauses lack detail.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one university’s administrator agreed that the regulation was good because most criteria were measurable, but some were “incomprehensible”.

“This [decree] requires that a foreign lecturer should have at least five years' experience. With this clause, I understand that the policy-makers are referring to the lecturer’s teaching quality. But they should understand that in the academic world, capacity is not always related to experience or age,” he told University World News.

Others warned that the new decree should not lead to too restrictive an environment for foreign providers.

Hoang Nam Nhat, an associate professor of physics with extensive experience of international cooperation, pointed out that in 2007 Vietnam had become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which promotes global free trade.

He suggested that every clause in Decree 73 should be verified against WTO rules “to ensure no violation of our commitments under the GATS [General Agreement on Trade in Services] framework, such as unfavourable treatment of foreign-based institutions.”