Aiming for at least one world-class university by 2020

Vietnam is aiming for at least one ‘world-class’ national university to emerge by 2020, while also upgrading regional research-led universities to compete with the best in Asia by 2015 – in time for the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, economic community.

However, competing with more advanced Asian neighbours – let alone global powerhouses – will require major changes in the way larger universities are governed, experts say.

In particular Vietnam needs to grant more autonomy to big national and regional universities, according to Hien Huynh, a former manager in charge of research and development at a constituent college of Da Nang University, a regional university with several campuses.

Vietnam has no universities in the world’s top 200, or Asia’s top 100.

Getting one university into the top 200 by 2020 “would require a massive investment of funds in one institution; the creation of a completely autonomous public university; and measures to concentrate research talent – students and staff – in one institution,” said Martin Hayden, a professor from Southern Cross University in Australia and recently a consultant to Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training.

Constant reform

Vietnam National University Hanoi is closest to achieving Vietnam’s world-class aspirations, although it is still unable to compete with several other ASEAN countries on resources, governance and concentration of research talent.

The aim is an ambitious one, but changes have been ongoing.

After constant reform over 20 years, Vietnam National University, or VNU, now has “almost all the attributes” of a typical research-oriented university, said VNU Hanoi President Phung Xuan Nha, speaking last month at the university’s anniversary celebrations.

“Since 2012, we have been ranked among the top 250 in the QS Asia ranking. Indeed, in certain subjects like natural sciences or medicine, we have featured in the top 100,” Nha said.

Reforms include the introduction of internationalised programmes delivered fully or partly in English. The plan was for VNU Hanoi to appear in Asia’s top 200 by 2015 and top 100 Asia in 2020, Nha added.

VNU has six ‘member’ universities that specialise in a particular discipline – natural science, social sciences and humanities, technology, education, foreign languages and economics – and three research institutes covering all disciplines.

Research output

Research excellence is an important component of ‘world-class’ universities. However, Vietnam’s research sector has also lagged behind ASEAN countries such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

From 1991 to 2010, Vietnam contributed just 6% of ASEAN countries’ total publications in ISI journals. The corresponding figures for Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia were 45%, 21% and 16% respectively, according to Nguyen Van Tuan and Pham Thi Ly, in a recent paper published by Scientometrics comparing scientific output between ASEAN countries.

“There’s no real upturn in the number of Vietnam’s internationally published papers yet,” said Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at London University’s Institute of Education.

Meanwhile, efforts to improve research even at national and regional universities are being hampered by the brain drain of top researchers abroad.

Marginson, a co-author of a forthcoming book on higher education in Vietnam, described the brain drain as the “most serious problem”, and added that internally there was a “culture of suspicion against those who are internationally trained”.

In particular, he said, Vietnam was “not able to concentrate resources on creating world-class universities”. By comparison, China was able to pour money into the top institutions, research and restructuring.

Part of the problem is that Vietnam inherited a Soviet-style higher education and science model, with undergraduate-focused universities and colleges separated from research institutes. This needed reform, Marginson noted.


With increased autonomy and favoured with higher state financial allocations, the country’s five national and regional universities – especially Vietnam National University Hanoi – are expected to lead the way in this reform.

VNU’s reorganisation began in the early 1990s, as part of a bigger plan to establish five leading multidisciplinary research-oriented universities in major cities by merging existing single-discipline universities and colleges.

The university enhanced graduate education, with the current 1:3 ratio of graduate to undergraduate students more than three times the figure 20 years ago.

In a similar strategy based on fostering research, graduate education and internationalisation, VNU Ho Chi Minh City and three regional universities – Thai Nguyen, Hue and Da Nang – are striving to become research-led institutions.

National and regional universities have a dual governance structure with overarching ‘federal’ administration and leadership and a second layer of ‘member’ universities and colleges, and research centres and institutes.

However, the number of multi-disciplinary and research-oriented higher education institutions is still too small to meet the country’s needs, according to experts.

Southern Cross University's Martin Hayden said: “Research-oriented universities should be expanded to account for around 5% of the student population.”

For this to happen, national and regional universities needed to expand to a “VNU network of research-oriented universities under a single national university council, with a high level of institutional autonomy in terms of governance, finances, personnel decisions, student selection, the accreditation of training programmes and degree granting,” Hayden told University World News.

Da Nang University’s Hien Huynh said the country’s national and regional universities came about with the “mechanical addition” of different member universities and colleges, rather than through organic growth.

“This is somewhat like an engine formed from different parts which do not belong to the same ‘supply chain’ system,” Hien told University World News.

Although the two national and three regional universities each operate under a single governing body, they continue to operate as fragmented and independent units and are unable to scale up research.

Foreign collaboration

Aware that restructuring existing universities may not be enough, Vietnam is also setting up four to five new multi-disciplinary research universities, partnered with foreign universities and promised greater autonomy.

Three have been established in partnership with Germany, France and Russia, and two more are being negotiated with Japan and Britain.

Backed by substantial World Bank and Asian Development Bank loans, the hope is that at least one can reach the world’s top 200 by 2020, although few newly established universities have reached that level in such a short period.

Such projects show that the country is “able to collaborate quite broadly and take more than one set of examples”, Marginson said. But whether this would lead to even one world-class institution within the timeframe, was another matter.

“I don’t see any prospect of world-class universities emerging,” said Marginson.

* Yojana Sharma contributed to this article