Course cull aims to improve quality - Government

An announcement by Vietnam's Ministry of Education and Training that 207 undergraduate programmes at 71 universities and colleges will be axed in the forthcoming academic year - in part because of under-qualified academics - has rocked the higher education community.

The list includes some prestigious courses, such as oceanography offered by the highly regarded Ho Chi Minh City University of Science. But the most badly affected are fine arts, modern languages and vocational courses taught at degree level by practitioners rather than academics with PhDs.

The current regulations lay down that bachelor programmes must have at least one lecturer with a PhD degree and three lecturers with masters degrees. Associate bachelor programmes require four lecturers with at least masters. Full-time academic staff should be adequate to cover around 70% of the coursework of the programme.

Bui Anh Tuan, the ministry's director of higher education, said the move was aimed at increasing quality and "is expected to force universities to consolidate their staff".

"Academic [qualifications of] staff is one of the most critical issues determining education quality," Nguyen Minh Hac, a former education minister, told the online magazine Motthegioi - One World - last month. He said there were even more courses where staff were not qualified than the 207 announced in late January.

Tuan said last month that the decision was based on a 2013 evaluation and was a "next step" in efforts since 2011 to shore up higher education quality.

"In 2012, we revoked the operating licences of 58 doctoral programmes. In 2013, 161 other masters degree courses were also temporarily suspended," Tuan said.

Bui Van Ga, deputy minister of education and training, told local media that the ministry had also issued warnings about an additional 296 college courses where lecturers do not have the required qualifications.

However, this month the ministry said it had already received proposals by some 30 universities for more than 60 courses, to allow them to be renewed in time for the new academic year that begins in July.

Affected institutions

Vice-rector of Ho Chi Minh City University of Science, Nguyen Kim Quang, told local media he was surprised that the institution was included in the announcement. Oceanography was a traditional course offered by his university and the quality of the faculty had been maintained for years.

But one-size-fits-all criteria are not always an appropriate measure, especially in vocational or fine arts subjects, according to educators.

A number of foreign language training courses will also be affected, as many language teachers are not PhD holders.

Tran Thanh Hiep, rector of Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema, said the requirement for lecturers to have PhD and masters degrees "may be reasonable for regular courses", but is too rigid for specialised ones like photography or film at his institution.

"In fine art, trainers of artists should be artists, not PhD holders," Hiep maintained.

According to the ministry announcement, 15 out of 18 current courses at the institution will be frozen next year - the majority of the courses offered. Among those in danger of being culled are drama, playwriting, film and TV direction, and stage design.

Also affected is the music conservatory in Hue, which will have to suspend enrolment of students for its vocal music, music conducting and other music-related courses.

Bui Van Ga, the deputy minister, said the ministry had been "gentle" on fine arts and other humanities institutions, in order to facilitate admissions.

"Universities that provide training courses for music and theatre majors must have teachers with doctorates. However, if it's too hard for them to recruit, they are allowed to employ doctors who specialised in related fields," he said earlier this month.

Government measures

Just released statistics from the Ministry of Science and Technology show that Vietnam has 24,300 PhDs and 101,000 masters degree holders - an increase of 7% and 14% respectively over the previous year.

However, just 8,520 PhD holders were teaching in universities, while 633 were at junior colleges - an indication that many PhD holders do not opt for higher education jobs. Many prefer posts in government and state-owned enterprises.

The government has implemented a slew of measures, including a plan to send thousands of young lecturers to study for PhDs abroad, slashing student enrolment to maintain a reasonable ratio of lecturer-to-student, temporarily halting courses or even shutting institutions that do not match the requirements in terms of facilities and especially faculty.

According to the ministry announcement, universities and colleges whose programmes are discontinued this year will be able to resume enrolments if they can bring in qualified lecturers between now and December 2015.