Why don’t Vietnam’s universities rank higher in Asia?

“Why doesn’t Vietnam have any schools among the top 350 in Asia?” This was the title of a recent article that was published by a top 10 media outlet in Vietnam. The obvious implication was that Vietnam should have schools in the top 350 of the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings.

Not surprisingly, Japan, which has the world’s third-largest economy, has the highest number of universities on the list (89), followed by China (63) with the number two global economy. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia has four universities and Thailand has one. The problem is that the reporter and others who jump on this bandwagon of critique are comparing apples and oranges.

The limited value of rankings

To answer a rhetorical question with another question: why should it? A cursory glance at the THE rankings reveals that it is wishful thinking that Vietnam should have any universities in the top 350, given the gap between what the methodology places value on and the current reality of Vietnamese higher education.

Most people like rankings because they seem like an easy way to gauge the quality of an institution of higher education. Like any rankings system, however, the THE World University Rankings has its limitations. It's important to know exactly what the methodology is evaluating, which logically determines its outcomes.

For example, the THE methodology is based on the following categories: teaching (30%), research (30%), citations (30%), international outlook (7.5%) and industry income (2.5%).

Here is a more detailed breakdown:
  • Teaching (the learning environment): 30%
    Reputation survey: 15%
    Staff-to-student ratio: 4.5%
    Doctorate-to-bachelor’s ratio: 2.25%
    Doctorates-awarded-to-academic-staff ratio: 6%
    Institutional income: 2.25%

  • Research (volume, income and reputation): 30%
    Reputation survey: 18%
    Research income: 6%
    Research productivity: 6%

  • Citations (research influence): 30%

  • International outlook (staff, students, research): 7.5%
    International-to-domestic-student ratio: 2.5%
    International-to-domestic-staff ratio: 2.5%
    International collaboration: 2.5%

  • Industry income (knowledge transfer): 2.5%

In Vietnamese higher education, faculty generally do not have enough time to conduct research and therefore publish, which would put Vietnamese universities at a distinct disadvantage when compared with other well-established and well-funded comprehensive and technical universities.

Therefore, both productivity and ‘influence’ through citations are naturally limited (60% of the total calculation is based on research and research influence through citations).

Second, although it is a long-term official goal, Vietnam does not yet host many international students and nearly all Vietnamese students studying overseas are not enrolled in a domestic university, plus there are relatively few international faculty.

Finally, university-industry cooperation, which can result in knowledge transfer and industry income, has a long and successful history in other countries yet is still very much a new frontier in Vietnam.

Giving credit where credit is due

There is a tendency in Vietnam, with the media as an on- and offline amplifier, to engage in self-flagellation about education and other societal issues rather than looking carefully at the broader context and the, sometimes, hopeful reality. This results in journalists and many Vietnamese playing the ‘blame game’. The obvious targets here are the Vietnamese government, including the Ministry of Education and Training, and the nation’s universities.

Vietnam’s English proficiency is another perennial target of complaints and criticism. In fact, Vietnam compares quite favourably to other countries in Asia, including Japan, China and Thailand, in this regard, based on survey and anecdotal evidence. It’s a matter of exercising criticism with all of the facts on the table and, where appropriate, giving credit where credit is due.

Eyes on the prize

Improving quality will take time. It’s a question of both resources and policy, the former a greater challenge than the latter. For example, in order to embrace the academic triad of teaching, research and service, faculty need to have a reduced teaching load and more time and resources to conduct research, publish results, make presentations, etc, to the benefit of their field, society and, in the case of applied fields, industry.

As many articles in the Vietnamese media never tire of pointing out, both post-secondary faculty and K-12 teachers also need to be paid more.

Universities should be judged on the extent to which they provide high-quality education and training to students using a curriculum that prepares them to enter the world of work and be good national and global citizens, as well as the extent to which they foster sustainable economic growth, forge worthwhile and mutually beneficial international connections, help address pressing societal challenges and improve the lives of the average Vietnamese.

The focus should be on improving quality and efficiency across the board for all stakeholders, including students, faculty and staff, industry and society at large, not on achieving a higher ranking in the latest international rankings survey.

While rankings supply useful information, the consumers of that information should be familiar with what is being measured and realise that most rankings are also intended to sell newspapers, magazines and generate digital advertising revenue, among other commercial uses.

Universities should not squander precious human and financial resources chasing after international rankings results, the higher education equivalent of a beauty contest in some respects. They should do their level best to accomplish their stated mission and then let the chips fall where they may vis-à-vis rankings.

Dr Mark Ashwill is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam. Capstone is the only education company in Vietnam that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States and officially accredited institutions in other countries. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam.