New doctoral education regulation sparks heated public debate

A newly released regulation on doctoral education – Circular 18/2021/TT-BGDT (Circular 18/2021) – was approved by Vietnam’s Ministry of Education and Training on 28 June 2021. It has ignited a heated debate among academics and policy-makers.

Specifically, Circular 18/2021 dismantled the requirement of international publishing as a prerequisite condition for PhD graduation that existed in the old 2017 regulation.

The old regulation required PhD candidates to publish two articles in peer-reviewed publications prior to his or her final thesis defence. One should be published in a domestic journal, while the other should be in an internationally indexed journal such as Clarivate Web of Science (WoS) or Scopus. The WoS/Scopus indexed article could be replaced by either a book chapter or two international conference papers written in a foreign language.

Under the new regulation, the requirement for international publishing has been removed; it means that PhD candidates can now publish only in Vietnamese journals before graduation.

Heavy criticism

Since its publication, the new regulation has received heavy criticism from scholars. Several high-profile scientists, in both hard and social sciences, have appeared in local media and social networks to express opposition to the new regulation.

According to these scholars, the new regulation may slow down the ongoing internationalisation of the research system in Vietnam.

Talking to local media Vietnamnet, Professor Ngo Viet Trung, chair of the Vietnam Mathematical Society, asserted that “requiring PhD candidates to have an international publication as a prerequisite condition of graduation is the most objective indicator of a ‘real’ doctor”, given the current low quality of supervisors and local journals.

Along the same lines, he and Dr Le Huy Bac, a professor of literature at Hanoi National University of Education, argued that the new regulation “had halted the increasing development of [Vietnam’s] social sciences” in particular.

Professor Bac acknowledged that when the old regulation was promulgated in 2017, he had not had any articles in international publications – but the old regulation had motivated him to publish internationally since then.

Other notable academic figures also appeared on local media to express concerns about the new regulation, including Associate Professor Huynh Van Chuong, chair of Hue University, Associate Professor Phan Ha Duong from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology’s Institute of Mathematics, and Professor Nguyen Dinh Duc from Vietnam National University-Hanoi, among others.

The official explanation

In response to this criticism, Ministry of Education and Training representatives explained that the new policy aligns with the agenda of enhancing the autonomy framework outlined by the Higher Education Law’s Amendment of 2018.

Talking to Lao DongThe Labour – Dr Nguyen Thu Thuy, director of the ministry’s Higher Education Department, asserted that the new regulation only set a minimum bar in terms of publications for PhD candidates. Higher education institutions had the discretion to set a higher bar than the ministry's requirement.

Deputy Minister Hoang Minh Son, who talked to Tien PhongThe Pioneer – argued that mandating PhD candidates to have an international publication, in a national policy document, is not a common practice. For instance, the University of Malaya in Malaysia had to withdraw the requirement to publish WoS/Scopus papers for PhD candidates in social sciences in 2017.


To fully understand the current debate, we must comprehend the context in which the old regulation (Circular 08/2017) was released. Specifically, in 2016 there were big concerns at the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS), the biggest graduate school in social sciences in Vietnam, about its doctoral education.

At that time, VASS was blamed for taking on too many doctoral students who had only a limited capacity for research. In 2016, local media in Vietnam revealed that there were about 350 PhD graduates from VASS, equivalent to nearly one PhD graduate per day. Meanwhile, from 2011 to 2015, almost 1,000 full-time researchers from VASS only published 22 WoS-indexed articles.

These figures stunned the public and subsequently resulted in a scandal with VASS referred to as a ‘PhD incubator’ or ‘PhD hatching factory’. Due to the scandal, the Ministry of Education and Training promulgated the 2017 regulation as part of an effort to improve the quality of doctoral education.

Effect of the old regulation

The old regulation resulted in two trends.

The first trend was a decrease in the number of newly enrolled PhD students in Vietnam since 2018. According to the Ministry of Education and Training, the number of newly enrolled PhD students in 2017 was 3,074. In 2018 the number dropped to 1,496 and in 2019 the figure continued to decrease to 903.

The second trend has been an increasing number of WoS/Scopus papers published by Vietnamese scholars. According to the SCImago database, in 2017 Vietnamese scholars published 7,034 Scopus-indexed articles. The respective figures in 2018, 2019 and 2020 were 9,182, 13,068 and 18,886.

On average, the annual growth rate of Scopus publications from Vietnam between 2017 and 2020 was 39%, which is among the highest rates of growth in the region. This growth is not only observed in hard sciences but also in the social sciences.

Policy dilemma

The current debate around the new regulation on doctoral education, as well as the background to the 2017 one, implies confusion in the Ministry of Education and Training's vision regarding doctoral education.

This confusion stems from the dilemma of balancing quantity and quality research and of balancing domestically-oriented and internationally-oriented research. The problem of having too many PhD graduates with low quality qualifications has been identified as a chronic concern for more than a decade.

The 2017 regulation appeared to be an attempt by the Ministry of Education and Training to focus on quality and internationalisation. It is apparent that the new Circular 18/2021 signifies a U-turn.

Hiep Pham is an educational research fellow. He is currently director of research at the Hanoi-based Edlab Asia Centre for Educational Research and Development. He is also the director of STAR Scholars Vietnam. His research includes education renovation and scientometrics.