Student experience varies by gender, discipline, university type

Higher education has been regarded as one of the fundamental tools for Vietnam to uplift its workforce so that it can aspire to become an upper-middle-income country by 2035. According to the World Bank’s Human Capital Index Vietnam ranks 48 out of 157 countries, with the highest result among middle-income countries.

Various reforms, including the latest amendment of the Law on Education (Law No 43/2019/QH14, dated 14 June 2019), have been made to the higher education sector to optimise its potential to transform the nation’s human capital development.

Higher education has two fundamental goals, according to this law:

• To develop a highly educated workforce, nurture talent and enhance the country’s research and science output in order to produce new knowledge and products to meet the demands of Vietnam’s economic and social developments and its needs in relation to national defence, security and international integration.

• To educate well-rounded learners who possess strong ethics and knowledge, good health and a sense of professional responsibility so they are capable of keeping up with advanced science and technology, can learn independently and create and adapt to the workplace and possess an entrepreneurial mindset and willingness to serve the needs of the public.

In line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the latest official statistics show progress in gender equity in the Vietnamese higher education sector. In the academic year 2019 to 2020 Vietnamese universities enrolled 1,672,881 students of whom 54.6% were female compared with 48% in 2006.

However, to what extent higher education has empowered women and whether the quality of learning experiences has been equal between female and male students are crucial questions for our understanding of gender equality and empowerment in higher education in Vietnam.

When it comes to quality of education – SDG 4 – there is also a need to look at what student experience tells us. The majority of students in Vietnam study at public higher education institutions. For example, in 2019 to 2020 78.2% and 21.8% of 447,483 students commenced their studies at public and private universities, respectively.

Vietnamese universities now offer a diversity of majors to cater to students’ different career aspirations and labour market needs. But are there any differences in student experiences across public and private higher education institutions and disciplines?

We conducted a series of studies and received approximately 4,300 responses to surveys and interviews with students in Vietnamese universities between 2015 and 2020. The research focuses on how teaching and learning reforms in higher education in Vietnam are viewed from the student perspective.

The study responds to a critical need to understand higher education reforms from the point of view of student experience within a context where these reforms are predominantly viewed from the perspectives of policy-makers, higher education leaders and academics.

Our research found statistically significant differences in the experiences between different student groups, but most prominently between (i) male and female students, (ii) students across different disciplines, (iii) and students from public and private institutions.

Differences in learning experiences across genders

In most instances female students spoke of less favourable experiences than their male peers. For instance, females rated their experience with support services for first-year students’ transition into higher education much lower compared with the males. Female students also rated the value-add of attending higher education much lower in comparison to their male counterparts.

Such rating patterns suggest that female students may experience inequality in their learning experiences.

Gender-related differences in learning experiences could be ascribed to both a lack of targeted resources and policies to empower women learning in higher education, gender stereotypes, systemic barriers and Confucian socio-cultural beliefs and practices that result in feelings of inhibition. Such practices may have affected their higher education experiences.

Differences in learning experiences across fields of study

The experiences of students across various academic disciplines varied depending on the specific reforms being considered.

For instance, when it came to the physical learning environment STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – students had more positive experiences compared to social sciences students. However, STEM students had more negative experiences with student services compared to their peers in social sciences.

STEM students rated their experiences with ICT usage in teaching and learning significantly higher than social sciences students. However, social sciences students indicated better experiences when it came to the implementation of assessment practices.

Although the data was collected from different cohorts of students these discrepancies in their experiences imply a potential imbalance or fragmentation in the execution of teaching and learning reforms across different faculties or schools.

This difference may be attributed to variations in the nature of specific disciplines, leading to different levels of complexity when implementing reforms within specific disciplinary contexts.

Differences across private and public universities

Across nine of the 10 studies students from private institutions consistently reported more positive experiences compared to those from public institutions, except for their experiences of assessment practices. Specifically, they gave higher ratings to the physical, service-related and academic learning environments at their institutions when compared to students from public institutions.

This trend was also evident in their experiences with student-centred teaching and the use of ICT for teaching and learning, as well as how they perceived the value of their time in higher education. These highly consistent findings indicate a significant improvement in teaching and learning reforms within private institutions.

As such, they align with recent observations that several Vietnamese private higher education institutions, backed by substantial investments from large corporations and leaders who aspire to improve the quality of education, have emerged as prestigious providers of higher education. This could also be ascribed to the fact that private institutions have more autonomy than their public counterparts.

Consequently, this implies an imminent and intense competition between private and public institutions in Vietnam, eroding the traditional status of public institutions as being associated with a higher quality of education within the higher education system. However, it is important to note that this competition should ultimately benefit students rather than impede their personal and professional growth.


It is crucial to look beyond the numbers to think about what to do to improve students’ learning experiences and the effectiveness of the teaching and learning reforms.

First, female students, especially those from regions outside the capital, should receive tailored support to facilitate their higher education journey. In order to promote gender equity, reduce stereotypes and inspire female students, it is crucial to implement gender-inclusive policies, mentorship programmes, women’s support groups and female empowerment and role model events.

Second, consistency in teaching and learning reforms across different disciplines or programmes, especially those offered by the same institution, is vital to ensure equal access to learning opportunities, sufficient resources and equitable treatment for all students.

Third, it is vital to make changes to the conventional leadership and management practices currently in place. A blend of top-down and bottom-up leadership approaches to different types of reforms and priorities seems the best policy in the current context of Vietnamese higher education. This approach can leverage the potential of both new and experienced leaders and academics within a predominantly seniority-based organisational culture.

Fourth, institutional autonomy and accountability is needed for teaching and learning reforms. That will encourage Vietnamese universities to implement innovative measures to improve students’ learning experiences instead of relying on local and central authority guidelines.

Dr Tran Le Huu Nghia is a research fellow in the College of Business and Economics at the Australian National University. He has taught and engaged with research in higher education for 19 years. He has published extensively on topics related to graduate employability, work-integrated learning and student experience in higher education. Nghia’s research and publications can be found in this profile. Ly Tran is a professor in the School of Education at Deakin University in Australia. Ly has published extensively on internationalisation of education, international students, international graduate employability, Indo-Pacific student mobility and comparative and Vietnamese higher education. Tran’s research and publications can be found in this profile. The results of their research are reported in their recent book, Students’ Experiences of Teaching and Learning Reforms in Vietnamese Higher Education.