VIETNAMESE UNIVERSITIES AND COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT:
AN INITIAL NEEDS ANALYSIS
Ly Pham (2014)
Presented at Malaysia Global Outreach Forum held by IPPTN, 01.09.2015 in Penang, Malaysia
After two decades of impressive growth, the expansion of Vietnam’s higher education system has been slowing down since 2011. A popular argument many people shared is that such a growth has been obtained at the expenses of the quality. Therefore, the policy makers, the university administrators, and observers might agree that Vietnamese higher education institutions (HEIs) need to move to the next stage of focusing on higher quality of education for survival in a competitive environment. A question constantly raised these days is the relevance of the university education. It stimulates thinking on university missions and how they are delivered: teaching, research and community services. This article provides an initial analysis on the needs for increasing community engagement of the Vietnamese universities. Community engagement can be a critical factor justifying the relevance of HEIs and open new development strategies responding to current challenges.
The Context of Vietnam’ Higher Education
Temple of Literature (Quoc Tu Giam), founded in 1076, is usually seen the first “university” of Vietnam, meaning a place for training elite people to become leaders of the society. However, a modern university as one perceives today to be born in Vietnam just since 20s of the last century. It followed the French model at the beginning, then after 1954, the HEIs in North of Vietnam followed mono-disciplines model of the Soviet while the institutions in South influenced were by comprehensive model of the U.S.
Since reunification in 1975, the influences of the Soviet model continued and still existing in most of HEIs in Vietnam, with the two characteristics: focusing on teaching and mono-disciplines. The tradition of theoretical learning has been continued by an ivory tower conception, causing a situation in which the linkages between universities and society are detached. Among three core missions of teaching, research and community services, Vietnamese HEIs almost always focus only on teaching. Research is undertaken in institutes setting outside the universities. Community services are seen an extra-curriculum activities rather than one of three major functions of a university.
At the present, Vietnamese universities are in challenging situation: state financial support is being restrained; student and family affordability are limited, low quality of degrees is becoming overwhelming, and the high-income consumers sector is held by foreign providers. Vietnam’s HEIs have been lacking of students, and this situation will become more serious in coming years due to decreasing the number of high school students. Therefore, improving performance and quality of education is the matter of survival for most of Vietnamese HEIs, especially non-public ones.
Linkages between community and universities
To date there has not been a single study that presents the overall picture of the universities engagement to the community based on reliable data. In this section we provide our observations obtained by discussions with colleagues and other stakeholders of the higher education in Vietnam.
For many years, Vietnam’s HEIs exist as an ivory tower, due to the two reasons: (1) most HEIs are public institutions granted by state financing and limited autonomy. They do not have strong motivations for innovation. (2) Between 1975 and 2011, public HEIs do not really need to attract students; therefore they do not see community engagement as a matter of survival.
In other words, the tradition of ivory tower was strengthened by a central planning economy does not create incentives for HEIs to engage with local community and serve the specific needs of the society. Community engagement activities are seen most popular including “Green Summer Volunteer Campaign”, launched by Communist Youth Union in 1993 and becoming a large movement attracting hundreds thousand of participating students. Green Summer is voluntary activities of the university students in their summer holidays aimed at serving disadvantaged people in remote areas. It creates a practices environment helping students to actively exercise important skills such as planning, team- work, public speaking and communication. Though this helps greatly for capacity building, the campaign is still a mode of education rather than truly services that universities offer to transform the community.
This overall picture has been currently changing, by the participation of non-public sector in higher education, and gradual shifting in financial autonomy of the public schools.
The emergence of non-public HEIs and the needs to meet the demands of the market
During last two decades there have been a significant number of private HEIs established. To date they accounted for 19% of the total number of HEIs and 1% of the total students. Financially they totally depend on student tuition fees therefore they have strong motivations to meet the demands of the market in general; and particularly the labor market.
However, private schools have focused on “education market” rather than labor market and the needs of local community. Most of schools have a functional unit namely center/department/division/office for business relations and student support, which used to be named “Department of Political Affairs and Students” in public schools. To date, many schools recognize the need for increasing quality of student services, especially private schools, and renamed this unit to reflect their major tasks: nurturing the relationship with industry and support students for internship and employment.
There are some examples, such as FPT University that is well connected to the need of information technology industry; as they are owned by industries, for instance, FPT is owned by an IT company. A few schools that have community services program, such as Nguyen Tat Thanh University has a supporting television program entitled “Experts Consultancy” to provide applied knowledge to the general public.
Public universities and their efforts in terms of community engagement development
The emergence of non-public HEIs has brought a new fresh air stimulating the dynamic of the public schools, especially when institutional autonomy has been increasing in public ones.
More and more schools those recognize the need for strengthening linkages between HEIs and industries, by delivering tailored training programs, creating more opportunities for internships, improving the curriculum. These activities contribute greatly to strengthen the quality of education.
One specific feature of the public schools is committed to research activities, especially to the need for research of the local government. State funding for research in Vietnam is allocated by three channels: (1) Ministry of Science and Technology allocates directly to research institutes through research projects; (2) Through Department of Science and Technology at provinces to serve the need of the local government; and (2) Through Ministry of Education and Training to provide funding for research at the universities. Among them, funding provided for local government might not be used without cooperation with universities, as they do not have research workforce. This amount is currently accounted for 0.5-0.7 % of the total public expenditure of the local government and being recommended to increase up to 2%. The cooperation between universities and local government for doing research should be encouraged; however, the question about the effectiveness of these researches and their impacts in reality has never been answered convincingly with reliable data.
Some universities have tradition of committed to the needs of manufacturing and development of the local. They do very well regarding practical researches, which are relevant to the need of community such as Can Tho Univesity and their research work in agriculture or environment.
For public universities, the pressure of “to change or to close” is not as intensive as it is for private schools. However, benefiting from inter-governmental projects, some institutions have been supported by international organizations so that they can develop linkages between school and industries, and improving school performance to better meet the need of the society. A typical example is the Profession Oriented Higher Education Project, funded by Netherlands government. It helps participating universities having expertise and resources to rebuild curriculum based on labor market survey and professional competency profile. It also helps improving teaching methodologies, educational assessment, enabling learning experiences, and obtained encouraged outcomes.
It can be said that, there have several changes in the relations between university and community in Vietnam during last two decades. To date, this relation is built on awareness of benefiting schools rather than a “two ways” interactions and benefitting both sides, although many cooperation have been made possible by initiatives of the industries (T&C Consulting, 2013).
However this article emphasizes that, the connection between schools and industries is just a part of the goals for community engagement that a university should aimed at. Community engagement has a greater implication. The concept of engagement in research goes beyond community participation; it is the process of working collaboratively with relevant partners who share common goals and interests. This involves “building authentic partnerships, including mutual respect and active, inclusive participation; power sharing and equity; mutual benefit or finding the ‘win-win’ possibility” in the collaborative initiative (Zakus JD, Lysack CL 1998). It is a long- term relationship, active, equal, sharing information and resource for the benefit of both sides. It commits to practical impacts to the community. It requires the universities working on community benefits and to meet the specific needs of the community.
In this regard, Vietnamese universities have a long way to go to make such an engagement happen. Beside the major function of education, other functions of the Vietnamese universities are still unimpressive, if not to say, even with the function of training, they have not fully meet the needs of the labor market.
A study on the cooperation between universities and businesses conducted by T&C Consulting based on survey of 300 enterprises provided findings that this connection is weak due to less confidence on the benefit that the enterprises might obtain. Currently the existing cooperation is just short term, situational and in traditional forms. Only 3% of enterprises have research cooperation with universities, and only 2% have cooperation in commercialization of research findings.
The university’s contributions in dissemination knowledge for improving life standards of the local community, or to provide information, data for policy makers, are still modest. Most of policy research is undertaken in research institutes belongs to line management ministries and are separate from universities, such as Science and Technology Strategies and Policy Research Institute of the Ministry of Science and Technology, or Institute for Environmental Research belongs to Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, etc. There are very few policy research institutes that belong to the universities such as Vietnam Economic Policy Research of the National Economic University. What impacts of these findings are in policy-making practices is still in question.
The needs for community engagement in a changing world
Vietnamese universities, both public and private ones, are facing significant changes in a challenged context.
Such a context requires the universities to reconsider their missions. The tradition vision of seeing university mission as serving the community (one way service) has been replaced by the concept of “engagement” (two ways interactions). The third mission is increasingly seen as being important around the world.
Brief on the evolution of the concept “community engagement”
In the late 1800s of America, university outreach was largely one-way, and took the form of short courses, extension programs, and faculty consultation with business and agriculture. As the USA’s economy transitioned from rural to industrial, university outreach shifted its focus from serving the individual or farm to improving business and government organizations. Public service and outreach during this period were largely focused on knowledge application (Roper & Hirth, 2005, via Weerts & Sandman 2008).
A university innovation through technology transfer was no longer viewed as a “gift” to the public when it became a profit-generating activity in partnership with the corporate sector since the 1980s. Faculty began to view their work as “distributing discoveries to society” (Slaughter & Leslie, 1997, p. 183). The development of corporate partnerships has marked a transition toward a more two-way relationship with entities outside the academy (Roper & Hirth, 2005).
As Weerts and Sandman pointed out, during the 1990s, the movement toward engagement gained steam as two-way university-business partnerships continued to foster collaborative efforts to build regional economic development (Walshok, 1995). In addition, university resources were increasingly used to address community needs. Community service, civic engagement, and service- learning in higher education promoted service to community. During this period, the term engagement as a substitute for service, extension, and outreach suggested by Ernest Boyer, former president of the Carnegie Foundation, is introduced (Roper & Hirth, 2005).
In sum, it can be said that over the last 150 years higher education’s third mission has evolved and changed in response to developments in societal needs and expectations of higher education. These changes were fuelled, in part, to ensure the health and survival of higher education, both politically and financially. To date, community engagement has become evaluation criteria for university performance and system rankings, because it justified the relevance of university in a context more and more demanding on accountability.
The needs for Vietnam
The university engaged with community through its core business: generate and disseminate the knowledge, training workforce, and transferring technology for economic development.
Vietnamese society has lot of problems that need to be addressed. It can be solved better when solutions provided based on research rather than trial and errors. While many research works were put in drawings, many problem need to study but have never been done, or haven’t reached policy-makers/businesses who need them most for the community benefit.
Therefore, the universities should make an advanced step, to actively prove its relevance to policy making, to increase effectiveness of organizations and businesses. The fact is, answering the question about prospects in research collaboration with universities, businesses said that they are not optimistic (Ly Pham, OECD 2013). Multinational enterprises usually establish research and development units within their organization rather doing research by cooperation with universities. Local state agencies have not been familiar with using research for obtaining data and analysis to support their decision- making.
Meeting the true and urgent needs of the community in socio-economic development is the new strategy for survival for Vietnamese universities, When public resources are restrained all the universities are more and more dependent on the market.
Research, especially applied research and technology transfer brings inspiration and experiences to academics, providing them ideas and sense of contributions. This will bring meaningfulness to the research, a new dimension besides “publish or perish”, which is a driving force misleads research activities far from serving community.
In training, community engagement includes integrating employers’ perspectives in curriculum development and promoting interaction between stakeholders to better meet their needs. It also includes tailored training programs for adults, for professional development of businesses to meet the need of long life learning. It includes creating experienced learning environment for students to help them become ready for the real life in community. It is aimed at professions or industries needed for the local community. Above all, it prepares faculty members and students to be responsible members of the community.
In services mission, the community engagement of universities includes dissemination knowledge to the general public, eg., the Experts Consulting Program as of Nguyen Tat Thanh University, or seminar, workshop that are open to the public. Serving community can also include voluntary activities such as Green Summer Volunteer Campaign, or the like.
There is a long way for Vietnamese universities toward becoming a vital part of the community development-not just a degrees provider; and exploring opportunities from interaction with the community for the school’s growth. The above analysis presents particular requirements in teaching, research, and services for HEIs to obtain a quality engagement to the community; and provide some suggestive actions for them to satisfy all the stakeholders.
Community engagement is a two way interaction aimed at sharing and making use of resource, knowledge and information for the benefit of universities and communities. It helps open a larger platform for faculty members and students in terms of capacity building and contributing to the society. It is an exchange as to “give” and to “take”.
The third mission of the university (public service, outreach, and engagement) is increasingly being emphasized around the world, and can be seen as an important direction for Vietnamese universities in facing current challenges: the quality of education and HEIs’ relevance has been in question. Strengthening community engagement of the HEIs is a way of justifying the importance of the school in the society. It also brings energy, not just financial resources but also ideas and motivations.
- David J. Weerts and Lorilee R. Sandmann (2008). Building a Two‐Way Street: Challenges and Opportunities for Community Engagement at Research Universities. The Review of Higher Education, Volume 32, No. 1, pp. 73–106.
- Driscoll, A. (2008). Carnegie’s community-engagement classification: intentions and insights. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 40(1), 38-41.
- Inman, P., & Schütze, H. G. (Eds.). (2010). The community engagement and service mission of universities. Leicester: NIACE.
- Winter, A., Wiseman, J., & Muirhead, B. (2006). University-community engagement in Australia practice, policy and public good. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 1(3), 211-230.
 The total number of high school student in 2009 was 3.428 millions. It is foreseen that in 2019 the total number could be 2.566 millions (Education Indicators Analysis, General Statistics Office 2011, p. 32).
 “The employers report that the lack of workers with adequate skills is a significant obstacle to their activity. A majority of employers said that hiring new workers is a challenge either because of inadequate skills of job applicants (a skills gap), or because of a scarcity of workers in some occupations (an occupational skills shortage)” (Skilling up Vietnam, The World Bank, 2014, p.6).
 Report number 9: University and Business Cooperation. T&C Consulting 2013.
 Kelogg Commission 1999, cited from David J.Weerts and Lorilee R. Sandmann 2008.
 Roper & Hirth, 2005, p.16, cited from David J.Weerts and Lorilee R. Sandmann 2008, p. 76.
 Minister, Ministry of Science and Technology Nguyen Quan responded to Vietnamese Assembly in June 19, 2015 that “Research work completed has been put in drawings is a common and normal practice in Vietnam.