Co-authors: Paul Bryant, Ph.D. (Eastern Connecticut State University- USA)
& Pham Thi Ly, Ph.D. (Center for Int. Education Culture Exchange &Research- VN)
(Paper presented at the Conference on International Comparative Education held by the CIECER, 2008, Vietnam)
Administration is a serious matter within Vietnamese higher education which emerged in a period of intense fluctuation and change to adapt to rapid global economic, intellectual, and social circumstances. It is difficult to imagine any educational reform within Vietnam Higher Education System without significant changes in the system’s administration and governance. A comparative analysis of the Vietnamese system and others will provide an international perspective to what are generally increasing national discussions and debates.
American higher education is a complex topic due in part to the variety of federal, state, and local policies and regulations that govern them. There is not a national education system in America except for the military academies such as the U.S. Naval Academy. On the other hand, Vietnamese higher education is quite uniform in terms of its governance. Almost all Vietnamese universities are state operated institutions with few private universities established in recent decades. Although Vietnamese higher education has been diversified into public universities, semipublic universities, private universities, joint-ventures with overseas universities and international universities, the state institutions are still dominating the system at least in terms of quantity.
In the US, states have their own Universities that vary in size and scope. For example, Connecticut has five state operated institutions and New York has around sixty campuses around the state. Additionally, some cities may also operate their own colleges. These usually are “junior colleges” that exist, in part, to provide a bridge between the secondary schools but the four-year colleges. Students attending two-year colleges are able to not only complete the first two years of their bachelor’s degree and do so at a substantially lower price compared to the cost of a four-year institution. It is important to note, that Americans often use interchangeably the words of college and university. In American jargon, “a college is a four-year institution of higher learning that offers courses in related subjects. A liberal arts college, for example, offers courses in literature, languages, history, philosophy, and the sciences, while a business college offers courses in accounting, investment, and marketing.” Colleges award bachelor’s degrees within about four years to students completing a particular program of study. Students may also attend colleges for graduate studies to complete their master and doctorate degrees. These usually take less time to complete but may vary widely from college to college depending on the curricular. The quality of education differs across the spectrum of colleges. Of the more than four thousand colleges in America, eight prestigious private colleges in the northeastern part of the country, called the “Ivy League” schools are considered to be the most prestigious. Students graduating from these universities are highly regarded in the job market of their respective disciplines making entry into the schools very competitive. Thus, other universities across the nation often compare their curriculum and success against these schools.
Today, Vietnam has 260 higher education institutions including state and private universities/colleges, most of them located in centers of the country like Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, some in provinces like Can Tho, An Giang, Dalat, Thai Nguyen, etc. Compared with state institutions, private universities in Viet Nam are few, though promising. It is important to note that most of the leaders of private universities in Viet Nam at present are originated from state universities, so the administration system between the state and private universities in Viet Nam are quite similar.
Funding and finance issues
The US government provides funding to both private and public higher education institutions. As a result, certain regulations governing the oversight and use of these funds are imposed upon the colleges. Tuition is usually charged to students at both public and private schools; however the amount varies from as low as a few hundred dollars per class to over forty-five thousand dollars a year for some top private institutions.
American Universities receive funding from three main sources: student tuition, gifts made by benefactors (endowments), and federal, state, and local funding. Colleges can be either public or private. There are a number of private colleges that are “not for profit” and those that are “for profit.” The difference is that in the “not for profit” institution, the benefit is used to invest into the development of the school. About 25% of private colleges in America are affiliated with or operated by various religious organizations. However, they are open to students of all religious backgrounds.
In Vietnam, government provides funding to state universities although these institutions also have other sources of funding such as tuition fee, research projects, training courses in collaboration with provinces, etc. Private institutions do not receive any subsidy from the government. Vietnamese universities have almost no endowments while it plays an important role in the performance and financial vitality of American universities (In US, endowments have grown faster than budgets. This amount in Harvard now is approximately 30 billions USD). There are financially strong businesses with a heart for education renovation and a vision that would be more than happy to invest in education for the country’s long-term benefits in Vietnam, but they require appropriate policies from the government and methodical, strategic movements from higher education institutions in order to unlock a substantial financial source and give a new breath of life to the renovation process. Currently, the main financial source of Vietnamese universities, besides from government subsidies, is tuition fees. Tuition peak levels are set by the government and do not significantly differ between institutions or departments. Tuition fees are considered a great burden to low-income families but still are grossly inadequate to meet the needs of program developments and quality improvements of the university. The amount of tuition fee each student pays every year varies from 200-300 dollars (FPT University is an exception that emerged recently with 2000 dollars tuition fee a year). It is noted that expenses per student per year in Viet Nam is approximately 200- 400 dollars while this amount in the US is 20,000-40,000 dollars.
This inadequacy of financial resources affects all elements of governance including the quality of training and academic level, which remain very low.
The governance structure
One of the greatest differences between American educational management system and the Vietnam’s one is the role of Ministry of Education and Training (MOET). MOET in Vietnam implements the state management of education, including formulating regulations for admission, establishing curriculum framework, even controlling the number of students enrolled at each university. In the U.S., such matters are determined by each individual institution.
The governance structure for American Colleges and Universities comprise mostly of the Board of Trustees, the President, senior administrators, faculty, staff, and students. American Universities remain under the firm control of the governing board. However, faculty collective bargaining associations and student initiatives allow for some limited sharing of power. As some campuses have become more multifaceted, traditional governance structures have given way to more complex structures such as consolidated governance boards, which regulate entire systems. This is seen more within public higher education institutions. Private colleges have less regulations and more simplified structures with just the board of trustees and Presidents having almost complete control.
The governance structure within the institutions in Vietnam is quite complex. Board of Trustee is still in the establishing process. According to National Constitution, Communist Party Division of the University plays an important role in making decisions both in university strategies and specific issues. However, Presidents have more power in reality than before. It is sometimes more complex in private institutions where Presidents implement their function under the Board of Director’s control, and the Communist Party Division as well.
However, the debate as to whether authority on college campuses should be decentralized has gained momentum. On the one hand, a number of administrators both in Vietnam and US feel that the universities should be run more like business and faculty involvement limited because they have a tendency to, among other things, be slow to make crucial decisions. Contrary to this, agencies such as the American Federation of Teachers states that “this is exactly the wrong way to run a successful college or university. We believe that all college and university employees—top tenured faculty, junior faculty, temporary and part-time/adjunct faculty, graduate teaching and research assistants, professional staff with and without faculty rank, the classified and support staff that keep the educational enterprise going—should have a guaranteed voice in decision-making, a role in shaping policy in the areas of their expertise.”
Academic freedom and curriculum management/development
College curricula are regulated in terms of meeting certain accreditation standards. However, faculty is given a certain amount of latitude to fashion the curriculum and they determine appropriate (i.e. academic freedom). U.S. students also attend colleges for various reasons including graduate studies to complete masters and doctorate degrees. These programs usually take less time to complete and may vary widely from college to college depending on the curricular.
On the other hand, Vietnamese system has a rigid curriculum and does not provide faculty the freedom to adjust the contents of what should be taught. Faculty can only chose textbooks and teaching methodology. In addition to that, remains of the Confucius tradition do not encourage academies to expose their opinions as strongly as they should. As a result, the curriculum and training programs still do not correspond to the practical needs of Vietnamese society. Additionally, without the ability to explore all sides of a particular debate or scientific inquiry, faculty is continuously challenged in their ability to achieve true analytical, creative, and intellectual inspiration within the classroom. Nevertheless, on a larger scope, some private universities have established innovative programs in fields such as tourism, graphic design, nutrition and fashion, which have never been offered at public universities before.
As for academic structure, the credit system has been used in America for a long time, while in Vietnam the yearly system is still popular. In America, Harvard University was the firs institution of higher education to permit students a modicum of choice in selecting courses since 1885 and today a credit system is applied in almost all universities in the U.S. On the other hand, as Nguyen Kim Dung pointed out, “many Vietnamese universities still are isolated, beating around the bush with their own problematic models. The current “half-way” applications show the weakness of a remaining advocacy and the unwillingness of reforming our higher education”.
Vietnam is witnessing rapid expansion in the higher education sector more than ever before. It has grown more dramatically in Vietnam than in any other area of the developed countries. The contradiction between the massification and quality of training places continuing strains on public funds and at the same time shapes academic decision-making. Massification and globalization require differentiated academic system. It can only be done by changing into appropriate administration. The Vietnamese administration at universities is as different compared to the American one as night is to day due to historical, economic and social issues. Therefore the strong points of American administration style, if any applicable, need some necessary adjustments.
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 These are including: Harvard, Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth, Yale, Columbia, Cornell and University of Pennsylvania
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 Nguyen Kim Dung (2006). “The credit system: world experience and the practice in Vietnam”.