Phạm Thị Ly (2009)

Paper presented at the Conference on The issues of Vietnamese Higher Education held by the Viet Nam Congress, December 22 – 23, 2009, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


The importance of education, especially higher education, in the era of a knowledge-based economy and globalisation is undoubtedly a straightforward matter. The vigorous pursuit of world-class universities by developing countries in the past decade has raised the question as to how much such universities are needed and how can they be successfully developed. This paper affirms the pivotal role of a top-tier university in a pyramid-based educational system in which institutions at different levels serve different needs of society. This paper will also discuss the role of the state in creating such top-tier universities, based on the American and Chinese experiences.

Role of a Top-tier University in an Educational System

             World-class universities, by their names, are the top universities of the world. We do not want to use the term “world-class university” in this paper, for the two reasons: First, this concept is often related to the world university rankings which were proved to be insufficient[1]. Second, world-class universities might not be necessarily for all developing countries, while a top-tier university is always needed by all of countries. The term “top-tier university” is defined by the author as those which produces exceptionally qualified people in a country, which attracts top faculty and top students, which creates the most important cutting-edge research for the country, which leads higher education reforms and is considered a model of university governance, and which provides significant contributions toward the progress of society. Such a university would be the top-tier of a national system of higher education and plays the role of the driving force for other institutions in their effort to achieve high quality academic programs.

Higher education must meet the diversified needs of the society. The society needs leaders as well as subordinates. The society needs prominent and recognised academicians, as well as engineers and workers. Therefore we need to create a strong structured educational system, i.e., a pyramid of higher educational institutions in which there are community colleges to prepare skilled labours at the bottom; universities to prepare junior or mid-level executives in the middle; and at the top of the pyramid top-tier universities that focus on innovative research and producing leaders for a wide range of disciplines and occupations. Such a top institution must be a research oriented university although its students are not necessarily trained to become researchers.

The Key Factors Driving Success of a Top-tier University 

As Salmi pointed out, the success of a world-class university is a combination of abundant resources, the concentration of talent, and favourable governance[2]

Such a university shall require enormous resources. In the globalisation context we should abandon the mirage of “low cost, high quality” but must spend adequately to achieve the quality we desire. Be aware that the endowment fund for Harvard University is almost 37 billion US dollars and the 2008 operating annual budget was 3.464 billion US dollars[3]. Similarly, the budget of Seoul National University (Korea) was almost one billions US dollars[4]. We do not have specific data for annual budgets of the top tier universities in China, but there is no doubt that they represent a substantial investment on the part of the Chinese government The Chinese government, for example, has given a three-year supplementary budget of 234 million US dollars to each of two leading universities, Peking University and Tsing-Hua University, to elevate their status to a world-class university.

The huge expenditures cited above may discourage developing countries from creating top-tier universities. Due to Vietnam’s limited resources, a world-class university should not be the immediate target. What Viet Nam urgently needs is a top-tier university that meets internationally recognised norms/standards. Financial resources are necessary but not the decisive factor in creating such an institution. The remaining key factors that are even more important are talented people and a self-governance structure. It is fortunate that Vietnam has enough talented people. The governance factor is in the hands of the government. The remaining of this paper discusses the role of the government in creating top-tier universities learning from the experiences of the United State of America, China and Malaysia.

American and Chinese Experiences in Creating Top-Tier Universities

             Surprisingly, most of the globally prestigious American universities are private institutions. The U.S. Department of Education does not possess the high degree of control over American universities that is commonly seen in Vietnam. Also the establishment of world-class universities is not an explicit goal in the U.S.

One might wonders how a private American university could possess such enormous resources to create excellence. Be aware that tuition and fees make up a small portion of its total sources of funding (20% of Harvard’s sources of funding in 2008 was from tuition and fees and the expenditure per student is much higher than the paid tuition and fees. The annual per-student expenditure was $106,041 while the average tuition fee was $31,456 in 2008) [5]. Among the funding sources for Harvard University, the endowment is the largest (34%), followed by tuition and fees (20%), government grants and contract receipt (15%), non-government grant and contract receipt (4%), gifts (7%) and other sources (20%). They are able to develop a huge endowment due to their non-profit nature and the American tradition of social engagement. Harvard’s great contributions towards social progress and the producing of outstanding and famous Americans attract admiration and respect from the public.

What is the role of the American government in Harvard’s success? As mentioned above, government grants including research contracts only made up 15% of the total income of Harvard. It is safe to say that the American government has limited financial influence on Harvard’s success. The greatest capital that American universities possess is the autonomy and the commitment to academic freedom that is guaranteed by the government. “The privilege of academic freedom carries the obligation to speak the truth even when it is difficult or unpopular”, (Dew Fraust, President of Harvard, 2009) [6]. This sacred principle has remained the same throughout Harvard’s almost four centuries of existence.

While the role of the American government is to guarantee academic autonomy and freedom, the Chinese government pours massive amounts of money into their key universities to achieve the world-class status. Since 1990s, the Chinese government has set the goal of achieving the world-class status for its key universities to become comparable to the top universities in the United State and Europe. Ten years since the announcement from the Chinese government on their pursuit of world-class universities with huge financial support, Chinese universities still have a long way to go in order to reach this goal. However, thanks to policies on developing higher education, China has achieved significant success in some key universities. “Between 2000 and 2005 the article indexed in the SCI more than doubled from the top universities in China. For Tsing-Hua University, about 2,700 of its articles were indexed in 2003, which is close to the levels at the top 50 universities in the world”[7]. By 2005 faculty members with doctoral degrees made up 50% of total faculty at top Chinese research universities. This ratio is expected to reach 75% by 2010. These universities are committed to raising the proportion of faculty with doctoral degrees for the world-class universities. Peking University’s administrators estimated approximately 40% their faculty was trained abroad, mostly in the United States. Additional, they are making special efforts to attract world-class professors in variety of ways.

Contrary to the United States, the Chinese central government plays a pivotal role in creating its top-tier universities. This role has been carried out by its contribution of large financial resources to the key universities. Such huge resources ensures that these universities can attract the best talented people world-wide. A Dean of the Law Department of a top university was paid an unbelievable salary: 625,000 USD per year[8]. The Chinese government’s policy is to buy brains from the West (Western scholars/scientists, especially people with Chinese descent and Chinese trained in Western countries). To encourage key universities to achieve world-class status, the central government has provided them with a favourable governance structure. Though still far from the high level of autonomy and academic freedom available to their Western counterparts, Chinese top tier universities have enjoyed greater favourable governance than lower-tier institutions.

Although the Chinese government, university administrators and scholars are determined to create world-class universities and are spending an enormous amount of financial resource toward this goal, the results have not yet met their expectations. “China is focusing on science and technology, areas that reflect the country’s development needs, but also reflect the preferences of an authoritarian system that restricts free speech. The liberal arts often involve critical thinking about politics, economics and history. The government has placed relatively little emphasis on achieving world-class status in these subjects. Yet, many Chinese say – most often indirectly – that the limits on academic debate could hamper efforts to create world-class universities”[9].

While the main issue in China is limited academic freedom, the issue in Malaysia is severe lack of institutional autonomy. This is another example of how excessive governmental interference can negatively affect universities[10]. Interferences in admission policies, personnel appointment and compensation structure are quite common. In public universities, senior administrators are appointed by the government, and many of whom are people with questionable academic credentials. In the United States, and in other Asian countries such as Japan, Philippines and Thailand, faculty are involved in selection of school leaders, but they are not being asked such matters in Malaysia. Top administrators are appointed based on the strength of their political connection,not their academic credentials. Yet it is said that the individual leaders play a key role in the success of the schools. The faculties in Malaysian schools have no influence on the important issues of the school; they obviously lack enthusiasm to contribute to the school’s development that leads to poor quality of training. Therefore it is not surprising that many graduates, almost all from the public universities, have not been able to find jobs due to complaints that they are not adequately prepared[11]..

Role of the Government in Creating Top-tier Universities in the Vietnamese Context

The Vietnamese government has made the development of high-quality research universities a cornerstone of its national education policy. This objective was explicitly embraced in Resolution 14 (14/2005/NQ-CP), adopted by Prime Minister Phan Văn Khải in November 2005. Resolution 14 called for the “fundamental and comprehensive renovation of higher education.” In the preamble, the resolution frankly acknowledges that Vietnamese higher education is failing to fulfill “the demands of industrialisation and modernisation of the country, the need of the people to study, and the demands of international integration in the new phase.”[12] It calls for “concentrating investment, mobilising experts inside and outside the country, and developing an appropriate regulatory system in order to build international-standard universities.”

Resolution 14 has been followed by a raft of additional policy and vision statements. In 2006, the Tenth Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party called for the “comprehensive renovation of higher education,” including “focusing on the construction of one or two Vietnamese universities of international standing.”[13] Ministry of Education and Training has announced the targets set out in these documents in a bold set of concrete goals including placing some Vietnamese universities in the global “top 200” by the year 2020.[14] To make it possible, the Vietnamese government has agreed in principle to borrow over $500 million from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank to finance the development of four new universities.[15]

             The commitment of the Vietnamese government expressed a strong political will, and this has a critical meaningfulness in Vietnam’s context. This factor plays a decisive role in the success of top-tier universities, primarily in terms of financial issues but not limited to those (stressed by the author). Lessons learned from American and Chinese experiences point out that financial resources are important but might not be well spent without a sound governance. State budget is limited, but international loans are available and individual Vietnamese financial capacity is also improving. The Resolution mentioned above and the Resolution 69/2008/CP dated 30/5/2008 encourages business and industry to take part in “socialising” education and health care services. In reality, some of the economic entities are ready to invest in education if they see the chance for success, as in the case of Tan Tao Group. Therefore, although Vietnam is still underdeveloped, financial issues might not be a problem in creating a national top-tier university. The critical factor in which government plays a decisive role, is a sound governance structure that makes enough room to allow for new educational initiatives. How it is possible for Vietnam to create an apex school that meets international norms/standards if they have to ask permission for each little move? We certainly do not support a “wild market” in education, because education primarily is a public good and serves public interest. The best role of the government is not to control but to set the rules and oversee the implementation of those rules. Without the necessary autonomy, schools would hardly meet the needs of society, and especially the creation of excellence. The schools, for their survival, need to commit to the business sector and employers; those who are the users of the university’s products. These people and agencies understand best the skills and knowledge needed by the graduates.   They themselves are people who should decide training programs and learning outcomes rather than government officers.

In recent years, too many private universities have been established in Vietnam. This led to worrying about quality. The situation raised the question about strengthening the controls on private universities to protect students and society from low quality. However autonomy doesn’t mean freedom from oversight. Automomy is connected with accountability. The transparency in accountability requires that schools survive based on their quality rather than on short-term strategies. An apex university needs autonomy much more than ordinary schools. In order to create an apex university within the current context of Vietnam, there will need to be several innovative initiatives and a daring vision and goal for the university, which can not be achieved without government support.


Vietnamese higher education is in a situation that needs a fundamental break through in quality. The greatest advantage Viet Nam has is the political will and being aware of the necessity for reform. The international integration process also helps by providing experiences and best success/failures practices. The remaining question is how the government commitments to the reform will be implemented by the MOET to support innovation efforts. There is no doubt that such a university would bring great contributions to the society by stimulating the whole system to move toward higher quality standards, as well as by producing exceptionally qualified people, scientists/leaders/talents whose work make significant contributions to social progress and the development of Vietnam.


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[1] See also: a/ “World rankings: International experiences and Vietnam’s practices”. b/”SJTU world rankings: Irrational criteria”(Vietnamese version). Author: Yves Gingras (Canada). Source: Tia Sáng No12 dated issued 20-6-2009.

[2] Jamil Salmi: “Challenges in Establishing World-class Universities”. World Bank 2008, Translated by Phạm Thị Ly. Sources: php?option=com_docman&task=cat view&gid =19& Itemid=37. We analyzed the correlation between the three factors more details in the paper “Chinese and Indian Experiences in Creating World-class University and Implications for Vietnam” . Paper presented at The Third Conference in Comparative Education in Vietnam. Sources: php?option=com_content&task=view&id=167&Itemid=2

[3] Source:

[4] Source:

[5] Source:

[6] Source: Vietnamese version translated by Phạm Thị Ly can be accessed at www.

[7] Nian Cai Liu, Research University in China. Transforming Research Universities in Asia and Latin America, World-class Worldwide. Edited by Philip Albach, 2008.

[8] Source: Paul Mooney. The Long Road Ahead China’s Universities. The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 19, 2006.

[9] Howard W. French. China Spending Billions to Better Universities, The International Herald Tribune, 27 October 2005

[10] See also: Pham Thi Ly, Vu Thi Phuong Anh. “World-class University in Malaysia: Ambitions and Reality“. Journal of Science, Vietnam National University HCMC July 2009. This can be read at

[11] Source: Francis Loh (2005). “Crisis in Malaysia’s public universities?” Aliran Monthly Vol 25 (2005): Issue 10

[12] Resolution on the fundamental and comprehensive reform of Vietnamese university education during 2006-2010. 14/2005/NQ-CP (2 November 2005). Available at

[13] Báo Điện Tử Đảng Cộng Sản Việt Nam. Report at the ninth meeting on 10 April 2006 of the Central Comitte on directions for economic and social development during 2006-2010. Available at

[14] Tùng Linh. “Spending 400 million USD on building 4 universities will grant Vietnamese universities a place in the top 200” [“Chi 400 triệu USD xây 4 trường ĐH sẽ lọt top 200”]. (December 2008)

[15] According to the most recent project documents, the World Bank will loan Vietnam $270 million (with Vietnam contributing $30 million directly) for two research universities in Hồ Chí Minh City and Cần Thơ, and the Asian Development Bank will loan $250 million for research universities in Hà Nội and Đà Nẵng. These documents are available from the World Bank and ADB websites: and