Can ‘Made in Vietnam’ degrees make it in Vietnam?

The partnership between VinGroup and Cornell to establish a world-class university in Vietnam has many challenges to overcome, starting with gaining the trust of local students and parents, argues Matthew D. Edward

May 11, 2018
Vietnam Motorcycle

For Vietnamese, the “Made in Vietnam” stamp holds little cachet. That goes double for higher education as the country’s stretched-thin universities struggle with talent shortages – a minority of lecturers hold PhDs and few publish research in international outlets – and decaying facilities.

Stop a random Vietnamese parent on the street and ask where they want their children to attend university and few, if any, will name a specific institution. The answer instead will be a shotgun scattering of countries and cities, listed in no particular order: Canada, the US, Australia, the UK, Boston, San Francisco, Paris, London, Singapore.

Anywhere but here.

That could be a problem for Vietnam’s newest home-grown university conglomerate of VinGroup and Cornell. The two recently partnered to build the country’s first “world-class” university in Hanoi by 2020 – a tall order, but not unrealistic given the company’s resources and drive to put Vietnam on the higher education map. It remains a question, however, whether families will willingly put up thousands of dollars for the educational equivalent of an electronics box that reads “Designed in New York” and “Assembled in Vietnam” on the back.

Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business, which inked the consulting deal with VinGroup earlier this year, will provide for curriculum design, faculty recruitment and administrative services set-up and advising. In an interview for another publication, a representative repeatedly stressed to me that the new university was not an overseas branch campus or an extension of the Ivy League school. The new VinUniversity, as VinGroup plans to call it, will be 100 per cent locally owned and managed.

Vietnamese parents heavily influence (read: “make”) their children’s higher education decisions, down to which major to pursue. The new university will need to work hard to assure parents that their investment will pay off. Specifically, VinUniversity will need to grapple with the following issues:

Vietnamese consumers have a stubborn aversion to anything made, and sometimes even just sold, in the country

My Vietnamese mother-in-law insists that I bring back several large boxes of name-brand pain relievers from the US whenever I visit. She’s convinced that the locally made and packaged stuff, despite being from the same brand, is “not as good” as what American consumers get. And this quirk is not a rare one. Over and over, I see Vietnamese asking relatives to shuttle home electronics, food, vitamins and other products readily available here for similar prices, and often from the same chain stores.

VinUniversity will cost significantly more than a box of vitamins. Cornell wants to stay in the background and let locals drive the institution, but I fail to see how VinGroup can brand the university without leaning heavily on the international partnership. Just the fact that “real” Cornell faculty are not expected to teach courses (Cornell will handle faculty hiring, but these lecturers will be VinUniversity employees) could make convincing parents all the more difficult.

What will a VinUniversity degree be worth?

Families will be leery of an unproven degree programme, especially one without an overseas parent institution to back it up. VinUniversity will need to provide evidence that it can forge the industry partnerships needed to get students internships and jobs, and it will have to show that foreign universities will accept its degrees as valid graduate school entry tickets. Cornell never told me what, if any, accreditation plans are on the table, but VinUniversity will need external validation before families jump in whole-heartedly.

VinUniversity needs to differentiate itself on academics, student life and graduate outcomes without confusing parents

Fulbright University Vietnam is launching an ambitious programme, also by 2020, to provide problem-based learning education: students will work with advisers to develop a set of questions to answer during their studies and will answer them. Will Vietnamese parents understand this? In a country where families choose majors based on specific jobs and salaries, I’m sceptical that this idea will sell. RMIT University Vietnam, meanwhile, offers a more standard array of majors in business, engineering and graphic arts, which has played well with the local market.

As a local institution, VinUniversity should be better able to navigate Vietnam’s complex, sometimes capricious, bureaucracy. Foreign institutions, for example, are forbidden from offering journalism courses; VinUniversity presumably will retain more control over majors and courses. The university will need to take advantage of this without allowing Cornell to produce a curriculum that is too innovative and unrecognisable to parents, many of whom will lack degrees themselves.

Getting over the “Made in Vietnam” hurdle will take careful faculty recruitment, commitments from overseas universities that graduate schools will be open to VinUniversity degree holders, and, likely, some heavy discounting for the initial cohort willing to take the risk. It also, unfortunately, might require VinUniversity to downplay its home-grown roots at times.

A home-grown, internationally ranked university could finally provide Vietnamese students with a local education just as well regarded as an international degree earned here or abroad. VinGroup’s plan to build Vietnam’s first internationally recognisable institution is a laudable one, but it remains to be seen whether “Made in Vietnam” can make it in Vietnam.

Matthew D. Edward is the learning design coordinator for RMIT University Vietnam and a former journalism lecturer at Vietnam National University.

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